The truth about Subway's breakfast

Subway restaurant's humble beginnings date back to 1965 in Bridgeport, Connecticut at a little shop originally known as Pete's Super Submarines. On their very first day in business, the shop sold 312 sandwiches, signalling the success that the future held for what would become Subway. From there, the single submarine sandwich shop in New England became the worldwide franchise we all know and love today. 

With over 40,000 locations, customers around the world can enjoy made-to-order sandwiches on fresh baked bread, wraps or salads of their favorite sub combinations, and even early morning breakfast! While the four sandwiches currently on Subway's breakfast menu — Bacon, Egg & Cheese; Black Forest Ham, Egg & Cheese; Steak, Egg & Cheese; Egg & Cheese — may not seem very extensive, there's a lot you might not know about Subway's breakfast offerings. From menu changes and store availability, to what's really in their sandwiches, here's the truth about Subway's breakfast.

It got a late start

When you think of fast food breakfast options, chances are Subway isn't the first restaurant that crosses your mind. Unlike McDonald's, which opened its doors in 1955 and began officially serving breakfast at all of its locations 22 years later in 1977, it took Subway 45 years in business before they started serving breakfast in 2010. 

It's no coincidence that the sandwich restaurant chose that year to debut their breakfast offerings, either. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 that led to the recession hit restaurant sales particularly hard, leading some fast food chains like Subway to break out into new markets in an attempt to increase sales. Introducing breakfast was just one of the ways Subway attempted to expand its markets in the face of hard times. According to a Forbes report, the company opened nearly 6,000 restaurants between 2008 and 2010, right in the midst of the recession.

There used to be more options

If you go to Subway for breakfast these days, you'll have four basic sandwich options to choose from, all centering around eggs and cheese. While there are only four now, that wasn't always the case. 

Take the Sunrise Subway Melt that debuted in late 2010, just a few months after breakfast itself began at Subway. The sandwich included an egg-white omelet, sliced turkey, crispy bacon, Black Forest ham and melted cheese on a flatbread or any of Subway's bread options. At the time, there was also a Double Bacon Egg and Cheese sandwich, which — perhaps obviously — was double the bacon of the standard Bacon, Egg & Cheese; as well as a Western Egg White Muffin Melt omelet sandwich, served on an English muffin. 

While none of these options are currently on the official Subway breakfast menu as of this writing, all of the ingredients are still available at Subway and could theoretically be cobbled together on your own. That is, if you want that much meat. Of course you do.

Locations were required to serve it

Somewhat surprisingly for a fast food restaurant chain that started in the United States, Subway's breakfast first launched in Canada in March 2010 before being sold at more than 25,000 U.S. stores beginning in April 2010. It wasn't long before all of the locations in the U.S. were required to serve it. As the theory goes, employees were already at the restaurant super early to start baking bread for the day, so why not go ahead and open the store for breakfast to bring in more profit? 

Although Subway locations are independently owned (unlike chains like Starbucks that are owned by a single parent company), they're franchises, which means they're owned by the franchisee, but there are certain rules they still have to follow. The main reason for this is consistency. After all, if you're used to getting your breakfast at Subway in your city every morning, you're going to want to be able to get it while traveling in any other city too.

It was a quick success

Branching out into an all-new daytime menu offering can be risky. Just ask Wendy's, which has periodically added and then removed breakfast from their offerings over the years. According to then-Wendy's CEO Emil Brolick in 2015, "We have tested breakfast many times over the years and we feel, as virtually the only large national chain that hasn't gotten into breakfast, it's very difficult to enter that space today and commit the kind of marketing resources that we feel would be necessary to really entrench ourselves successfully." 

Subway, however, found quick success with their breakfast offerings, reporting increased sales that exceeded their expectations. This is likely due in part to how much effort Subway put into promoting their breakfast offerings through a national advertising campaign. The campaign included 15 and 30 second television ad spots (including pricey ads that ran during primetime slots) along with radio, social media, and other digital ads.

Breakfast options are fully customizable

Arguably one of the best things about Subway is that their sandwiches are fully customizable — if the food is available at the restaurant, you can add it to your sandwich. Breakfast sandwiches at Subway are no exception. 

Not only can you add all the meat your heart desires to your breakfast sammy, why not add some tomato slices to freshen things up? Or how about one of the assortment of sauces available for any sandwich? While it would be easy to take some of the ingredients in an unhealthy direction, the customization is actually an attempt to keep things healthy. 

Subway dietitian Lanette Kovachi said at the time of the Subway breakfast debut, "By offering an item such as an Egg White Omelet, which can be complimented [sic] by adding any of our fresh vegetables, on a light wheat English muffin or 9-Grain bread, customers can now enjoy a great, as well as a smart and nutritious, way to start their day."

What's in their eggs?

In 2017, Subway came under fire when the results of DNA tests on their chicken revealed a surprise. The tests were part of a series of tests on several fast food chains' chicken for an episode of CBC Marketplace in Canada, but Subway fared the worst. According to the CBC (via NPR), Subway's oven roasted chicken scored just 53.6 percent chicken DNA, and the chicken strips had just 42.8 percent chicken DNA. While Subway denied the claims, it makes you wonder just how much egg is in all of their egg-based breakfast sandwiches. It turns out, they aren't much better. 

According to a Forbes report comparing the eggs at several fast food chains, Subway's eggs contain the most non-egg ingredients. The standard egg omelet patty at Subway contains: "Whole eggs, egg whites, water, nonfat dry milk, premium egg blend (isolated pea product, salt, citric acid, dextrose, guar gum, xanthan gum, extractive of spice, propylene glycol and not more than 2 percent calcium silicate and glycerin to prevent caking), soybean oil, butter alternative (liquid and hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavors, beta carotene (color), TBHQ and citric acid added to protect flavor, dimethylpolysiloxane (antifoaming agent added), salt, beta-carotene (color)." 

Doesn't that sound like the perfect way to start your day?

Beating out the competition

Even though Subway's eggs may be more like Franken-eggs, they're still pretty tasty. In fact, in a 2012 comparison by Consumer Reports, they beat out the competition for taste. The group tried breakfast sandwiches from chain restaurants Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, and Starbucks, before determining that the winner for taste was Subway's Egg White and Cheese on Mornin' Flatbread. 

According to the report, all the components of the sandwich "blended well" with the report going on to call the sandwich's flatbread "tender" and the egg whites "flavorful." Not only that, but Subway's breakfast also beat out the competition for nutrition. Of the 106 total sandwiches tasted across the chains, six of the sandwiches received a Consumer Reports rating of "very good" for nutrition, and all of those were from Subway. Several other Subway sandwiches received a rating of "good" in terms of nutrition, while no sandwiches from Burger King, Wendy's, or McDonald's rated better than "fair" for nutrition. It is fast food, after all.

They're a salty start to your day

They may be relatively low in calories and fat compared to other fast food restaurant breakfast sandwiches, but the breakfast sandwiches at Subway are salt bombs. Both the Bacon, Egg and Cheese and the Black Forest Ham, Egg and Cheese have 1,190 milligrams of sodium, the Steak, Egg and Cheese has 1,260 milligrams, and the basic Egg and Cheese has 940 milligrams. 

Not sure what all that means? Consider that the American Heart Association recommends that most adults have no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and they're moving toward what they call an "ideal limit"of no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. Even if we're talking the upper limit here of 2,300, several of the sandwiches already have more than half of that without any of the customizations Subway loves to promote. If we're looking at the American Heart Association's "ideal limit" you're pretty much done for the day after just one of these sandwiches.

An attempt at branching out

If there's anything we've learned from the success of limited time offerings at fast food chains — think the McDonald's McRib — it's that consumers get bored with the same old thing and want to branch out with their food. This is probably why Subway decided to test out a new option for their breakfast sandwiches in early 2018. 

For a limited time in select Southern California locations, customers had the new option of getting their Subway breakfast sandwiches on round croissants, similar to the ones used for some Starbucks sandwiches. While not all of Subway's sandwiches were available on the croissants — options were limited to the Egg & Cheese; Turkey Breast, Egg White & Cheese; and the Black Forest Ham, Egg & Cheese — consumers were excited by the new option, leading some to hope they would eventually become available nationwide. If nothing else, it seemed like a solid attempt to breathe new life into Subway's breakfast options.

Backing off breakfast

Unfortunately, Subway's attempt at branching out didn't really work, even if the breakfast croissants were fire. In 2018, shortly after Subway began testing their new croissant breakfast sandwiches, the chain revealed they had begun letting their franchises opt out of the previously-mandatory 7 a.m. start time and egg sandwiches. 

According to Bloomberg, Subway's decision to back away from the breakfast market was due to competition from other restaurants, a shortage of workers, and the fact that breakfast just wasn't doing well at some locations. But depending where you live, a Subway breakfast may still be in the cards. In an interview with Restaurant Business, then-CEO Suzanne Greco called Subway's breakfast a "regional success" and revealed that in those areas where breakfast is doing well, they'll continue to serve and market their breakfast. 

As for everyone else in the U.S., she revealed, "From a national perspective, we're really focused on the overall customer experience, the digital transformation and the core health and wellness as well as the overall quality of what we're serving."