Drive-thru Subway: a contradiction in transit…and in sandwiches.

The remote and rapidly depopulating town of Welch, West Virginia offers a handful of surprises: a remarkably intact and densely-built downtown with a fair share of four, five and even six-story buildings; a functioning Episcopal church; and a three-screen movie theater.IMG_9585But since I’m far more intrigued by the banal, the one image that really struck me was the local franchise of a Subway restaurant.Drive-thru Subway in Welch, WVLet’s view this installation from the other direction.A drive-thru Subway?  Ever heard of this before?

 

It’s a drive-thru Subway, or a walk-thru. However one chooses to approach it, it allows for remote ordering. The actual restaurant is there in the distance: a functionally separate wing abutting a gas station. Perhaps I don’t get out much, but I’ve never seen this before.

In the spirit of my previous blog article on pay phones, I’ve come across another anomaly, except this isn’t so much an incarnation of obsolete technology as it is a widespread practice that never really aligned with this particular brand. Obviously numerous fast food restaurants derive a huge portion of their revenue from drive-thru orders. Banking and pharmacies took up the practice decades ago. But, despite operating a location in the most rural and obscure locations—places like Welch—Subway has not embraced this modern convenience in the least.

Why? It doesn’t require a great deal of thought. Unlike Burger King or Wendy’s, Subway sandwiches aren’t pre-made, and the ordering process is highly visual. The customer looks through the glass partition and lists or points to the toppings he or she prefers in the sandwich: veggies, cheeses, condiments. So each sandwich is made to order. This also forces a delay that would make drive-thru ordering typically laborious, no doubt exacerbated by Subway’s more recent practice of toasting its bread (in response to increasing competition from the now nearly defunct Quiznos). My suspicion is that most locations couldn’t pull off a drive-thru Subway, but Welch—having dipped below 2,000 people and with no larger community nearby for miles—doesn’t exactly ever face problems of crowd control.

At least until recently, Subway was the quiet powerhouse: a brand less splashy and a quieter ad campaign than McDonald’s, but the restaurant itself had considerably more locations. A town like Welch cannot support a McDonald’s, but a Subway is a fairly predictable fixture. I’m not sure Subway is ranked number one anymore—it’s faced some of the same challenges as most other restaurant chains in recent years—but, then again, I can’t think of what would have dethroned it. And, despite being more prevalent, Subway is actually fundamentally a more upscale restaurant concept than Burger King or McDonald’s; after all, the basic ordering practice allows complete customization of the sandwiches. It’s a precursor to the fast-casual approach popularized nationwide through chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle, both of which feature higher price points than conventional fast food, and neither of which typically offer drive-thru ordering as well, for the same reasons as Subway.

These distinctions may seem slight, but they have revolutionized the restaurant industry the same way McDonald’s did more than a half-century ago…and now McDonald’s is feeling the pinch. After all, I don’t know if a town Welch’s size and economic fortune can support more than a couple restaurants. Here’s the fate of the sit-down family establishment across the road.IMG_9553Who needs McDonald’s at this point, when there’s a KFC down the street? And a drive-thru Subway?

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15 thoughts on “Drive-thru Subway: a contradiction in transit…and in sandwiches.

  1. Stephen Padre

    It’s kind of ironic that its very name is about transportation, yet, as you say, its style of ordering doesn’t lend itself to a form of transportation (other than foot traffic). As long as we’re going down that road, have you ever seen a Subway in a subway station?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      I can’t say I have…but it may be that I’ve never really looked. I tend to gravitate toward the sandwich shop during long road trips, because (as indicated by my visit to Welch) you can find them even towns too small to support a McDonald’s!

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Living the dream. I enjoy visiting areas that could best be described as “demographic outliers”.

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    The Subway across the street from my office moved from the middle of a first-floor commercial strip under offices, to a new strip mall next door…so that they could have an end-cap and drive-thru.

    This is relatively absurd to me, given that it’s in a place that probably has 5,000 people working within easy walking distance at lunchtime every day. I guess they wanted to make it more convenient for the several thousand community college students 3/4 mile away?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      I guess so. I have to believe, though, that one of the reasons we see so few Subway drive-thrus is that they don’t usually work that well. Part of the appeal that I think distinguishes a Subway from comparable fast food is that you get to witness your sandwich being made. Besides, the whole process takes longer, so I’d think a queue of even four cars would feel like a much longer wait than at a McDonald’s drive-thru.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        In light of other Hoosiers’ comments…this is at Fort Harrison in Lawrence. The next Subway south at 38th and Post has a drive-thru (and appears to have been built with one), but the next one west (at Pendleton Pike and 465) and two east (both off Pendleton near Sunnyside, one of which is inside Walmart) do not offer drive-thru despite being on a much higher-traffic route.

        I’d guess that maybe this will be part of their “shrinkage” strategy going forward: move to endcaps or free-standing buildings?

        Reply
  3. Linda Doggett Utter

    There’s a drive thru Subway east of Pendleton across from the Arrowhead truck stop. It’s been there neatly a decade.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for those details Linda. Sounds like there are a few of them out there. I figured this wasn’t the only one…

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        The infamous one that Indy urbanists love to hate (at the corner of Scioto and South in Indy) has a drive-thru also, owing to being just outside the (since expanded) Regional Center when built.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          I’ve always chalked those naughty little restaurants up to the same cultural forces that prompted a suburban Marriott Courtyard along the canal–it seemed like a good enough idea at the time, and we weren’t sure this whole “urban” thing was really going to catch on.

          That said, has that building (at least 15 years old by now, I’d assume) always hosted a Subway? I feel like it would have made sense to feature something else before hand. Which begs the question: even if drive-thru Subways aren’t completely unheard of, does corporate ever build one? Is it merely a preference of franchise owners? For that matter, does Subway ever build its own units? The idea of a free-standing building featuring only a Subway is rare on its own terms. I wouldn’t be surprised if, these days, nearly one-third of Subway franchises are co-located with gas stations.

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            I believe I have read that there are no company-owned Subways.

            Re South St.: the building appears on aerials in spring 2003 (exactly 15 years ago!), under construction. The drive-thru has always been there, and 2004 aerials show Subway signage…so it was purpose-built.

            My questioning of a Subway drive-thru is less about not seeing the sandwich made, and more about how one eats the sandwich in the car. I can manage Mickey D’s fries and a small burger one-handed while driving, but there’s no way I can do a Subway sandwich, flatbread, or wrap.

            So the drive-thru must be a concession to rushed America…gotta grab a sandwich and get back to the desk or jobsite?

            Reply
  4. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I’m more intrigued by Welch itself. To see such density (and nicely narrow streets) without a couple miles of typical small-town single-family neighborhoods surrounding it is fascinating. It’s a more European village/town development pattern but with American architecture. That’s super rare.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Good points, Jeffrey–nice to hear from you. At its peak in 1950, Welch had about 6,800 people–approximately 5,000 more than it does now. As for the density, I suspect it has much to do with the ultra-rugged West Virginia terrain. Like most towns in the state, it’s nestled within a river valley, and, as it grow, it couldn’t stretch out like a Midwestern grid. It’s more like a spider. Much of the outlying areas are just two streets: the collector road and the arterial that parallels it, 50 feet up a slope. And it forces the downtown to get far more packed than one would expect.

      Someday I’ll feature more pics of Welch in a more legitimate article. Until then, this amazing pic of the town at its peak may have to suffice: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welch,_West_Virginia#/media/File:Saturday_afternoon_street_scene._Welch,_McDowell_County,_West_Virginia._-_NARA_-_541004.jpg

      Reply

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