Okay, so I was in Quiznos the other day and I noticed they had this poster up advertising a new sub: The Chicken Milano. From what I could tell, it had mozza, a “three cheese blend” (so isn’t that like a four cheese blend in the end?), basil pesto sauce, some kind of tomato sauce, chicken (of course) and onions. It looked pretty good and I had already decided to order it, but when I got to the bottom of the poster something caught my eye. It said, “The best chicken sub you’ve ever had or your money back”.
Whaaaa? Is that for real?
I mean, could I actually take a few bites of this sub, and then go up to the counter and demand my money back? How would that go down? Would I go all apologetically?
“Um, excuse me. Um, yes, well this sub was pretty good, but I don’t think it was the best chicken sub I’ve ever had. I do recall having a slightly better time with a greek chicken sub in Calgary about four years ago. But I don’t want you to feel bad about this. It’s not you, really. It’s me. I’m the one with the problem. We can still be friends, right?”
Or would I go aggressive?
“Look, asshole. I thought I ordered a chicken sub, but you passed off this piece of garbage and now you think I’m gonna eat it? Screw you! Where’s my money?”
Or maybe play mind games?
“Hey. Yeah you. I want you to take a bite of this sub and I want YOU to tell ME what you think. Tell me why I’m going to ask for my money back in a minute….”
Well, as it turned out, I didn’t do any of those, you’ll be happy to know, reader. I sat happily and enjoyed my Chicken Milano thoroughly and then headed off to work.
As I was eating, my mind wandered a bit to the way things used to be in the sub world in this town. Back in the day, you knew where you stood in the sub chain business. There were really only two viable choices. You had Subway, and you had Quiznos. (Yes, I hear your protestations: what about Mr. Sub? Well, we all know Mr. Sub was not a legitimate business, but rather a front for people who liked to DEAL DRUGS! At least the one in my neighbourhood was that way. There was never anyone inside it, even at lunch time, and yet the lights were on at all hours and there was always something a bit…..hinky about the whole operation.) And I’m not going to even talk about Blimpie, which either only existed in my mind, or lasted for such a short a time in this town is not even worth mentioning.
But I digress. You had Subway and you had Quiznos. Subway came first. You went in there, you chose your bread, you chose the type of sub you wanted and then you chose your toppings and sauces and that was that. Does anyone remember when they would cut the bread like a little trench? Or how about those glory days of the seafood and crab? Oh man, I still get the seafood and crab cravings now and again. The key was that it was customer driven. Sure, the guy behind the counter was a sandwich artist, but you were the one commissioning the fucking art. You had it the way you wanted and that was that.
Then everything changed when Quiznos came along. The hallmark of Quiznos is their toasted subs. The sandwich gets partially assembled at one end, and then it goes through a huge conveyor belt toaster and gets finished on the other side. The beautiful thing about early Quiznos was that they told you what toppings came on each sub. You order this one, you get lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, you order that one, you get red onions and black olives. No questions asked, no substitutions. Of course, I’m sure if you were allergic to something or if you really hated something, you could ask to have it left off, but the spirit of Quiznos was that they knew better than you what tasted good together. I had in my mind a lab somewhere, a test kitchen, where everyone was wearing white lab coats, and all they did in there all day was try out different combinations of bread, cheese, meat, toppings and sauces and determined what was the most delicious. I loved the idea that you just ordered a sub and there it was at the end of the conveyor belt, ready for you. You didn’t have to think about it. I also loved that they had pickles, jalapenos, hot sauce and extra mustard and sub sauce next to the drink table, so you could customize it after the fact if you wanted. I always stuck extra mustard on there because I could.
But the arrival of Quiznos was a threat to Subway, and before too long, Subway changed how they did things. In every single store, they installed a toasting oven. It’s not part of the actual flow of sandwich prep, and there’s often a bottle neck if you want to get your sub toasted. I tried this once, and never again. I think we can all agree that Subway’s bread is kind of gross. It’s unnatural and pre-fabby and is barely tolerable as a vessel to hold the meat, but we eat it and don’t think too much about it. Just like we don’t think too much about the fact that there’s probably really no difference between the choice of cheese they offer. I mean, they look the same, they taste the same, so why pretend? So the bread is passable, but if you stick it in one of those giant toasters, it actually becomes inedible. I don’t know what kind of chemical reaction happens to the bread molecules when they get hot, but the bread turns into some kind of cement-like substance that scratches the roof of your mouth when you try to eat it. All this because Quiznos invented a better, more natural way to toast bread. You’ll never see me eating a toasted Subway sub. No way!
But Subway wasn’t the only one affected by the competition. In the last few months at Quiznos, I was saddened to see that after the sub comes out of the conveyor belt, the customer is asked if there were any additional topping he/she would like added to their sub. The first time this happened I thought it was a mistake being made by a rookie staff person. “Oh no, no thanks. I think I’ll take the sub just the way you’d have me have it!” I cheerfully said to the naive employee. I thought to myself, “Just wait until her supervisor hears her customizing sub orders. She’s going to get into TROUBLE.” I almost had a word with her, but I thought why rock the boat? Well, the next time I was in, the joke was on me, because not only was I asked if I wanted to add anything to the sub, there was a little sticker on the sneeze-guard encouraging me to choose any of the following toppings with wee pictures of each one. I died a little that day, but I did ask for cucumbers (for health!) but it didn’t seem right. If the Quiznos scientists didn’t endorse a topping, who am I to second guess them? Oh, and since we’re on the topic of complaining, the “large” sub has significantly shrunk in size over the last decade and the extra mustard is no longer available at my local shop.
So you’ve got Subway trying to toast their bread to be a little bit more like Quiznos and failing miserably, and you’ve got Quiznos letting the customer decide on the toppings to be a little bit more like Subway, and looking a large part of what made them great, and you’ve got the customer caught in between, with less of a clear choice than what existed ten years ago. This is my life, people.
As I was finishing up my Chicken Milano sub, I couldn’t resist. I went back up to the counter and asked the guy how often they’ve had someone demand their money back.
“I haven’t had a single one. Not while I’ve been working, anyway,” he said.
“Well that doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “Because this sandwich is delicious. Anyone that has a problem with this sandwich is just being a jerk.”
Then I had a thought, “Does the guarantee apply for just the Chicken Milano, or is it good for any of your chicken subs?”
He just looked at me blankly like I was crazy, and I realized this is the most I’ve ever talked to a Quiznos employee in my life and it was getting kind of uncomfortable. I didn’t want to burn any bridges. Sure, the subs are a little smaller, the prices are a little higher, the loss of the extra mustard is a real bummer and the democratization of the toppings is heart-breaking, but I still like it here, and they have free wifi.