Subway 2023

Oct 16, 2023 | Insights, Restaurant Research

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Executive Summary

Subway is the largest sub sandwich chain by far with an ad budget larger by multiples than the other sub chains. Core brand equity around: interaction between sandwich artists & guests who customize their meals as they move along Subway’s iconic make line; sub sandwiches which include lots of veggies (“Eat Fresh”), bread carriers baked in-house, deli meat now sliced in-store; multiple sauce options; and product innovation that incorporates higher-end, trendy ingredients. Its July 2022 Subway Series launch represented the biggest menu change in the company’s history (providing customers the ability to order by sandwich name or number for the first time), featuring signature sandwiches in 4 categories (Cheesesteaks; Italianos; Chicken & Clubs). The brand’s TV ads feature some of the most famous stars in all of the sports world and its recent Subway Series Menu campaign dubbed “The perfect sub roster” drove record-breaking sales numbers. The chain’s ongoing brand repositioning is reflected by a high-single-digit 1H23 system comp increase which included increasing traffic and strong digital sales. Recent sales strength also reflects efforts to cull and relocate its weakest stores. Despite many sensible brand upgrades, the chain remains challenged by numerous competing options for consumers (both up-stream and down-stream). While Subway menu pricing more closely resembles fast casual (like Jimmy John’s, Firehouse, Jersey Mike’s, etc.) as opposed to QSR, its average check still significantly underperforms the sub-sandwich segment thus revealing the brand’s lack of pricing power among its core lower income demo. This reflects that Subway has a long history of struggling to find a complete value equation that works with consumers (especially important given the current economic environment) and which is profitable for franchisees. Notably, the system’s unit-level EBITDAR margin remains depressed, significantly underperforming both its own 10-year system best and segment average. Taken together with a low AUV, its unit-level EBITDAR dollar profit is barely sustainable. In conclusion, while Subway is working hard to improve its relevancy in a crowded field, the chain has a lot of work to recover 20%+ of domestic sales market share lost over the last 10 years to the $1B+ chains.

Subway Market Share Graph

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