Will Subway Ever Learn Its Lesson?

The sandwich chain is trying too damn hard to stay relevant, and nothing seems to stick.

It's been almost exactly a year since Subway announced its Eat Fresh Refresh campaign, an initiative to include new ingredients on all Subway menus and improve the online ordering experience. It was a move that was seemingly put in place to try to save the chain's ever plummeting reputation, one tarnished by the company's mistreatment of franchisees and bad tuna—the chain literally couldn't give away its sandwiches for free. But Eat Fresh Refresh doesn't seem to be working, and Subway's popularity keeps slipping. Maybe the brand's next attempt at redemption, the Subway Series menu, will be what saves it. (We're skeptical.)

What is the Subway Series menu?

According to a press release sent to The Takeout, the Subway Series is "the biggest menu change in its nearly 60-year history." It's one that appears to change the concept of the restaurant entirely. Instead of choosing from a signature meat/cheese combo and then customizing the sandwich with the bread and toppings of your choice, customers will now have 12 signature sandwiches to choose from, all of which align with four overall menu categories: Cheesesteaks, Italianos, Chicken, and Clubs.

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We were given a preview of this new Subway Series menu earlier this year, with a chance to taste the completely mediocre Supreme Meats and Mozza Meats sandwiches. Here are a few examples of what else to expect in Subway's latest rollout:

  • The Outlaw: steak with double pepper jack cheese, green peppers, red onions, and baja chipotle sauce toasted on Artisan Italian bread
  • The Boss: meatballs in marinara sauce with pepperoni, mozzarella, and parmesan toasted on Italian Herbs & Cheese bread
  • The Great Garlic: rotisserie-style chicken with bacon, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, and a new creamy roasted garlic aioli toasted on Artisan Italian bread
  • PR from Subway claims this move is to make things easier for everyone involved. "Simply order a sandwich by number (I'll take the #8) or name (I'll have The Great Garlic) and leave customization aside by letting Subway Sandwich Artists take care of the rest," reads the press release. But at this point, it's hard to imagine that walking into a Subway and ordering "The Outlaw" would go well for anyone involved.

    The shift mimics what we're used to seeing at places like Jimmy John's or Panera. So, yes, the "curated menu" is a proven method—but it's not what we've come to expect from Subway. We walk into Subway ready to completely Frankenstein together the perfect sandwich just for us. Historically, Subway sandwich artists have let you tell them what to do; this new requirement to memorize a list of all-too-similar sandwich combos will certainly lead to confusion on both sides of the counter. Subway has many issues, but the ability to customize your order has never been one of them.

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    And once again, Subway is offering 1 million free sandwiches between 10 a.m. and noon on July 12 to celebrate the menu change. The chain really didn't learn its lesson, huh?

A brief timeline of Subway’s attempts to rebrand

Subway has really been in recovery mode since 2015 when its go-to spokesperson, Jared Fogle, was convicted of possessing child pornography and participating in child sex tourism. The focus on weight loss through eating subs was intrinsically tied to Fogle, and so the brand needed to take a sharp turn to distance itself.

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Tony Hale became the spokesperson following the Fogle convictions, focusing on "saving the lunch break" and the freshness of Subway's ingredients in videos "targeted toward Millennials online," reported Insider at the time. Even then, this strategy felt like too little too late, in an almost cringey way.

By 2016 it seemed like Subway was throwing anything at the wall to see what stuck. That's the only possible justification for the highly cinematic, strangely off-brand Subway ad out of Brazil that Eater called "fucking wild" and described as "like if 'Boyhood' was really about sandwiches."

In the years that followed, Subway's strategy appeared to revolve around merely convincing people that these were real sandwiches. The chain dropped specialty items here or there, like 2017's limited-time-only Reuben and Italian Hero sandwich. In 2018, Subway introduced its signature wraps, the same year it reintroduced, and then almost immediately rescinded, its five-dollar footlong promotion.

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The most recent Eat Fresh Refresh campaign marks the brand's return to big-name spokespeople and focusing on freshness and health, with a star-studded lineup of elite athletes pushing the sandwiches. Still, even that decision was not without controversy: Megan Rapinoe was originally one of the featured athletes but was dropped after franchisees complained that the "anti-American" soccer player was causing sales to plummet, Newsweek reported.

Subway needs to chill

It seems no matter what Subway does to revamp its image, nothing is changing. It's gone from the second-biggest chain in the country to one that even the owners aren't trying to grow in the United States, focusing efforts overseas instead. But it doesn't have to be this way. Subway is simply trying too hard to be something it's not.

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What's great about Subway is that you can go there and know exactly what kind of sandwich to expect, one that suits your tastes perfectly. There's no need to get fancy or feel like a bother asking for "the number 7 but with no avocado, light on the lettuce, extra sauce, sorry, sorry, sorry." Keeping things simple and just letting guests choose exactly what they want from a limited amount of fillings and condiments is the way to go. Chipotle has perfected this model, and it's one that we're used to.

I'm sure we'll taste some of these sandwiches soon, if only to experience ordering "The Monster" from an actual human to see their reaction. But, as we've said before, these sandwiches aren't going to save Subway from itself. And at this rate it seems like nothing will.

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