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We tasted sandwiches from Subway’s supposed makeover, and it’s more of the same

A Subway location in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)

The movie makeover montage is a staple of teen films. You know the drill: The stereotypical nerdy girl or guy is transformed into a far cooler incarnation of themselves (usually involving a wardrobe overhaul and the ditching of glasses), all set to a peppy pop earworm.

But if Subway’s heralded “Eat Fresh Refresh,” the sandwich chain’s attempt at a summer glow-up, was captured on the big screen, the soundtrack would more appropriately be … sad trombones.

Unlike many of its fast-food peers that have introduced single items in recent years, each hoping to hit the jackpot like Popeyes did two summers ago with its chicken sandwich, Subway went for the whole enchilada, so to speak, with its 20-point menu revamp this week.

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The refresh promises, according to Subway’s press materials, “11 new and improved ingredients, six all-new or returning sandwiches and four revamped signature sandwiches,” all debuting on Tuesday. There were balloons on the door and new signage at one suburban D.C. store, all trumpeting the “big changes” found within. An advertising campaign featuring sports celebrities including Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Tom Brady and Steph Curry is touting the news, too.

Subway’s menu changes apparently mark the largest update in the chain’s history, introduced at a time when it is battling with folks inside and outside the company, whether disgruntled franchisees or customers who wonder what exactly is in their tuna sandwich. Yet Subway executives say the refresh — which also includes digital and storefront upgrades — is not an attempt to divert customers’ attention away from the bad press. These changes have been in the works for months.

“This is not something that we thought of on a Monday and we delivered on a Friday,” said Trevor Haynes, president of the North America business unit at Subway. This is a “multiyear transformational project.”

This may be the case, but once you walked inside a store, Subway’s transformational, 20-point revamp quickly started to evaporate, as we learned on visits to separate locations in the region. The roast beef sandwich, for starters, will not reappear until the fall, and because the same Angus beef appears on the new Subway club, that will not be available until later, too. Right off the bat, three of the 20 changes — or 15 percent of the menu makeover — were AWOL.

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As part of the overhaul, more than 10,000 locations were closed on Monday to prepare. New signage and most of the ingredients were in place, but the workers at two locations were at a loss on how to make several of the new and returning sandwiches. We each had to walk Sandwich Artists through their own craft, relying on cellphone photos of the new menu to ensure the proper ingredients were used to construct the Turkey Cali Fresh and Steak Cali Fresh, among other creations.

Sandwich makers seemed to fall back to their default training, asking customers what bread they wanted for the new sandwiches, even though three of the four apparently demand a specific loaf, according to a fact sheet given to the press. Some ingredient lists seemed incomplete or confusing because of an awkward typo: The new Subway Club still doesn’t include bacon (just like earlier incarnations), while the Steak Cali Fresh featured “hickory-smoked back,” a reference, one presumes, to bacon and not the hide of some unfortunate animal.

The errors, the missing sandwiches and the employees’ lack of training made this menu revamp seem less like an important brand overhaul and more like a slapdash campaign to try to draw more positive attention to a chain that could use some.

The company has been the subject of cringey headlines lately over a lawsuit alleging that its tuna salad wasn’t actually made with fish, though the plaintiff later amended the complaint to claim that the sandwiches didn’t contain “100 percent sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna” (both charges the chain has vehemently denied).

Other woes include a reported decline in sales thanks to increased competition both from fast-food chains with more upscale offerings and proliferating fast-casual rivals. And there’s franchisee unrest afoot, with some owners complaining about the quality of the ingredients and the restrictive terms of their agreements.

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Subway is in a weird position. The chain has historically promoted its sandwich customization, unusual among fast-food operations, and now is playing up its improved ingredients. These traits are both hallmarks of fast-casual chains, such as Sweetgreen and Chipotle, restaurants that have higher price points than Subway. None of the sandwiches purchased for this story cost more than $6; bowls at Sweetgreen, by contrast, can run more than $10 each, and a burrito at Chipotle can cost you more than $8.

We found much to like about the Turkey Cali Fresh. The sandwich featured a smooth layer of smashed avocado, lush and vibrant, paired with milky slices of BelGioioso brand mozzarella, a scattering of fresh spinach leaves, rounds of juicy tomato, razor-thin shavings of roasted turkey and strips of bacon cut so thin they were almost translucent. The sandwich could satisfy just about any afternoon cravings, though it’s hard to imagine the Turkey Cali Fresh inspiring the kind of Instagram-fueled lust and gun-brandishing lunacy that the Popeyes chicken sandwich did in 2019.

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The Steak Cali Fresh, by contrast, came across as a punchline, like some lumpy Philly cheesesteak that wanted to develop six-pack abs. The chopped steak, lightly seasoned, showed well, but stuffing the much-maligned red meat into the “healthy” trappings of a multigrain roll with avocado, mozzarella, bacon, spinach, tomato and red onion seemed like a parody of California cuisine.

The All-American Club — this one with bacon, the same impossibly thin hickory-smoked slices — was served on Subway’s improved Artisanal Italian bread, billed as a roll with a crispy crust and soft center. It was as squishy and pale as the old Subway bread (at least our memory of it), and did not make for a great platform for the upgraded turkey and bacon.

The traditional sandwich hyped as an exciting menu addition seemed a poster child for the whole marketing campaign: all these balloons and hoopla for … a super-basic club sandwich you could have ordered at a diner 40 years ago?

In another addition that’s more of a retread, Subway has also brought back its “rotisserie-style” chicken sandwich, though this creation is more a suggestion of a sandwich than a full-developed one. The caramelized pieces of hand-pulled chicken are merely the base protein for a sandwich of your own creation. Tim paired the chicken with Swiss cheese, red onion, spinach, tomato and mayonnaise. It made for a strangely sweet bite, as if one of the ingredients had been infused with sugar. Emily went simple with pepper-jack cheese, red onion and mayo, a combo that didn’t wow but prompted what could pass for a compliment: “It really does taste like chicken, as they say,” she noted.

All told, Subway’s lauded makeover feels not just underwhelming in scope, but as dated as a 1980s teen flick. Few of the changes seem to speak to current trends in the food world. There are no global flavors, no kicks of spice, no locally sourced ingredients or plant-based proteins. The chain has also updated its app for streamlined online ordering, an upgrade that would have been great months ago, when the pandemic had us all turning to our phones for lunch.

Subway executives said in the interview that the decision to mostly focus on upgrades to the chain’s most-used ingredients, such as bread, turkey and bacon, was an intentional one. Instead of trotting out a new limited-time special that might go viral, they said, they focused on “foundational” elements that would have the biggest impact.

“Bread is the absolute core ingredient for a sandwich chain,” Haynes said. “It may not be as sexy as a spicy chicken sandwich … but it’s a core ingredient.”

Instead of manufacturing success with a fashionable new product, with its now-you-see it, now-you-don’t fanfare on Instagram, Subway seems to be playing the long game with its Eat Fresh Refresh campaign. The chain is not interested in being the next teen flick of a summer. It’s aiming for something more long-lasting, like “The Wizard of Oz,” a box-office bomb that has endured for decades.

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