Subway’s unit volumes hit an 8-year high in 2021

The sandwich giant’s average unit volumes were their highest since 2014 and same-store sales were flat compared with 2019. But hundreds of stores are still closing.
Subway sales improvement
Photo courtesy of Subway

Subway said on Tuesday that its sales performance improved steadily throughout 2021, sending its average unit volumes to their highest level since 2014.

The company would not provide the exact number. But according to Restaurant Business sister company Technomic, average unit volumes in 2014 were $446,000. They would fall to $425,000 the next year. That suggests the 2021 figure was somewhere in between.

For the system, same-store sales were flat for the full year 2021. But for the top 75% of its locations, about 16,000 locations in all, same-store sales were up 7.5% over 2019 levels.

The company also said that sales improved throughout the year for that group. By December, same-store sales were up 8.7% on a two-year basis. Subway also said that same-store sales for the entire system were positive the last three quarters of the year.

The results “indicate we have the right team and strategy to bring our multi-year transformation journey to life,” CEO John Chidsey said in a statement.

But the data also suggests that about 5,000 locations are still well under what they were before the pandemic. Many are believed to be in urban areas, business districts and in retail shops such as Walmart.

Subway AUVs

Subway's average annual unit volumes, not including 2021. 

Source: Technomic

Subway’s average unit volumes have been struggling for years. They peaked in 2012 at $481,000 but fell steadily until 2017, when they declined to $410,000. They slowly improved afterward before the pandemic hammered the brand. In 2020, average unit volumes were $362,000.

Much of that recent improvement can be chalked up to store closures. The brand has closed about 4,900 locations since 2017. That includes about 1,000 locations in 2021, based on an unofficial count of its online store directory.

In general, closed stores have lower unit volumes. That can bring up the entire system average. With about 5,000 locations still well below their 2019 levels, many operators expect store closures to continue for some time.

Many brands saw strength in 2021. That includes sandwich chains, notably rival Firehouse Subs, acquired for $1 billion last year by Burger King owner Restaurant Brands International. Its same-store sales were up 20% on a two-year basis last year.

Still, for Subway, the 2021 sales results represent the first real green shoots in what has been a long and difficult decade for the brand. The chain has seen thousands of closures since that 2012 peak. It also lost its founder, its spokesman and went through multiple changes in management and executives.

Chidsey took over the brand in 2019 as part of the latest management overhaul. The brand last year made a massive change to its menu, upgrading its bread and other ingredients, in what it called the “Eat Fresh Refresh.”

That effort also included several new sandwiches. Subway also brought in several athletes to help represent the brand, including NFL quarterback Tom Brady and NBA star Steph Curry.

The company said it is working on a new exclusive menu called “The Vault” this year and is working to improve its digital channels. Subway is also kicking off a new catering program this spring. The brand is also working to bring larger, multi-unit operators into the system and is working aggressively to expand internationally.

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