Chris Martone used to have a very different life, culinarily speaking. He used to buy foie gras. He used to think up creative things to do with truffles. He used to have dining rooms full of well-heeled foodies who appreciated the nuances of every bite.
Today, Martone still has chances to flex his creative muscle, and he still has tables full of appreciative diners—it's just that everything he creates has to fit on a bun, and his diners are seated at thousands of tables all over the country. Martone, a former fine-dining chef, is now executive chef for the Subway sandwich chain—an outfit that did nearly $6 billion last year and boasts more locations than any other chain. Basically, Martone makes lunch for much of America.
Granted, fine-dining chefs jumping ship to chains is nothing new. McDonald's corporate chef Andrew Selvaggio, for example, found fame in Chicago's renowned Pump Room before joining the Golden Arches. But Martone's story is notable not just for how he's incorporated a white-tablecloth background into quickservice demands, but how he's used his influences to help change the direction of an entire segment.
You could say that Martone represents the new breed of quickservice executive chef. He's young (33), well educated (degrees from both the Culinary Institute and the University of Massachusetts), and highly experienced (front- and back-of-the-house jobs in a variety of clubs, hotels, and fine-dining restaurants).
Any of his old colleagues who think Martone's got it easy should keep in mind the dynamics he's facing. He's got to offer fewer calories and less fat, yet boost the sophistication level to compete with fast-casual—all the while keeping prices in line and not turning away core customers.
Yet observers say it's both his upper-crust experience and diverse resume that enables him to pull it off. "Chris's multi-faceted background makes him the perfect fit," says Nick Hauptfeld, Subway's manager of new products development. "It's his understanding of the desires of customers, cost, and supply limitations, and the capabilities of our franchisees, that makes an idea fly."
Moreover, his most influential idea to date was drawn directly from his fine-dining background, and has since helped to influence the direction that much of fast-food segment is taking. Shortly after joining Subway in 1999, Martone launched the Selects line, which combined the time-proven appeal of the sandwich with customer expectations of better taste, increased sophistication, and healthier ingredients that he knew from his full-service days. Selects sandwiches ("the answer to customers' request for more flavor," Martone says) include the popular Southwest Turkey Bacon, Red Wine Vinaigrette Club, and the Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki—all high in flavor but low in fat. Three have 6 g. or less, two have only 1.5 g. Says Hauptfeld: "He's shown consumers that healthy food can taste great."
While loathe to credit Subway, many fast feeders have since come out with a variety of high-flavor, healthier offerings, too (though fast casual has had a lot to do with that). Martone won't take much credit, either, preferring to say he's only part of the "constant evolution" of his employer. "I'm always open to what people have to say," he adds. "You never know when it will provoke a discussion that leads to something different, something better."
It's hard to quantify Martone's contribution to Subway's success, but Hauptfeld singles him out. "Subway has gone from 14,000 locations to almost 18,000, and sales jumped from $3.6 billion to $5.7 billion since Chris has been with us," he says. "He's taken the menu to the next level."
"This job uses everything I've done and learned," Martone adds. "Culinary skills, business skills, and creativity—it's a good mix."
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