Here in Shanghai, where decent, filling, and affordable sandwiches aren’t easy to come by, Subway has been a godsend. Its shops are conveniently dotted around town, its offerings are consistent, and judging from the fact that I’ve never gotten sick from its raw veggies (*knock on wood) I’d have to say it ranks decently on food safety and quality. Plus, I’ve never encountered a grumpy Subway employee here; even when my emerging sub is in the fumbling hands of a new hire, service is never rude. In the four months since I went off meat and shut off many convenient, cheap, fast food choices, Subway has become an even closer friend, always nearby to comfort me as I introduced visitors to the pork-soupy wonders of Xiaoyang’s fried dumplings.
So I was excited to learn that this sandwich chain plans to massively grow their presence in China, more than doubling their stores from the current 220 to over 600 nationwide by 2015. Not only is it a “taste of home” for the growing numbers of North American expats here, but it’s also been catching on with locals as a healthy alternative to KFC and the like.
I, too, was persuaded long ago that Subway is a healthier option than most, whether I chose the turkey breast or chicken breast, the six-inch or footlong. During my post-college Philly days I even somehow convinced myself it was acceptable to order for lunch a $5 footlong (what a deal!) and add $1.30 for three cookies (what a deal!!) ’cause, well, it was Subway, so it couldn’t be that bad for me, right? (And, well, it was Philly, one of the fattest cities in the US, so I had a ways to go before I’d have to stop eating as much as I wanted all the time… right?)
But I had a realization this past weekend while scarfing down a six-inch Veggie Delite in the basement food court of the Zhongshan Park Cloud Nine mall. I was studying the wallpaper with pictures of the different types of sandwiches and the slogan “eat fresh” underneath the Subway logo, and I was sort of undressing the subs with my eyes: off with the warm, fresh-baked bread, off with the sauce, the fresh, well-washed lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, peppers… and there we go, the meat.
And my eyes darted between the meat and the “eat fresh” slogan, and I suddenly felt uneasy. Not because meat disgusts me now (it doesn’t, usually), but because it was one of those “world view shattering” moments, as I saw what I should’ve seen long ago: that wait a minute! the meat’s not exactly fresh: highly processed cold cuts, canned tuna, imitation crab, ground-meat meatballs, uniform slices of unnaturally soft and smooth chicken “breast”, and so on. And neither is the cheese.
So yes, the fresh array of veggies and bread, revolutionary in the fast food scene, is awesome, but can you still sincerely tell your customers to “eat fresh” when you’re serving mass-produced, processed meats? Is it even possible not to (serve junk) when your business is cheap and fast food, or is Subway the best we can aim for in a cash- and time-strapped world? Or does it matter at all, since the fresh ingredients sort of “cancel out” the processed ones, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how terrible cold cuts are because we grew up eating them in sandwiches at school?
Am I realizing all this way too late in the game?
Whatever the case, I have to give it to Subway’s marketing department. It had me fooled for a long while, and it took giving up meat altogether to realize their meat wasn’t great, either. (I’ll still go back for the Veggie Delite.)