Subway Breakfast Experience Not Exactly a Wake-up Call

Chain Has Uphill Climb for Morning Daypart

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CHICAGO ( -- Subway announced last Friday that it would expand its test of Seattle's Best Coffee to 9,000 of its locations in an effort to drive morning business -- but it is going to have its work cut out for it if anecdotal evidence is any indication.

It's not just that Dunkin' Donuts responded by announcing a 500-store test of a breakfast dollar menu in Chicago. Or that, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, McDonald's will also offer a breakfast dollar menu come January.

Price isn't even the major hurdle. The biggest problem is getting people not to think only about $5 footlongs when they think of Subway. "To some extent to be successful, you have to be disrupt the consumer's behavior with a compelling reason to change it," said Darren Tristano or Technomic. "And price isn't an issue anymore because everything is cheap. It has to be about quality, freshness, or something different like oatmeal or an organic product."

Whether that can happen remains to be seen. But visits to Chicago-area restaurants show that can be difficult. Before you even consider Subway, think about Dunkin' Donuts, which has a hard enough time getting customers to shell out for something resembling a full breakfast. The place definitely thrives in the morning, selling coffee or a pumpkin latte to nearly every customer in the store. Of those spotted lining up for morning Joe, more than half of them paired it with a doughnut, munchkin or muffin. But only one in ten ordered any kind of breakfast sandwich.

Dunkin's morning dollar menu includes two small egg sandwiches, hashbrowns and a choice of several munchkins. The veggie egg-white flatbread, for $2.99, seemed to have been made to order. It was juicy and flavorful, with spicy cheese, crispy bread, and served as a healthy portion.

Five minutes later at Subway, which has yet to build awareness for its breakfast offerings, one customer ordered a veggie burger while an elderly woman, who appeared to be waiting for someone, looked out the window. Everyone else in the store was either working for Subway or Ad Age. The chain's breakfast offerings include egg-and-cheese, egg-and-ham, Western-omelet-with-ham, and egg-and-double bacon sandwiches on either a sub roll or flat bread.

Perhaps the most trying part of the experience is watching the "sandwich artist" pull a yellow, rubbery-looking disk from a warmer and fold it inside of a sub roll. We didn't expect farm-fresh eggs, but some things are better kept out of sight.

There's another odd moment when you're asked which toppings, many of which most consumers currently associate with their $5 footlongs. But it all ultimately winds up in a warm, 6- or 12-inch sandwich that's crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. But do the ends justify the means?

Mr. Tristano said it comes down to how far you can stretch your brand. "I can't think of too many submarine sandwich chains that have had success at breakfast," Mr. Tristano said. "Consumers don't seem to be gravitating to those locations, they're gravitating to the Dunkin's and Paneras in the bakery-café segment."

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