The sandwich that ate McDonald's

Subway, the US chain with a big appetite for expansion, is putting the crunch on fast food's proudest name, by David Usborne

Encircling the globe one over-stuffed and slightly soggy foot-long sandwich at a time, Subway has confirmed what some of us had probably begun to suspect: it has grown into the largest fast-food chain in the world, surpassing even its burger-flipping rival McDonald's and easily dwarfing Burger King.

With an "Eat Fresh" advertising slogan, the US-based chain has now established baloney'n'bacon beachheads in 95 countries. At the last count, there were 33,749 of them compared to 32,737 McDonald's restaurants. Burger King reported last year having just over 12,000 outlets in 73 countries. Britain alone has 1,350 Subway shops and in China, a 200th branch will soon open.

"Unbelievable," was the response yesterday from the company's co-founder, Fred DeLuca, who was just a 17-year-old wanting to generate extra cash to pay for university when he opened his first sandwich shop in Bridgewater, Connecticut, in 1965 with $1,000 loaned by a friend, Peter Buck, who became his business partner.

Catching up with the mighty McDonald's was hardly on his mind at the time. But he and Mr Buck did have a business plan of sorts: to open 32 new Subways over the next 10 years in the north-eastern United States. Four and a half decades later – and 27 years after the opening of a Subway shop in Bahrain that marked the chain's first foray overseas – they have achieved growth rate that has been more than 1,000 times faster.

In Sweden to attend the opening of a new Stockholm Subway, Mr De Luca, now 63 and listed on the latest Forbes billionaires list as the 692nd richest man in the world, is not gloating about overtaking the famed golden arches of McDonald's, for years considered the ultimate symbol of American commercial imperialism.

"We've been big beneficiaries of McDonald's," Mr De Luca told the AFP news agency. "I would say if McDonald's never existed, we would have had fewer stores than we have. They've gone to so many places and gotten people into the habit of going out to eat on a regular basis and that opens the door for us to grow." The ingredients of Subway's success are varied. The chain operates an almost pure franchisee model, where local entrepreneurs open and manage their own branches. They can hire and fire as they please and set opening hours, and in return for paying fees, everything else is seen to by headquarters, including marketing and setting menu choices.

Subway has also earned a reputation for opening up in unorthodox places, such as the US Air Base in Bagram in Afghanistan, a church in Buffalo, a riverboat in Germany and an aluminium smelting plant in New Zealand. Subways nowadays are common in air terminals, petrol station convenience outlets and even the occasional pet-shop. If you cannot spot it, open your nostrils. One of the more dubious gifts from Subway to humanity is the toxic aroma of their part-baked breads browning themselves in the on-site ovens.

Nothing symbolises the chain's appetite for daring – or at least for free publicity – than the decision last year to attach a Subway shop to the scaffolding of One World Trade, the new skyscraper under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. As the structure grows towards its eventual zenith of 105 floors, so the Subway, built inside a pod that is really a shipping container, will rise, supplying sub sandwiches to steelworkers who otherwise would have to make the trip back to earth for sustenance.

The chain has benefited also from the growing health consciousness of consumers. For years, its marketing drive has been the freshness of its offerings. In Britain, it tries to underscore a commitment to healthy eating, sponsoring the TV show The Biggest Loser and partnering with organisations such as Heart Research UK.

The notion that the chain's sandwich offerings, such as its Veggie Delight, are better for you is compelling enough to keep Vito Scarola, a fashion casting director in Manhattan going back. "It doesn't have a deep-fryer," he says. "Sure, it's still fast food but I like the idea there are more readily available options to eat fresh."

Of course, just how healthy Subway makes you will depend on the nature of your grazing. The selection process – all those different breads to choose from, including honey oat or Italian herb, aas well as myriad cold-cuts and cheeses – could itself consume a few mental calories at least. And while a 6in Veggie Delight on nine-grain wheat cannot be too bad for you, the foot-long steak and cheese is hard to resist, as is the Marinara, with its sloppy meatballs. With those sorts of choices, the world may be eating more hearty than fresh with newly dominant Subway.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?