Oh Subway, What Happened to You?


Have any of you been following the sad demise of the Subway brand?

It’s a big piece of my history with Wisconsin and with Brad and his family. So I have a very personal take on their fall from grace.

Last year saw over 900 locations shutter with more to close this year.

Subway’s story serves as a warning to any brands feeling a little too complacent about letting things slide, not making the effort to stay up to date.

Subway is a perfect case study for:

  1. How significantly our tastes have changed over the last 25 years (and how much more discerning we’ve become)
  2. What can happen to your brand/business if you get lackadaisical about keeping up with trends in your category and lose touch with your consumer

So what happened with Subway?

Subway, which launched in 1965, did not get my patronage until the mid-90’s when Brad and I became fans of their sandwiches while in Wisconsin.

I can’t begin to explain how excited we were to have access to such delicious sandwiches. What was especially thrilling to us was the bread, baked on-premise. So fresh and artisanal we thought!

  • Subway was a favorite of the Kahlhamer boys and although Brad and I never patronized Subway in NYC, it was our #1 go-to while on our travels, especially for our hiking trips in Arizona or Montana.
  • I recall the elaborate plans we would make to ensure we got to a Subway early in the day for freshly made subs to take with us for our day-long expeditions. Subway was integral to those trips.
  • How we considered the bread or the meats fresh and delicious is beyond me but twenty years ago, we were clearly less discerning. But it also highlights how few options we had back then.

Read on below for more on how Panera, with its trendier and more delicious options, was among the first to reposition Subway as an also-ran.


By the early 2000’s, we were patronizing Subway less. Fresher, take-out sandwiches were becoming available at Whole Foods as well as at delis and coffee shops.

And then in 2014, Panera opened in Fond du Lac and it was MAGICAL. (Panera initially launched in St. Louis in 1981 so by the time they expanded to rural Wisconsin they were on their A-game).

  • The Kahlhamer boys, again, turned us on to this cool new option.
  • Panera’s food and its presentation was impressive.
  • Clearly, a step above Subway. The bread alone was leaps and bounds ahead of anything Subway offered.
  • We’ve never again set food in a Subway.

America, even NYC, has embraced an astonishing number of fast casual chains from Sweetgreen to Dig Inn to Shake Shack to my personal fave, Made Nice (only a singular establishment at the moment but poised to expand).

Danny Meyer, by the way, must really believe in high-end fast casual. This week saw the NYC debut of Tender Greens.  This Meyer-backed fast-casual chain from California is set to open at least 15 outposts in NYC.  As I’ve written before, I expect many more high-end restaurateurs to get into the fast casual game.

Much of the appeal is due to the chains’ innovations, healthy ingredients, cool style, price point and ease of dining. On all counts Subway lags behind these competitors.


Although Subway created the healthy fast casual category, they let it slip away from them by not getting out ahead of the consumer.

I hate to say “never” but in this instance, I’m pretty confident that Subway’s chance of making a comeback is close to zero.

Share this post on: