Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Not an underground sensation
Sandwich chain bites at coffee market, achieves adequate parity
Passing by it over and over again in Hillcrest, I’ve had the same thoughts as most people. Chiefly, what the heck is a Subway Cafe?
I mean, I had my ideas (which proved not too far off), but I am always fascinated when big outfits like Subway or McDonald’s make these lateral developments and explorations of new territory, sometimes almost at random.
It’s not a huge cognitive leap to figure out that the Subway Cafe sells coffee in addition to the submarine sandwiches that have made the chain so successful. It even says so right on the awning, “CAPPUCCINO,” in bold letter not to be missed. Inside, I dare say it’s a touch Starbucks-y! There is a bunch of weird stuff going on inside. A crystalline partition divides the “dining room” and the brick wall at the easterly end of the room is a fireplace short of being a cozy nook for breakfasting. The too-small cardboard Michael Phelps holding a too-large sandwich is a bit strange. But, hey, it’s a Subway. What else is to be expected but celebrity endorsements?
In terms of Sandwiches, the Cafe is identical to any other Subway. They’re OK. I’m not crazy about Subway, but I’ll take it in a pinch. I know a guy who swears by their cookies and I must agree that the cookies at Subway are actually pretty good. Being able to have a cup of coffee to go with them is cool, too.
The coffee comes out of a commercial-grade, automatic machine. The employees just have to hit the right button, “medium latte” or whatever, and it gets dispensed right into the cup. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same machine that Starbucks uses in some of their stores, because there can’t be that many suppliers for such equipment. Seattle's Best coffee (which is being brewed at Subway) is a subsidiary of Starbucks, but I can't say just how this business deal works out on paper. Perhaps the two companies have found a way to share the pie amongst themselves? For my money, the coffee was adequate and virtually indistinguishable from ‘Bucks or the average coffee shop. Not much to be said about it, really. They had both hot and cold drinks, some of which were bigtime sugar bombs (caramel lattes, etc.) and the pricing was in the $2-$5 range for every drink.
The reason I am interested in a sandwich chain trying to muscle in on the coffee business is because it reflects how certain very smart people in the industry think. Somewhere out there, the Subway brain trust looked at the market and decided there was possibly room for Subway to get into the coffee business. Now, I won’t go and say that those same people don’t make some very foolish decisions, but for the most part the think tanks that come up with ideas of powerful restaurant chains are pretty savvy in terms of knowing what the people want. I think it’s still up in the air whether Subway Cafe is just another New Coke, or if it’s something we will see more of in the future.
440 West Washington Street