Visitors to some Subway restaurants recently might have seen something they didn’t expect: A list of a dozen subs, all of them new and accompanied by a different number, dominating the menu board.
The new subs, which the chain calls the “Subway Series,” are part of the brand’s latest effort to overhaul its menu as it works to revitalize sales. The 12 subs give the company a new core menu, which Subway hopes customers will order by name or by number, with little change to the recipe. In the process, the chain is de-emphasizing the customization that had helped drive its growth for decades.
“It’s a whole new way to Subway,” Trevor Haynes, the chain’s North American president, said in a presentation.
It is the second time in a year that the company unveiled what it called the “biggest” menu change in the brand’s history, following last year’s “Eat Fresh, Refresh,” which featured several new, upgraded ingredients, including its bread, coupled with a massive marketing campaign.
Haynes, however, said this was bigger, representing a fundamental change in how the company wants its customers to order. “It’s much bigger than last year,” he said.
And, Haynes added, the company isn’t done. “We’re looking at equipment, technology and operating procedures,” he said. “We’re testing various things in different markets.” One such test, several sources said, involves the company slicing its meat on site.
This change is fundamental. Subway popularized the concept that workers make their food in assembly-line fashion in front of customers who can customize their orders on the spot—an idea later adopted by much of the so-called fast-casual sector, including Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Yet such customization has fallen out of favor in an era of speed and convenience. With more customers ordering their food from websites and apps, established recipes have become more common. At Subway, for instance, about half of customers take their digital orders as-is, with no customization. Chipotle, too, has been developing more premade ideas, such as a pair of bowls it recently introduced for a pair of soccer players for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
On a practical level, the customization can put the chains at a disadvantage: Customers can mess up their own orders. Subway has so many different ingredients and so many sub options that customers do something like add cucumbers to a meatball sub or teriyaki sauce to a BMT.
The chain will now encourage its customers to order from its new core menu of 12 subs, which it spent the last year developing, going through numerous iterations. The first four boards on the company’s menu will be devoted to the Subway Series, with the second two devoted to its traditional, more customizable menu.
The company will also encourage customers to “look up” at that menu board to ensure they know the sandwiches are there. Signs on the display say “look up” with a big green arrow.
“We typically prompt guests to look down into our display,” Haynes said. “We’re going to encourage them to look up” at the menu board, where the sandwiches are listed.
The sandwiches themselves are grouped by type, including three cheesesteak sandwiches, three Italian sandwiches including a new meatball sub called “The Boss,” three chicken subs and three club sandwiches. The subs are premium priced, though cheaper than they would be if customers added the extra meat and other ingredients.
To be sure, what Subway is doing is hardly unique. Most of the chain’s primary competitors do this in some fashion. While they will provide customers with some level of customization, most of them have a much smaller number of ingredients and do not employ make-line operations that encourage customers to pick and choose their ingredients.
Those chains have been gaining ground on the 21,000-unit giant in recent years as its sales weakened and stores closed. Subway has closed 6,000 locations since peaking at 27,000 restaurants in 2014, due largely to low unit volumes. Those volumes were their strongest in years in 2021 after the Eat Fresh, Refresh campaign. Yet the company closed 1,000 restaurants.
Meanwhile, competitors like Jersey Mike’s and Firehouse Subs have gained ground. Since 2019, Subway’s share of the market for the largest deli and sandwich chains has fallen to 53% from 59%, based on an analysis of Technomic data.
Top 500 deli/sandwich market share
Source: Restaurant Business, Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report
Whether the new menu works to help Subway regain some of that market share remains to be seen. Operators we spoke with were cautiously optimistic but also waiting to see how their customers react. “Ask me again in two weeks,” one said.
The 12 subs are all-new, though the company added only one ingredient—a roasted garlic aioli—while largely relying on existing ingredients. They give Subway an unusually large number of sandwiches on the menu at a time when labor is lacking. But Haynes noted that employees found the menu easier as customers go through the ordering process in tests in Fort Myers, Fla.
Another big question is whether customers ultimately reject it, given that they are accustomed to using Subway for its customized subs. The company said they will still be able to customize these sandwiches, though it clearly hopes they don’t do that too much.
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