Size matters: $5 Footlong pushes Subway forward, one foot at a time

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Subway has not only survived the recent economic downturn, but thrived during it -- launching 1,200 new stores this year. According to the New York Times, franchisees are falling all over themselves to find potential locations, and today Subway has close to 37,000 restaurants in a hundred countries.

Why has Subway flourished in a crappy economy when so many other fast-food chains are at a standstill -- or going backwards, fast?

Easy answer: $5 Footlongs.

Subway's trademarked $5 Footlong sandwiches are a socio-cultural phenomenon, spawning ribald jokes -- many of which may have been started by me -- as well as T-shirts and an infectious song, and filling many, many bellies with cold-cut trios crammed with extra pickles and toasted meatball subs with banana peppers, hold the lettuce. They are also the subject of the company's most successful advertising campaign to date.

In 2008, all Subways in the U.S. and Canada offered a limited-time-only promotional deal, with every sub on the menu, except double-meats, offered at the reduced price of five bucks. The promotion went so well that after it ended, Subway decided to keep hope alive by creating a limited but perma-menu of classics for $5, also featuring monthly $5 Footlong sub specials in some markets.

The $5 Footlong deal quickly torpedoed Subway competitors that can't offer a comparable load (and quality) of food for the same price. Because Subway will sell them a twelve-inch sandwich for five bucks, customers expect that every other sandwich shop should, too. I feel sorry for every Jimmy John's within a five-mile radius of a Subway.

And Subway has just brought back -- for a limited time -- the best sandwich it's ever created: the Pizza Sub. I really, really feel sorry for Jimmy John's now. That chain just can't complete with the magnificence of a warm pepperoni pizza smothered with cool vegetables and mayostard, conveniently ensconced in a bread bun.

With $5 Footlongs, Subway has effectively fed a set of common, modern-era American consumer expectations: to get what foods we want, immediately, cheaply, and with a minimum of effort. Healthy is a bonus, but healthy is heading down that path from being a consumer bonus to being an expectation.

And Subway gets it, feeding our lazy, money-miserly greedy and occasionally healthy cravings one foot-long sub sandwich at a time.

The foot-long tuna sub on honey oat bread with triple pickles and no guilt that I'm devouring right now, for example.

Bonus joke: So you walk up to a guy/girl in a bar, and you ask, "Do you work at Subway?" When they stare at you, completely fuzzled, you hand them a fiver and say, " Because you are giving me a footlong!"

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