Workers reveal what it's really like to work at Subway

Subway has done everything in their power to creep into our everyday lives. The long-running and infectious "$5 footlong" jingle still rattles around in many peoples' memories long after the promotion was put to rest. The infamous rise and fall of former spokesman Jared Fogel is the punchline of many jokes. And Subway may have even saved your favorite TV show like Chuck  or Community from a premature cancellation with their product placement dollars. The ubiquity of Subway means it has touched your life, even if you've never ordered a sweet onion chicken teriyaki. It's become part of our cultural zeitgeist.

That makes sense — with nearly 43,000 stores (and over 25,000 in the United States alone), Subway is the largest fast food chain in the world. But what really goes on behind the cutting board? Thankfully, with the safety of anonymity granted on internet forums like Reddit, there is an army of former and current employees ready to spill their guts on all the dirty secrets of working for the sandwich machine. Some of their stories may make you rethink your usual order — or maybe just treat that poor sandwich artist nicer — but all of them are worth reading. Here's what it's really like to work for Subway.

There's not much cooking involved

For being the world's largest restaurant chain, there is surprisingly little actual cooking being done at your neighborhood Subway… despite how fresh they want you to think their food is. Seemingly, if you can open a bag, you can handle the majority of the "prep" work being done in the Subway kitchens. According to one alleged employee, the meats are pre-cooked and pre-sliced, the bread is already kneaded and portioned, and even the lettuce comes pre-shredded for the convenience of every sandwich artist. So don't worry about the culinary skills of the tired looking teen behind counter, they basically just have to slap everything together.

One former employee explained this disappointing reality in an anonymous tell-all on the GameFAQs forums, saying, "Frozen meatballs. Prepackaged sauce. Frozen chicken planks. 100% prepackaged meats (go buy them from a deli for a better value and likely a higher quality product). Frozen cookie dough. Frozen bread dough. Prepackaged lettuce. Precooked bacon. I think that about covers it. Prefab city. Which would all be fine except you are telling your customers they can "eat fresh" at your restaurants. GTFO Subway." 

At least they can practice their knife work on your bread, right?

They may have to serve old food

Speaking of Subway's "Eat fresh" slogan, even the freshness of that bag of pre-shredded lettuce has been called into question, meaning the people who work there may be slinging food they'd rather not eat. Some employees have revealed that in efforts to save money, managers will sometimes keep pushing food past its expiration date. Sure, maybe at home you occasionally live on the edge and use a smell test to decide the freshness of foods, but that's not something you expect (or ever want) from a sandwich chain that's all about the freshness of their food.

Obviously this is not corporate policy, so don't assume it's happening at every Subway. Even better, one employee's story on Reddit comes to just the sort of resolution you would hope for. "My manager at the time was really conscious of food costs… to a fault. Most commonly was changing the expiration dates of food so it wouldn't have to be thrown out," the poster explained. "This may not be a huge deal for a couple days, but food would last a couple WEEKS. He would also take lettuce in a pan and put it back into the bag. Finally, he kept frozen (unbaked) bread for over a year. It was so old that the yeast had died, causing the bread to not rise. He was fired after I got fed up and blew the whistle to the franchise owner." 

But for every brave whistle-blower out there, how many more employees are forced to use expired product? We may never know… but it certainly wouldn't hurt to ask.

They deal with stinky meats

Old lettuce and deflated bread may be one thing, but the worst ingredients that employees deal with are Subway's selection of meats. Even when fresh from the plastic packaging, many employees could barely deal with the odor. One employee on Reddit colorfully described it by saying, "The packages of ham, turkey, and cold cuts smell like bags of farts."

As if that wasn't bad enough, let things sit around a while and it only gets worse. Another former employee explained on a different Reddit thread, "Avoid: Chipotle Chicken & Teriyaki Chicken (Why? Chicken is given a two day shelf life, once in the counter. However these two bypass this and get four days, and can get a little stinky)."

Horrifyingly, a third employee revealed even worse practices, "Subway chicken is given a two-to-five day shelf life depending on the variety. The chicken teriyaki SHOULD be thrown out by the fifth day, but a lot of employees just change the date to avoid throwing it out," they said. "This means, with shift changes, varying staff and other factors, five-day chicken could be out as long as nine days." At some point, employees may be avoiding throwing out that week-old chicken just so they do not have to get close to it, hoping the next poor guy deals with it.

They may not even know what's in the "lite" mayo

Working with expired vegetables and stinky meats is, on some levels, easy to tell. After all, one look at a bin of brown lettuce or a whiff of week-old chicken are sure signs your manager is trying to cut a few corners. But sometimes things are not so readily apparent. Subway built its brand on being a healthier alternative in the fast food market (Jared did lose all that weight with help from Subway, after all. You know, before the criminal investigations). They have a whole menu dedicated to "Fresh Fit" eating. And while not part of a perfect diet, light mayo is still better than regular mayo, right?

Except when it's not. One ViralThread author and former Subway sandwich artist revealed that they could be the exact same thing, "Most of the time, whenever the Light Mayo bottle ran out, my manager would just tell me to fill it with regular mayonnaise… And this is pretty common in a lot of stores." Even if one employee knows that one bottle of mayo is a lie, what about the next shift? Or the next day? How many part-timers are unknowingly squeezing out white lines of false hope of fewer calories?

Liberal olive use is a serious infraction

One well-known fact about Subway is that all of those classic veggie fixings are free (except avocado which, like everywhere else in the known universe, is still extra) and you can pile them on just how you like it. But what you might not know is that the guidelines for portioning these veggies can be pretty stringent, and the olive allotment is by far the most stingy.

One Redditor revealed he was trained to use "3 olives per 6 inches … They have all of these precise quantities, and my mean b**** manager… would give me hell on earth if I put 7 slices on a f***ing foot-long instead of 6." So if it seems like the employee has a light touch with those black olives, just politely ask for more. They do not have a personal vendetta against you, they're just following the rules. And they are being watched.

Be careful though, that poor sandwich artist's job could be at stake. Another Redditor simply stated, "I got fired from Subway for 'putting too many olives on the sandwiches.'" Try explaining that on your next job interview.

They train at the "University of Subway" ... sorta

To properly learn all of these trade secrets to making that perfect sandwich, employees must enroll at the University of Subway. But much like Olive Garden's "Culinary Institute" in Tuscany, The University of Subway seems to be just a fancy and misleading name where not a lot of actual higher learning takes place. This might be a good thing though, because with over 410,000 employees, that would be one large graduating class. And you just know one over-achiever would go ahead and wreck the curve for everyone else.

One former employee explains that "The University of Subway really does exist, but no, it's not an actual educational institute. It's basically a free online app that's supposed to help stores train their employees through quizzes and tests. What's my honest opinion on it? It's mindless bulls***." But hey, at least there is no homework.

They're probably not making big bucks

No one would expect that a fast food job is paying out the big bucks, but according to some former workers, Subway is just about as low as it can get. It is so bad that between 2000 and 2013, the US Department of Labor initiated more than 1,100 separate investigations into Subway franchises, leading to over 17,000 Fair Labor Standards Act violations. Subway workers ended up entitled to over $3.8 million in reimbursed wages by 2014.

But even when everything is totally above board, Subway might still not be that great as far as employee compensation goes. One employee on Odyssey lamented in 2016, "My pay will never change. No matter how long I work for Subway or how well I do my job, my pay will never change. It will always be $7.25 unless I become a manager then I would get $8.25." Recent reports on Glassdoor suggest that those numbers are still fairly accurate.

This seems especially rough when you consider that Subway habitually understaffs the restaurant as well, according the same employee. "Usually when I work for the majority of my shift, I'm by myself and I have a whole list of things that I have to do on top of waiting on customers," they wrote. "So if you get frustrated because I am not standing behind the bar waiting on you immediately when you walk in, I'm sorry but I'm not there just to make your sandwiches." That is a big ask for minimum wage with no real opportunity for improvement.

The "Subway Smell" lingers forever

If you have ever walked through a mall food court, that distinct smell of Subway's baking bread must be seared into your nostrils. Some customers have even noted that co-workers or family can tell when they had Subway for lunch by the residual odor. If the smell of Subway sticks that readily, just imagine how hard it is for the poor souls stuck there for hours at a time, day after day.

The smell is seemingly inescapable, creeping onto anything and everything. One Redditor described, "It infested both my work and normal clothes, my truck, my room, and me. It never fully washed off or out of my clothes while I worked there, and my truck (which often housed my uniform) was the worst. For months after I quit it continued to smell of this weird subway funk, Febreeze/air fresheners/driving with the windows down did little to battle the odor."

Another poor former employee admits that "the smell never comes out of your clothes … it still makes me physically ill to walk into a Subway." It' is like Subway PTSD.

The late night weekend shift is the worst

Working in the food service industry, a shift can have highs and lows. There will probably be more customers at noon than around 4 in the afternoon — that's the same with just about any fast food place. But just because it's busier, doesn't necessarily mean the lunch rush is the worst. The lunch customers are people that have busy lives of their own. They're just trying to cram a sandwich in and get back to work. No fuss, no muss. No, getting stuck with the dreaded late night weekend shift is what all employees avoid — and not because they'd rather be out living it up.

As one employee explained, "Like most fast-food places, late night weekend shifts are always the worst, because this is when we have the drunk revelers and stoners come in. And yes, of course we know when you're stoned – mainly because I once watched a guy eat three footlong meatball marinaras and a pack of twelve cookies after getting a SERIOUS case of the munchies. But the main issue is just having to clean up the endless mess." 

They're totally judging you

Everyone has one or two quirky eating habits and that is perfectly fine. But when you spend your days assembling sandwiches at Subway, you find fun wherever you can; even at the expense of some poor sandwich aficionado's particularities. Employees usually won't say no to odd requests (they are artists after all) but they will gripe about it later.

One former employee complained on Oola, "You may think you're being cool and inventive opting for four different sauces on your sandwich, but we honestly judge you for being such a moron. Two sauces? Fine. Any more than that and it just becomes overly sweet gloop that destroys and overpowers the sandwich."

Even a fairly mundane order can be subject to ridicule if it is mispronounced, "Chip-ottal. Ship-oat-lay. Chip-o-lata. Ship-ottle. I don't know what it is about this popular sauce, but most people really don't know how to pronounce it … Subway should really introduce a If you can't say it, you can't order it [policy]."

Customers who can't order properly are the worst

One of the great things about Subway is the assembly line-style method of sandwich production that has been perfected through countless hours of repetition. Customers receive their food quickly and employees can work on near autopilot. But when some newbie doesn't understand how this system works, it slows everything down and drives everyone up the walls. It ruins the groove that an employee gets into during the rush hour slam. 

A former employee fumed, "There's nothing worse than dealing with a customer who has no idea what they want, and dealing with a Subway virgin is a painstaking process. The most annoying thing is that the instructions are clearly written on the counter!"

It is not just clueless first-timers either. Another employee complained on Reddit, "There is a trend right now at my store where people want a tuna sandwich but they want the bread and cheese toasted first. It ruins the flow of the sandwich-making process and it slows down the line." And that wasn't their only issue. "I hate when people ask to get their veggies toasted because I then have to butt in line of people already doing veggies," they added. An assembly line only works when it flows in, you know, a line. If everyone is jumping back and forth between stations, it's just chaos. 

But ultimately, work conditions can vary from franchise to franchise

Despite the fact that your meatball marinara may taste about the same at all 43,000 stores (the frozen and pre-packaged goods help ensure that uniformity), Subway is still a franchise operation. That means most Subway locations are owned and operated by different people. Even if two Subways are only blocks apart, there may be two completely separate owners. And that means a total crapshoot on what the work experience is really like.

One former employee reflected, "I worked at a store with lovely owners who were happy for the workers to have any footlong for lunch. However, I had a friend who worked across town who has nightmare bosses! They weren't allowed any lunch, were forced to buy their uniforms from them, and were constantly watched on CCTV. It's simply the luck of the draw." So if your boss is holding onto stinky meat or just unwilling to hire a second hand for the lunch rush, maybe take your sandwich skills to the Subway across the street.