Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Subway: The Fall of An Empire?

It took my father and I 14 years and the glorious limb-destroying sport of amatuer wrestling to realize that basketball was simply not for me. However, the highlight of those many Satudays mornings spent at the West Suburban YMCA in Newton, Massachusetts trying to shoot jump shots from under the overhanging track was--aside from quality time with my dad--trips to the Subway sandwich shop down the street for a well-earned lunch.

In those days before I had my own car, fast food was a commodity, not a thing of regularity, and Subway was definitely my sandwich purveyor of choice. While Highlands Pizza was tops for all things Italian, somehow their meatball subs could still not match up to the majesty of Subway. There was just something about the way the "sandwich artists" of West Newton put just the right amount of marinara on the meatballs, perfectly applied the American cheese, and spoiled me with black olives that added up to culinary heaven.

But without question the secret weapon of Subway was the one-of-a-kind "Subway cut" used to slice their warm, fluffy Italian rolls. Whereas the conventional sandwich maker slices down the middle on one side from one end of a roll to the other and then opens it up horizontally, Subway employees were taught to cut from above, remove a middle strip from the top of the bread, stuff the toppings inside, and then reapply the displaced cap creating something was really more of a sandwich/calzone hybrid than merely a sub. Nobody could touch the "Subway cut."

During my counselor years at Camp Frank A. Day, nightly sojourns to the Leicester Subway made for a more steady diet of the good stuff than I'd had in my childhood years, but this was still a place where magic happened. Besides joining in the neverending game of trying to get the phone numbers of the girls working behind the counter (and winning more than once, I don't mind saying), I also expanded my horizons beyond the meatball sub, adding the Subway steak and cheese to my repetoire. I was really still too young to fully understand vegetables as anything more than the stuff off to the side of your plate, but the Subway steak and cheese gave me new appreciation for lettuce, tomatos, cucumbers and the occasional onion. But it was the thin-sliced, delectable steak piled high--along with the "Subway cut," of course--that made the sandwich.

While in college, my friend Jordan Geary and I would celebrate Wednesday, the greatest day of the week, by heading into New London for the first two parts of our personal holy trinity of purchasing new comics at Sarge's and paying a visit to the local Subway before heading back to school to take in the afternoon rerun of Melrose Place on E! If I recall correctly, Jordan favored the chicken parm, while I stuck to my meatball/steak and cheese rotation with a dedicated fervor.

However, at some point during my late college years, something went horribly wrong.

It began with Jared. You know Jared: the guy who lost all the weight eating Subway from the commercials. Now I had no problem knowing that Subway wasn't going to kill me, but this was my semi-guilty pleasure; I didn't want to be told it was GOOD for me. And just the fact that Subway now had a national commercial campaign (and lame "Eat Fresh" slogan) stripped away the mystique of my favorite eatery.

But that was only the first of the awful changes to come. The next was a blanket switch of meats that led to the replacement of thin-sliced steak with ghastly steak chunks! And they needed to be microwaved! I gave the "new" steak and cheese the old college try, but once was enough to see it was dead to me. At least I still had my beloved meatball.

Then...the unthinkable happened.

An edict came down from somewhere on high (from Jared? Figurehead or puppet master? We may never know) banning the "Subway cut"! The one thing that separated Subway from all other peddlers of sandwich goods, that which lifted them up where they belonged (much as love does), was gone. I could see the dignity begin stripped from my beloved sandwich artists as they were forced to eschew their hard-practiced skills for the simple clean cut traditional method. For a time, I was able to coerce some traditionalists to continue cutting "old school" for me, but these stalwarts were quickly wiped out and deprogrammed.

The summer of 2004, following my graduation from college, I relocated several days a week to East Brookfield, MA and Camp Frank A. Day, where I did grunt work setting up the camp before the staff or campers got there. Without companionship, I attempted to rekindle my passion for Subway with mixed results. I could never truly enjoy a meatball sub or steak and cheese again with the knowledge of what I'd so recently lost fresh in my mind, but I opened myself up to new options such as the Subway Club, which I could experience without any tainted memories of superior product. Nonetheless, it was hard to watch these wet behind the ears pups who had never learned the true way to produce a Subway sandwich stumbling behind the counter of my former shrine to tasty goodness.

After moving to New York, I would frequent the Subway along Route 17 semi-regularly, generally purchasing the Subway Club and remembering better days. The chicken/bacon/ranch melt provided a brief renaissance, but could not hold my interest.

And that brings us to the present, and my residence in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, pearl of the East. There is a Subway down the street from us and I make frequent use of it. For a good while, the lack of the Subway I remembered was offset by the presence of a kindly man with a wonderful moustache who worked nearly every night and who always wore a smile. His expertise and dedication to the Subway Club, Italian BMT and even the meatball sub was a rare shining moment in a regime that had long since fallen from its glory days.

Sadly, my friend at Subway disappeared a few months ago, leaving my sandwiches in the hands of a generation who probably wouldn't understand the "Subway cut" if I drew them a diagram. I had a Subway Club tonight that I was actually enjoying until I became disgusted with how low my standards have become.

So this is my challenge to you, Subway workers of America: look to your past to build your future. $5 Footlongs are not the answer; the answer is seeking out those pioneers who built your proud franchise in the lean days and learning all you can from them. They were exemplary in a time when the words "mediocrity" and "Subway" simply did not go together under any circumstances. Lean "the cut." Bring back the good steak. I beg you to restore your empire to glory.

Otherwise, I'm going to Quizno's.


Rickey said...

Growing up like I did, my folks never really liked taking me to Subway cause "Dammit, we can make a sandwich at home." But they'd still take me when they could. I loved it and have had many adventures in/around them.

Ben Morse said...

Did they use the style of making the sandwiches I described in the dirty south or was it a regional thing?

Never yet always said...

I had not gone to Subway in many years, probably since my last at camp. I recently stopped in one and immediately was upset by the fact the lady just cut it down the middle. I wasn't sure if she was new, lazy, or if the Brits just did it differently (aka WRONG!). You should look into this, you have the passion and the people need to know WHY! I had adopted the cutting method years ago and still use it to this day. You've done well, and make your old JC very proud.

Ben Morse said...

I pledge to you, Peter Dillon, I will maybe not let this issue rest!

Anonymous said...

Ah the patented 'Subway Cut' ..gone now along with the secret '20 Slice Cheese Sub' which wasn't on the menu.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering why I hadn't enjoyed Subway as much in recent years, and you absolutely nailed it. Back in the good old days, I occasionally encountered Subway locations that cut the bread conventionally, and I learned to avoid them. At some point, I guess I just became resigned to the changing reality of the situation.

Can't we band together to bring back the Subway cut?!?!?!?

Mel Caylo said...

Sorry to hear about how you're slowly becoming disenchanted by Subway, Benny. But I hate Subway for another reason: They put Blimpie's - MY favorite sandwich shop growing up in New York City - out of business!