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The sandwich that gobbled up McDonald's

Encircling the globe one over-stuffed and slightly soggy foot-long sandwich at a time, Subway has confirmed what some of us had probably begun to suspect: it has grown into the largest fast-food chain in the world, surpassing even its burger-flipping rival McDonald's and dwarfing Burger King.

With an "Eat Fresh" advertising slogan, the US-based chain has now established baloney'n'bacon beachheads in 95 countries. At the last count, there were 33,749 of them compared to 32,737 McDonald's restaurants. Burger King reported last year having just over 12,000 outlets in 73 countries. In China, a 200th branch will soon open.



GLOATING

"Unbelievable," was the response from the company's co-founder, Fred De Luca, who was just a 17-year-old wanting to generate extra cash to pay for university when he opened his first sandwich shop in Connecticut in 1965 with $1,000 loaned by a friend, Peter Buck, who became his business partner. Catching up with the mighty McDonald's was hardly on his mind at the time. But he and Mr Buck did have a business plan of sorts: to open 32 new Subways over the next 10 years.

Four and a half decades later they have achieved a growth rate that has been more than 1,000 times faster.

Mr De Luca, now 63 and listed on the latest Forbes billionaires list as the 692nd richest man in the world, is not gloating about overtaking the famed golden arches of McDonald's, for years considered the ultimate symbol of American commercial imperialism. "We've been big beneficiaries of McDonald's," Mr De Luca said.

"I would say if McDonald's never existed, we would have had fewer stores than we have. They've gone to so many places and gotten people into the habit of going out to eat and that opens the door for us to grow."

The ingredients of Subway's success are varied. The chain operates an almost pure franchisee model, where local entrepreneurs open and manage their own branches. They can hire and fire as they please and set opening hours, and in return for paying fees, everything else is seen to by headquarters, including marketing and setting menu choices. Subway has also earned a reputation for opening up in unorthodox places, such as the US Air Base in Bagram in Afghanistan, a church in Buffalo, a riverboat in Germany and an aluminium smelting plant in New Zealand. Subways are common in air terminals, petrol station convenience outlets and even the occasional pet-shop. If you cannot spot it, open your nostrils.

One of the more dubious gifts from Subway to humanity is the toxic aroma of their part-baked breads browning themselves in the on-site ovens.

Nothing symbolises the chain's appetite for daring -- or at least for free publicity -- than the decision last year to attach a Subway shop to the scaffolding of One World Trade, the new skyscraper under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan.



POD

As the structure grows towards its eventual zenith of 105 floors, so the Subway, built inside a pod that is really a shipping container, will rise, supplying sandwiches to steelworkers who otherwise would have to make the trip back to earth for sustenance.

The chain has benefited also from the growing health consciousness of consumers.

It tries to underscore a commitment to healthy eating, sponsoring the TV show The Biggest Loser.

hnews@herald.ie