Americans love sandwiches, especially for lunch. And, while of course a sandwich is easy to make at home, when lunch rolls around people often turn to a deli or a national sandwich chain for a quick bite. In 2022, Subway, Panera Bread and Arby’s dominated sandwich chain sales in the United States, serving billions of dollars worth of sandwiches. But these three weren’t always ahead of the pack. Other chains once dominated the sandwich world, but eventually they were pushed out or disappeared altogether.
When someone orders a relatively expensive sandwich and it ends up being mediocre or not worth the price, chances are they’ll tell someone about it or, worse, spread the word on social networks. This word of mouth, coupled with an unfortunate economic downturn and industry shortages, can lead to poor sales and eventual restaurant closures.
Here are some of the biggest sandwich chains in America that started out with great success but recently failed to meet customer expectations in all areas.
Au Bon Pain was once THE fresh new sandwich shop and bakery duo on the block. The chain grew strongly throughout the 1970s, with tons of East Coast locations in New York and Hackensack, NJ. But a change of ownership in the early 1990s gave birth to Au Bon Pain’s biggest competitor.
As Au Bon Pain was apparently a success, partners Louis Kane and Rob Shaich decided to acquire the Saint Louis Bread Company and set up a similar business model, bakery business reported. The new company was known and appreciated by everyone today: Panera Bread. Fast forward to 2017 and Panera sales skyrocketed as Au Bon Pain locations began to disappear or be converted into Panera stores.
If in 2021, Au Bon Pain saw its sales increase by 17% compared to 2020, the chain is still not out of the woods. It was still down 43% from its pre-pandemic activity. The cafe-bakery now operates a modest 123 locations in the United States, which is only half of the more than 200 stores it had a decade ago.
Taylor Gourmet made a name for itself in the Washington, D.C. area with high-quality hoagies at competitive prices and enjoyed great success in the 2010s. However, the chain shocked its fans when it closed its 19 sites in 2018, seemingly overnight. It then filed for bankruptcy when one of its main investors pulled out of the business.
And while its owner blamed growing competition and a bid for rapid expansion for the downfall, there were rumors that the chain’s customers soured on the business due to the owner’s political affiliations.
A year later, and under new management, the channel began the takeover process. It currently operates just four locations in Washington, DC, a far cry from its glory days.
Believe it or not, just 15 years ago, Quiznos was among the biggest chains in the whole world. American malls most often housed Quiznos locations, but the chain seems to have lost its customer base in the same way as these large malls.
In 2007, Quiznos had 4,700 sites operating worldwide. Today, it operates less than 200. So, while not officially dead yet, Quiznos certainly appears to be on a downward spiral.
What happened? In short, the chain seems to have had a bad business model, which left too few gains for franchise owners. According to reports, the company has pursued rapid expansion at the expense of its franchisees while forcing them to purchase food and paper products at a cost above the industry average. Many owners quickly became frustrated with the low profits and poor treatment and left.
There was also a takeover that left the company hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, and that happened just before the Great Recession of 2008. Of course, the rise of Subway, now the most largest sandwich chain in the world, didn’t help. The perfect storm of debt, shrinking profits and a very big new competitor have sadly left Quiznos in the dust.
Before the glitz and glamor of the sandwich world, before Charles Barkley and Simone Biles touted Subway on the national airwaves, there was Blimpie, one of the first chains to focus on the sub-sandwich and have a big hit. It opened its first location in Hoboken, NJ in 1964.
Before Quiznos was ousted by Subway, Blimpie was ousted by Quiznos. The sandwich industry is clearly not for the faint of heart. Despite growing to over 1,000 locations worldwide by the turn of the millennium, competitors like Subway, Quiznos, and Jimmy Johns began pushing Blimpie off the board. To date, the chain operates only 156 locations across the country.
This once up-and-coming Dallas-based sandwich shop opened in 2003 to huge success. He was known for his unique ordering system where the customer writes what they want on the paper bag that will eventually contain their sandwich.
Unfortunately, Which Wich has seen a massive decline in locations and popularity. In 2017, the brand operated over 500 locations, and today that number has been cut in half.
The pandemic is often cited as the main reason for the channel’s weakening and it has never recovered. Declining foot traffic and labor shortages have been the final nail in the coffin of his establishments, according to one franchise owner.
A version of this story was originally published on September 28, 2022. It has been updated to include new information.
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