Ciabatta Bread Won't Save Subway

Subway, the world's largest restaurant chain by a long shot, is in the midst of growing pains. It nixed its iconic $5 footlongs last fall after franchisees complained they were killing profits, and that same year closed more than 1,100 stores across the U.S. Eager to retool its image, the company announced it would shake up its menu with more exciting flavors and trendy ingredients.

To compete with Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain and the suddenly sophisticated Jimmy John's, Subway is now tacking a bit more toward the artisan side of the sandwich spectrum. This summer, it debuted a lineup of four new sandwiches dubbed the Ciabatta Collection, available through early September, which include the Caprese Ciabatta, the Italian with New Fresh Mozzarella, the Chicken Pesto with New Fresh Mozzarella, and the Garlic Steak & Provolone.

At $5.89-$6.59 per 6-inch sandwich (at the location I visited), the sandwiches are more expensive than others on Subway's menu, but still below what you'd pay at an upscale delicatessen. Subway touts the sandwiches' new "premium ingredients" like balsamic sauce and basil pesto, as well as the ciabatta bread itself.

I unabashedly love fancy sandwiches. I also unabashedly appreciate Subway. But the two occupy separate wings of my stomach; when I want a fancy sandwich, I don't think Subway, and when I want Subway, it's because I'm on a road trip and it feels right to eat an oil-and-vinegar-drenched sub covered in whatever magical fairy dust is inside the plastic shaker at the end of the assembly line.

I thought the Ciabatta Collection could bridge the two, bringing artisan-quality sandwiches to parts of the map where Pret A Manger fears to tread. Sadly, while the Ciabatta Collection has its hits—fresh mozzarella should be an option in the overall Subway lineup, no question—on the whole, it fails to differentiate itself. The ciabatta bread is an upgrade, but the sandwiches themselves don't fulfill its promise.

Where they fall apart is in the juxtaposition of those premium ingredients—the more toothsome bread, the fresh mozzarella, the deliciously creamy-tangy balsamic sauce—with the same limp tomatoes, flavorless beef, and run-of-the-mill cold cuts the chain has always used. If anything, the better ingredients throw the lackluster ones into further relief: I'm more let down by the completely bland, skimpy rotisserie chicken on the new Chicken Pesto sandwich than I would have been previously, because I expected better from this new pesto-ciabatta "fancy" sandwich. Ditto the boring shreds of beef on the Garlic Steak & Provolone sandwich; if you tell me it's "Garlic Steak," I'm expecting some garlic zing, some marinated juiciness.

I have a feeling that come September, the summer Ciabatta Collection will go gently into that good night, forgotten by most and mourned by hardly anyone. But there are elements of these sandwiches Subway could learn from. Both customers behind me in line at Subway ordered standard meatball subs—but asked for the fresh mozzarella instead of the sliced deli kind. Likewise, if I had an option to order my standard Veggie Delite on ciabatta, I'd pay the extra 50 cents for it. Maybe Subway doesn't need to completely reinvent itself, but just do what it already does a little bit better.