Philosophy of the Sandwich

There is some controversy over what the greatest sandwich chain in the country is. Let it be known that there is an unequivocal, correct answer to the question and that, without any coercion on the part of the sandwich makers themselves, I declare that Jimmy John’s is the best sandwich chain there is. Full stop. I will now explore the relative merits of major sandwich chains to support my claim that Jimmy John’s is the best, first and last, in sandwich making. It’s the philosophy of sandwiches.


Sandwiches have a rich history that is of course grounded in convenience and the amalgamation of food groups in a meal. Of course the word comes from the 18th century’s 4th Earl of Sandwich, an eccentric who famously wanted a snack of meat and cheese that wouldn’t get his hands oily. At any rate, the principles of sandwich making are clearly rooted in diverse nutritional content and convenience. Unlike other foods and snacks which enjoy attached rituals to draw out and enhance the enjoyment such as tea drinking, it is important to realize that throughout history sandwiches have been a food of convenience without a ritual. It is little wonder that sandwiches often bare the name club because they were popular with gamblers who’d need to fuel during hours of wheeler-dealing. I think that it is important to protect these predicates of sandwich lore.

Let’s consider a few branches of national sandwich shops though. I’d like to agree on three that make up the greatest, most serious market share and perhaps touch upon one or two others in passing. My three main cases will be Subway, Potbelly’s, and Jimmy John’s. These three crafters of sandwiches have different and important approaches to their presentation of the sandwich to the customer, but I think that we can really only be pleased with one of these approaches. I’ll point out the merits, such as they are, of all the approaches but emphasize the short comings of those demonstrated by Subway and Potbelly’s.

Basically there is a trifecta significant parts of the sandwich presentation that is wholly on the shoulders of the vendor. Then there is a set of considerations on the part of the consumer as he navigates the approach of the vendor. Basically, though, there are the aspects of nutrition, atmosphere, and convenience associated with any food worth its salt in this fast paced world from the vendor. Then there are the measures of customer satisfaction in cost and experience. A matrix of these factors shown across these three sandwich chains reveals the truth that there is a superior chain.

I’ll begin with Subway. I think that Subway is as good a place as any to start the specific discussion because it strikes me as the progenitor of national sandwich distribution. Subway isn’t your mom or a local deli, it’s a business that needs to provide a widely consistent service that appeals to customers. Obviously these are the fundamentals of any national organization and Subway has it in spades. Subway of course features a stock wall paper in the majority of its outlets--the consumer knows a Subway when he sees one. There is a specific expectation from Subway that is clearly not present when you think about your mom’s or your deli’s sandwiches. These particular corporate distinctions apply in some degree to all the other sandwich chains that we’ll consider, but Subway is significant in its primacy.

I think that Subway also has a clear tact for presenting it’s chosen, national sandwich culture. Subway clearly emphasizes the nutritional value of its product. Subways want to stand out at the strip-mall from the usual fast food joints as the place where food is fast. The way they do that has always been by emphasizing the nutritional value of the product. Their long time spokesman Jared pointed out the weight he’d lost by eating Subway. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

See the food experience at Subway is integrated with the perusal of nutritional information. Clearly the benefits of eating at Subway are tied to the customer’s ability to appropriately navigate the data presented at Subway. The Subway experience is based primarily on the consumer building his own sandwich. It might be argued that this system is intended to provide a homey feel, to reflexively place the consumer before his collective refrigerator, his own communal kitchen, making his own sandwich but this is not the case. What is the case is that Subway has invested in the notion that people need to be active in their culinary choices at all times for their own benefit. Thus, going down the line at Subway, the consumer repeatedly consults the menu and makes educated choices based on the information presented there. Yes he ends with his own unique sandwich, but there are flaws in this process no matter how nobel the predicates are.

I think that the main thing that Subway loses in its sandwich experience is convenience. The repeated consultation of the menu stems the process of culinary enjoyment unduly. It is not that personal preference doesn’t factor into any dining option, it’s just that in the case of the illustrious sandwich we can’t ignore such things as the convenience. It is a bit annoying that Subway’s decor is so prepackaged in most cases to the point that any hope at creative or original seeming atmosphere is ruined. That fact redoubles the emphasis Subway places on the consumer as the only diversifying factor. The effect is that the sterile, prepackaged atmosphere and over emphasis on the consumer’s cognizance of complex nutrition facts interrupts the convenience stage of sandwich enjoyment. I think the effect is largely oppressive and I see Subway as something of a slave driver in relation to the consumer.

Perhaps the only boon of Subway’s model is the economic aspect. I really do find the “five dollar foot-long” policy compelling. A five dollar foot-long is about as perfect a choice concerning the economic valuation of sandwiches as I have seen. To break the policy down let me begin with global; the alliteration and staccato intonation of the slogan is very attractive and comes to a consumer repeatedly and naturally. Next the parts: five has such resonance with the human body and decimal numeration; the connection with a dollar amount suggests a single bill and thus not too great a dent on the wallet of the consumer; finally the division of five dollars over twelve inches of sandwich creates the excitement that this is in fact a highly economical choice yielding a going price of under 42cents per delicious inch. Few other slogans pack so much punch and I think that the policy is a good one. Subway out bids its competitors on this front but the economics do not alter the serious drawbacks.

Potbelly’s manifests a sharp contrast to Subway with it’s emphasis on atmosphere above all else. The effect of Potbelly’s atmosphere is palpable; it is simultaneously corporate and local. I can describe the characteristics of a Potbelly’s very well, a rustic and eccentric tone predominates and dimmer lighting provides a cozy feeling. And it strikes me that this is the sense that Potbelly’s really wants to give it’s customer; that the outlet and the consumer are equals in terms of values and experiences. This is why every Potbelly’s features a modicum of decor from the local area. A customer feels a certain resonance with the neighborhood in a Potbelly’s.

I am not sure what the mechanism of Potbelly’s decor machine is. After all, we all know a Potbelly’s when we see or are in one, but perusal of the atmosphere nevertheless reveals characteristics unique to the local. For example a Potbelly’s is not without a SS Potbelly air vent or posters for local attractions--simultaneous corporate and local identity. Where the identity of every outlet is crafted in relation to the corporate hierarchy is something that must be examined. The atmosphere cannot be ignored at a Potbelly’s and it is clearly something that they work diligently on. I am usually amazed by the presence of live music at these sandwich shops. Live music is perhaps the epitome of local level decor and yet it is fairly consistent in a national brand.

There is a level of process involved at Potbelly’s too. The customer is directed through a series of additives and condiments that he might augment his sandwich with. Potbelly’s does well, however, to present the personalization as one step rather than many which is what Subway does. Potbelly’s simplifies the Subway process with a simple three fold order, augment, buy methodology. I notice at Subway a selection of binary additions--olives or peppers, ham or salami, etc.--that complicate and appear to add more to any given sandwich than is necessary. Potbelly’s presents all clearly but at once. A problem does arise though and it is population.

In condensing and familiarizing the process at Potbelly’s in accordance with the dominating tact of the friendly atmosphere, Potbelly’s requires the consumer to interact with at least three people along the way, one at each step. Needless to say, the consumer finds this approach friendly but overwhelming. He is constantly required to restate his order to each successive person. While this approach may create the feeling of socializing and community, it also runs up against the notion that sandwiches are a food of convenience. I the consumer want my sandwich and I want it now. It seems that Potbelly’s harbors competing ideologies in its atmosphere of ease and its commitment to fast sandwiches and beleaguers the customer too much to go through that line.

Although it is something of a matter of taste, I find the quality of Potbelly’s product to be at best inconsistent. At Subway, the sandwiches vary from customer to customer but the quality does not vary from outlet to outlet. I think that the sense of individuality that Potbelly’s wants to convey often permeates the quality of the product. Potbelly’s boldly offers a PB&J unlike it’s competitors, this is a comforting sandwich that fits well within the decor of the outlet. But the personality of each outlet often makes the sandwich inconsistent and a consumer might find a lack of peanut butter corrupts the otherwise friendly atmosphere if it is not what he was accustomed to at a different outlet.

It brings me to a larger question of food quality. While I have enjoyed many Potbelly experiences, I can’t say that the food quality is good because I cannot consider it good on at all a national scale. I’d like to judge the quality of food at these places on a national scale because that is the scope of every enterprise I am examining, and Potbelly’s is riddled with grievous inconsistencies in food quality. The most consistent item at a Potbelly’s is a cookie, baked fresh daily which I think is absolutely valiant on their part. But high quality cookies do not override subpar sandwiches. I’d like to underscore though, that the problems with Potbelly’s arises from their preoccupation with the atmosphere.

There is too much friendship and too much personality at Potbelly’s. It defeats the object of consistent national service in favor of interesting locale. I don’t think that this is a reasonable trade off. Often it costs the consumer to go to a Potbelly’s and find his experience inconsistent and overrated. The value of the nation sandwich is depleted by the fixation on atmosphere. The effect is ultimately negative and particularly a bane to the consumer regardless of the intentions of the vendor.

At this point, I’d like to make a brief note of Quiznos. Quiznos seems very much a knock off of Subway. Call it the poor-man’s Subway or the stupid-man’s Subway. I think that Quiznos wants to take the same tact as Subway as far as matter of fact, universalized presentation goes. And Quiznos seems highly corporate with a very distinctive layout. Nevertheless, Quiznos is not really worth mentioning because it brings nothing new to the table. It so clearly wants to be like Subway but is undercut by Subway’s monopoly. But what’s more, Quiznos as a watered down version of another brand is out bid by Subway. Subway is really the poor-man’s Subway. So Quiznos is really left as the stupid-man’s Subway. The quality is perhaps consistent, the process slightly simplified, but nothing is done sufficiently to warrant merit above these other behemoths of sandwich craft.

Which brings me, finally, to Jimmy John’s. I think that Jimmy John’s strikes something of the perfect balance between all the relevant factors. I think that there is some historical precedence for this considering that Jimmy John of Jimmy John’s comes from a lineage of business men who have innovated mass production though adaptive assembly processes. It is little wonder that Jimmy John’s would have this culture of “freaky fast” at its heart. But I think that what is significant is that the system appears to work really well. Jimmy John’s is highly adaptable wherever it is but also highly uniform. I will analyze Jimmy John’s on all five criteria I assigned earlier.

I’ll admit that nutrition is perhaps not the first and foremost concern of Jimmy John’s. Certainly not in the manner it is at Subway where nutrition facts dominate the menu. But Jimmy John’s does have a commitment to quality ingredients and wants you to know that. The bread making and meat slicing apparatuses are visible behind the counter. The consumer should be at ease knowing that the products that go into their sandwich and largely prepared on site. This is a distinction from Subway where we take them at their word given the transparency of the menu but we are not always aware of the food’s earliest stages. I think that it also sets a precedent that defines Jimmy John’s as the sandwich shop the consumer can trust.

See there is a highly uniform system of production at Jimmy John’s which allows for their “freaky fast” motto. And although the uniformity originates in the actual creation of the sandwich, it permeates the culture of each outlet. When you walk into a Jimmy John’s you are greeted by the quirky signs without fail but these are cosmetic qualities that make a Jimmy John’s much the same regardless of the façade it finds itself in. This is an adaptable though consistent atmosphere that brings a sense of stability to each outlet. Built into the minimally varying design is the preparation area which totally streamlines the sandwich making process--order then receive. It’s fast paced but secure and universal.

It would seem, then, that convenience is at the forefront of Jimmy John’s system. That’s probably true but it isn’t a fault. Jimmy John’s system finds itself more congruent with the defining characteristics of the sandwich itself. The sandwich was made for its ease of use and when I order one I have a fairly uniform expectation. Jimmy John’s lives up to that expectation without fail. Jimmy John’s has built that into its college town culture too. Their sandwiches prove a hangover cure as they are often open late at night and include a variety of quality substance between slices of bread that is baked fresh daily.

I have seen a sign adorning a Jimmy John’s wall that read “the customer is usually right.” I think that that is a significant though downplayed slogan for Jimmy John’s. While at Potbelly’s the friendly atmosphere interferes with production, at Jimmy John’s one is welcomed into the arms of expertise. I feel secure in my purchase at Jimmy John’s because I make the initial choice but a talented sandwich maker executes my order. I have to trust them but they give me every reason to do so.

The experience at Jimmy John’s is thus ideal. Jimmy John’s is fast and therefor congruent with our preconceived notions of what sandwiches are. Jimmy John’s is adaptable so it doesn’t clash with its locale. But Jimmy John’s is also universal providing a service that is the same anywhere. I think that there can be little argument that Jimmy John’s is what an average consumer looks for from a sandwich vendor. Jimmy John’s delivers literally and metaphorically on good service and this is vital to sandwich history and culture.

Finally there is the consideration of cost. Jimmy John’s is not as out going on the economical nature of their product as Subway is, but I don’t think they need to be. Their most expensive menu item is $7.59 and includes almost everything you could put on a sandwich. But there are three other sections of the menu with three lesser prices. But a close analysis of Jimmy John’s sandwiches, from slims to the gargantuan, reveals an average price of $4.88 per sandwich. Per menu item, Jimmy John’s out bids Subway while producing a more ideal product. Only Subway’s five-dollar foot-longs out bid the average cost per inch of Jimmy John’s entire menu by about 20cents. All this is a small premium for what is a superior sandwich shop on all accounts.

From the history of the sandwich itself, to the relevant factors that should concern all people as they search for a good sandwich, Jimmy John’s is king. With philosophical consideration between the nutrient, atmospheric, and convenience factors of sandwiches generally, Jimmy John’s creates the ideal sandwich shop. With a keen sense of the business side of production, Jimmy John’s creates an ideal customer satisfaction based experience that is very economical. Therefore Jimmy John’s is the best national sandwich chain. 

That is all.