The untold truth of Subway

When Subway first opened, customers were seriously impressed with the freshness of their ingredients, the deliciousness of their subs, and the idea that a "sandwich artist" was going to make it right in front of you, and add whatever you asked them to. Soggy bread? Surprise tomatoes, even though you specifically requested no tomatoes? Not here!

So Subway grew and grew and grew. According to Statista, they hit their peak around 2016 with an almost unthinkable 44,702 restaurants worldwide. Even when locations started closing in 2017, CNBC reported that they were still the biggest fast food chain in the world. Yep, they beat even McDonald's — by 6,671 restaurant locations — and Starbucks — by a shocking 16,573 locations. But all was not well, and it was a case of the numbers definitely not telling the whole story. Subway was struggling.

What happened was complicated, and the whole story of Subway is complicated. They've had more than their fair share of scandals and bad news stories, and they've had their share of successes, too. What don't you know about the once-favorite sandwich chain that's become a last resort for many? A lot. This is the untold truth of Subway.

You don't know the whole story of Subway's too-short footlong

Subway has been associated with a lot of bad press, and one of the claims that took social media by storm was the one that said they were selling 12-inch subs that weren't actually 12 inches long. According to Reuters, the whole thing started in 2013 when one Australian teen posted a picture of his sub and proof that it was only 11 inches long. It went absolutely viral, and Subway went to court. 

But then the weirdness happened. 

According to Forbes, Subway agreed to settle for half a million and to implement new policies that would regulate their bread-making process a little more. That's after the case was found to be pretty weak for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that most footlongs were, indeed, a foot long, they were all made from raw dough that weighed the same, and their standardized way of putting on the toppings means customers weren't getting shorted any fillings. And, since not every Subway customer got a short sub, that meant a class action settlement didn't make sense. 

So, what was going to happen was pretty outrageous: the lawyers involved were going to walk away with a cool $520,000, and the 10 plaintiffs were going to get $5,000 each. 

Insane? A US appeals court thought so, too, and threw out the settlement after calling it "utterly worthless".

Here's the truth of the "yoga mat chemical" at Subway

Remember the outrage over Subway's bread and the so-called "yoga mat chemical"? Of course you do, because social media went mad when it came out that one of the ingredients in Subway's bread was also found in yoga mats. The chemical in question is called azodicarbonamide, and according to CNN, it's usually included in products to help strengthen the dough. 

There are two different sides to the story here. On one hand, it's been used for a long time and it's been deemed safe by the FDA. In fact, NPR found it was an ingredient in almost 500 different products, including everyone's childhood favorite, Wonder Bread. But it was Subway that was targeted the most, thanks to a post from self-declared expert the Food Babe

Is there anything actually dangerous about it? Not in the amounts deemed safe by the FDA, which is a mere 45 parts per million. Research done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that azodicarbonamide does break down into a few substances that do pose what they deemed "a small risk" to humans, and it is banned as a food additive in the EU and in Australia. Not long after the outrage, Subway announced they were going to remove it from their recipe.

How did Subway get so popular doing what so many others were doing?

So how did Subway make subs such a big deal, when so many other people were already making them?

According to Entrepreneur, there were a few things going for them. They had something other chains didn't, and that's a story. They touted their freshness and their healthiness, and more than just saying how healthy they were, they kicked off a campaign around someone who lost a ton of weight thanks to their meals. And it was perfect timing, too, as it happened when more people were looking for healthy options that were still fast, and they jumped on the trend. 

They were also one of the first restaurants to start making food right in front of the customer — and customers loved it. They knew exactly what was going on their sub, and they could add as they went along. That got them engaged and invested in their meal, and that's important. 

It wasn't just Americans who were impressed with their affordability, freshness, and quick service. According to the BBC, customers in the UK found the very same things so awesome that it allowed them to open 2,500 stores there. 

There was something else at work here, too, and it's probably something you never considered. Since Subway marketed itself as super healthy, they were able to get partnerships with places that less healthy fast food chains weren't, like hospitals. And that was a whole, untapped market.

How fresh is Subway… really?

Subway built their business on the idea that they were going to allow their customers to "eat fresh," but by 2018, customers were pointing out that they weren't so fresh after all.

Business Insider says that 2017 was a bad year for the chain, and part of their fall from grace were ingredients that weren't so much "fresh" as they were "mushy and rotten." When they spoke to franchise owners and employees, they found most Subway locations only received deliveries of produce once or — at most — twice a week. Some owners even claimed that they had been willing to shoulder the extra costs of getting more frequent deliveries, but the requests were denied by corporate.

Think the lettuce on your last Subway sub was a little past prime? You're not alone: those employees say lettuce was a huge problem, and was often turning by the time it got to the store. Subway responded, saying they went above and beyond to make sure they served only the freshest ingredients… but didn't say how often they were delivered. 

It gets worse. According to some owners, they have no choice in the matter. Some have attempted to switch to local produce suppliers only to have their franchise license revoked. 

And here's the thing: now that there's even more of a shift toward freshness, it's even more noticeable that Subway fell behind.

How healthy is Subway… really?

Subway has long pushed the idea that they're the healthier choice when it comes to grabbing a quick meal, but are they? Sort of. 

Healthline took a close look at their nutritional information, and they found that there are some good options there. The six inch black forest ham, roast beef, turkey breast, veggie delite, club, sweet onion chicken teriyaki, oven roasted chicken, and rotisserie style chicken all meet the American Heart Association's requirements for being a healthy meal, as long as you opt for the 9-grain wheat and toppings like green onions and tomatoes… and don't load up on sauces. 

But they're not all great. Some, like the chicken Caesar melt and the chicken and bacon ranch melt, don't even sound healthy. But others are deceiving. Also on the unhealthy list? The classic tuna, even though it's easy to think that anything with tuna in it is going to be a decent choice, mayo-laden or not.

In 2016, Business Insider decided to give the infamous "Subway Diet" a go. By the second day, they declared it was impossible. The healthy subs just weren't filling, satisfying, or tasty, even calling it "food you eat in order to survive." That's not a glowing review, and let's be honest — eating healthy doesn't have to be bland or boring, so why make it?

You're not imagining it, the "Subway smell" is a real thing

It's one of those things we all know about, but rarely mention: it's the Subway smell. You know exactly what we're talking about even if you've never consciously thought about it until this moment, don't you? And it's weird. At the same time it definitely smells like bread, it doesn't smell like any other kind of bread in the world, right? So what's the deal?

Food Republic was determined to find out, and they went right to the source: Mark Christiano, who has the title of Global Baking Technologist at Subway. 

According to him, it's just freshly baking bread. He didn't give details as to recipe specifics, but he did say that it's basically yeast, water, sugar, and flour, and that there's nothing added to the bread or the process to get it to make that smell. They did uncover a few things that might possibly account for the uniqueness of the smell, including the fact that the dough has been frozen. It's also possible that part of what you're smelling is sugar that's caramelizing, but Christiano says, "There's nothing artificial in there that they're smelling." Mystery… solved?

Your Subway isn't the only one to close

If your neighborhood Subway has closed in the last few years, you're definitely not alone. According to Bloomberg, the number of U.S. locations dropped by more than 2,300 between 2015 and 2018. 

Why their sales and their number of stores has continued to plummet is complicated. Among the chief factors are scandals like their not-so-long footlong rolls, bad publicity surrounding their not-so-fresh veggies, failed attempts at kicking off a loyalty plan that actually inspired loyalty, and an inability to compete with other sub shops that have opened in the years since they first kicked open their doors. 

And while they've already closed a ton of locations, Bloomberg crunched the numbers and found that closures are happening faster and faster as time goes on. They're not slowing down and business isn't turning around, and that suggests the future of Subway is still very much up in the air. 

Subway helped rebuild at the World Trade Center

While it's true that Subway has closed a ton of locations in recent years, there was one location that was opened knowing it was going to be closed shortly — once a job was done. 

Even as the building at 1 World Trade Center rose, so did a Subway restaurant. It was built by DCM Erectors, says The New York Times, and it — along with a set of offices, bathrooms, and changing rooms — was among a series of movable pods installed for the workers building what would become the city's tallest building. Until Subway, workers only had two options: bring their lunch, or head out to a restaurant. But that included a trip down to ground level, and that meant a 30-minute lunch break could turn into an hour, and most was spent waiting in line or on an elevator. No one wants that.

Enter Subway, this one owned by franchisee Richard Schragger — who gave out free cookies to all the workers on his first day there. Subway beat out nine other options for a restaurant at the site, and until it closed in 2012 (via Gothamist), Subway workers did their part helping those who were helping rebuild a huge part of New York City's history.

Their attempts at a kosher version of Subway failed

Visit any Subway across the country, and you'll find they're pretty standard. But Subway has tried something pretty unexpected, and in 2011, The Wall Street Journal took a look at some that were very, very different: they were kosher. 

They kicked off the program in 2006, and said the potential for a series of kosher restaurants was huge. At least a dozen opened, but as of 2011, only five were still around. (In 2017, Yeah That's Kosher reported only two remained open: one in Ohio and one in Florida.)

Kosher Subways ran into some big problems. Not only do kosher restaurants have to serve no pork and keep meat and dairy separate, but kosher meat prices can run double what non-kosher meat costs — and that raises the cost and the price of subs. With 12-inch subs starting at around $9, it means customers start weighing their options and just going to a normal deli. 

Products can be hard to source, and then there are operational concerns, too. They have to close during the Sabbath, which is a prime time during the week — sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The employee turning the ovens on needed to be an Orthodox Jew, and each location had to pay for random inspections by a rabbi. It was a great idea, but one that ultimately just wasn't practical from a business point of view.

Not everyone liked Subway's $5 footlong

Love the $5 footlong? It was a great deal, and you got a decent lunch for a decent price. But franchisees definitely didn't share your love of it.

The $5 footlong was around for a long time before it was replaced by the $6 footlong in 2016. According to Money, it was about as popular as everyone except Subway could have predicted it would be. 

Falling sales meant Subway needed to get customers back in the door, so in 2018, they didn't quite bring back the $5 footlong, but they did bring back the $4.99 footlong. Only five sandwiches were up for the deal, but around 400 franchisees backed a petition to put an end to the reimagined deal. Some of them spoke to Business Insider (anonymously, because talking to the media is something franchisees absolutely are not allowed to do), some were all right with it because of the limited number of subs and choices included with the deal. Some even hoped it would drive business up, while others cited it as just being one more unfair promotion they were being forced to go along with. All was definitely not well in the land of the $4.99 footlong.

Remember when Subway was accused of selling soy instead of chicken?

When you go into a restaurant and order a chicken sub, you expect chicken, right? Sure. That's completely legit, and that basic belief is also what made it so outrageous when CBC Marketplace went public with their findings that — according to their own DNA analysis — Subway was selling a half-chicken, half-soy hybrid. 

According to NPR, the DNA testing was done by Trent University and seemed to show that of all the fast food chains, Subway was the one not selling real chicken. And that's the part of the story that everyone remembers, isn't it? Sure it is. 

But there's more to it, and Subway went on to completely deny their findings. They were selling, they said, "100 percent white meat with seasonings, marinated and delivered to our stores as a finished, cooked product." But Marketplace didn't back down… until other food scientists started to weigh in and question just how accurate the tests were. ArsTechnica reported that they were questioned — a lot — and Subway had several independent labs do their own testing. Both Maxxam Analytics and Elisa Technologies, Inc., reported that Subway's chicken showed as being less than one percent soy. 

And the further results of those tests? A $210 million defamation lawsuit against the CBC.

Subway's international stores have some pretty cool offerings

You go into a Subway, and you pretty much know what you're going to get. Go into one of Subway's international locations, though, and you'll find menus that not only look completely different, but you'll find some pretty awesome offerings. 

Head to India, and you'll find some seriously delicious-sounding stuff. You can opt for an Aloo Patty, a Chicken Tandoori, or a Paneer Tikka. What's that? That's marinated and roasted slices of cottage cheese. There's also some kebab options, and a super weird sub topped with corn, peas, carrots, and eggless mayo. How messy is that to eat?

Ireland has a lot of the standard options, but also offers a vegan sub topped with a vegan patty. What about Australia? There, you can pick up a Buffalo Chicken sub, a pizza sub, or a Smashed Falafel sub. Venezuela has a Caprese sub, and Japan has one with smoked ham and mascarpone, and another with shrimp and avocado. Head to Iceland, where "sub" awesomely translates to "boat" and pulled pork is on the menu. Off to Finland? Try the beef taco sub (which comes with tortilla chips), or the vegan chickpea quinoa

What, you never expected Subway to be a destination if you're off on a bit of international travel? It is now!