The Truth About Subway's Signature Smell

You know that wonderful way that it smells when you walk past that little French bakery — that gentle but insistent cocktail of butter, sugar, and vanilla, so intoxicating you can't help but wander inside for, say, a freshly baked croissant? Well, that's not at all like the signature smell of Subway. It's not that the Subway smell is bad; it's just that there are a lot more Subways than there are little French bakeries, and all of them carry that same distinct and yet nearly indescribable aroma. It's what one Vice reporter called "that sweet, herby, bready scent" that will leave you "feeling disgusted or hungry." And you just know that if you do happen to wander inside, you're going to smell like that for the rest of the day. Whatever "that" is. And therein lies the rub. 

Just "follow the smell of our baking bread," Subway's website teases in big, bold-faced letters. But is bread really what we're smelling? Because we've baked our share of bread, starting with sourdough bread and moving on to three-ingredient banana bread before making our way to cloud bread. And Subway's signature scent, which they claim they don't intentionally vent onto the sidewalk, does not smell like any bread we've ever baked. So, what's the truth? What is it with that signature Subway smell? 

It just might be the sweet, sweet smell of Subway's success

The first thing you have to accept when attempting to unravel the truth about Subway's signature smell is that it is clearly a well-kept corporate secret. Many have tried to gain clarity. Many have failed. For example, almost a decade ago, a reporter from Food Republic actually managed to get Subway's then-Global Baking Technologist, Mark Christiano, to speak with them, which apparently isn't so easy (via Vice). But in response to questions about what makes the bread so "distinctive," Christiano offered little more than demurrals such as, "It's your basic bread formula," and "We are proud of the smell. Any baked product smells good. And we want you to catch that bread aroma."

What Christiano did hint at, according to Food Republic, is that the "caramelization smell of the sugar might be a factor." As it turns out, the passage of time may have turned that hint into something potentially quite revealing. You see, not too long ago, we learned that Subway's bread contains so much sugar that arguably, it shouldn't even be called bread, as the Irish Supreme Court ruled in 2020 (via Independent). Per The Washington Post, Subway breads generally have three to six grams of sugar per serving. In other words, the truth about Subway's signature smell is that it may well be a product of just how much sugar its bread contains.