There was a time in America when eight out of ten people were humming the same song. This tune became a national anthem of sorts and was more popular during it's prime than the peaks of MMMBop, Who Let the Dogs Out, and I'm Blue (Da Ba Dee Da Ba Die).
During this time period, if you were to ask me while I was sitting in class, playing basketball, or trying to fall asleep, "Hey, what are you thinking about right now?" I would've replied, honestly, it's just these lyrics over and over again:
Five. Five dollar. Five dollar footlong.
Those Subway commercials took the country by storm, but what we didn't understand--at least not in the moment--was just how important this pricing strategy was for the future of all sandwiches. This wasn't a simple gimmick. This wasn't just a ploy for Subway to boost their annual sales. No, Subway was drawing a line in the sand(wich) and we proceeded to stomp all over the Italian herb and cheese.
What Subway was trying to do with the $5 footlong was like a bicyclist pedaling to the front of the competition and setting the pace for everyone else. At first, this $5 price tag immediately put both the local delis and other sandwich chains in a pickle. Delis were already flirting with $8.99 and $9.99 price tags, trying to quietly break through the $10 sandwich barrier. But with everyone in the country walking around humming the Subway $5 footlong song, these places had no choice but to meet our new customer expectations and lower their prices at least under $8. It was a pricing struggle that Quiznos has still never fully recovered from.
Those first few months, Subway's approval rating was soaring through the roof. I feel like I saw two Subway restaurants going up every day in my hometown. They'd show up in Wal*Marts, gas stations, I think one of my friends opened a franchise out of his living room. We may never see anything like it again. Subway was simultaneously known as the healthiest choice AND the least expensive option in America.
But Subway totally let it get to their head. They were strutting down the street, looking like Jon Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Reporters and camera crews would follow him around. Subway, what's next? Will we see a $4 footlong? A dollar menu? Can you sign my meatball sub? Subway would smile and tease the press with future promotions. Their mascot, Jared, was also at the height of his promotional powers. He would carry around his massive pair of jeans and take selfies with anyone who asked.
When the press finally cleared out, McDonald's whispered to Subway from a side alley.
McDonald's: Pssst. Be careful, alright?
McDonald's: Look, you're running a dangerous game here. Once you go price chopping, there's no turning back. Do you know what it's like to compete with Burger King? He's always on my tail. Anywhere I move in the country, there's Burger King. Sets up shop right across the street selling Whoppers for pennies on the dollar. It's greasy out here in the world of fast food.
Subway: Oh, we're not fast food. We're fresh food.
McDonald's: Yeah. Well. Just be careful, alright?
Subway brushed it off, went right back into it's John Travolta stride.
And, sure enough, the country began to turn on Subway. There were two simultaneous movements going on. The first was the growing rally against carbohydrates. Gluten was becoming as dirty of a word as Voldemort. The food pyramid was now seen as this obscene structure, which was especially tough on Subway since the bottom bread block looks straight off one of their posters. Cocky dieticians were even making the claim that certain footlongs, plus a bag of Cheetos, was actually worse for you than a Big Mac and fries.
We also had the growing "eat local" movement. The rise of sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor were fast food's worst nightmare. The $5 footlong was no longer a pricing achievement, it meant that the sandwich was cheap and generic. Local sandwich lovers were saying things like, "Why would you spend $5 for a Subway sandwich when you can get one at this deli or that deli for just a couple dollars more?"
With their popularity and sales numbers going down, Subway had no choice but to raise the footlong price up to $6. And, of course, we all freaked out. We heckled Subway. So your $5 footlong is now $6?? I remember seeing bloggers who would put a ruler next to a footlong Subway sandwich and point out, "You know, this one's really only 10 or 11 inches long." Everyone was having their turn kicking a sandwich shop while he was down.
Subway was left stammering and trying to write a comeback to each negative review. McDonald's put his hand on Subway's shoulder like a father after a heartbreaking little league game.
McDonald's: Let them have their punches. Let them tell their jokes.
Subway: But they're not true! Our bread pans are 12 inches long. And we had to raise the price to $6, we had no other option.
McDonald's: Shhh. Here, take a look at our Twitter feed. (passes phone)
Subway: Good Lord! How are they allowed to write things like that?? I feel like I need to wash my eyes. And you just take it? All of it?
McDonald's: It's what we have to do. You, me, Burger King. We have a higher calling. America needs us to stay cheap. It's something that Arby's still hasn't figured out.
Subway: But why?
McDonald's: Here, come take a look.
McDonald's led Subway into a local deli, the kind of place that has a big jar of pickles at the front counter and tubs of potato salad next to cole slaw next to those round blocks of Boar's Head meats. McDonald's motioned up to the blackboard behind the counter where the clever names for sandwiches were displayed. Subway was shocked to see the prices. $11.99, $12.99, $14.99.
Subway: They've crossed the $10 threshold?
McDonald's: They're just getting started...
Two things I could not possibly see coming when I started writing this: 1) that it would turn into a 2-parter and 2) that McDonald's and Subway would turn into the surprising heroes of whatever story this is. Tune in next Monday for Part 2 (the finale) that examines how far sandwich prices (and burgers) have climbed and why fast food chains are the only hope to turn this around. You can subscribe to the blog via email by entering yours in the box below. See you next week and hey, maybe get yourself a footlong sub today. It's for the good of the country.
Tags: $5 footlong, America, best Delis, Cheetos, deli, five dollar footlong, food pyramid, I'm Blue da ba dee, local deli, McDonald's, MMMbop, sandwich prices, sandwich prices are too high, Subway, Tripadvisor, what happened to the $5 footlong, Who let the dogs out, Yelp