Fresh Food and Friendly Faces
Subway of Alaska celebrates thirty years
In March Subway of Alaska announced a new partnership with On the Menu, a local delivery service; customers can how have Subway delivered fresh to their home or office.
Credit: Subway of Alaska
This year Subway of Alaska celebrates thirty years in the Last Frontier. Throughout those thirty years, in addition to providing a healthy dining option at locations throughout the state, Subway has invested in people and education in communities large and small.
In 2017 and 2018 Subway of Alaska made several announcements including new locations, renovated stores, new technology, and new food options, establishing that—even as the company looks back at three decades of Alaska history—it’s moving forward.
In August the company announced a Subway restaurant opening in Utqiaġvik, making it the northern-most Subway in the United States. Subway of Alaska’s President Steve Adams, who (with his mother, Bobbie Scribner) brought the franchise to Alaska in 1988, says, “For twenty years I’ve been trying to get somebody to go in Barrow [and set up a Subway franchise location].” While in the past some investors were interested in opening an Utqiagvik location, Adams wanted a local owner/operator who also wanted to be a part of the community. The Arctic Subway is co-owned by Utqiaġvik local John Masterson and Anchorage resident Ed Foster. “They fit all the criteria, not just the money side,” Adams explains.
Subway in Alaska
Subway of Alaska owns and operates the majority of the Subway restaurants in Anchorage and Eagle River, and the Girdwood Subway is co-owned by Adams and Subway of Alaska Vice President Chris Wilson. In the Anchorage area, there are eighteen Subways owned and operated by the Anchorage School District. Adams says, “Years ago we used to sell sandwiches to [the school district]. Every year they’d come to us looking for cheaper prices; this made it difficult to keep our model. Finally we said: Why don’t you become a franchisee?”
It’s a unique relationship. “The problem is almost every new superintendent doesn’t realize they’re the owners,” laughs Wilson. “[But] they get advantages from being a franchisee. It helps their profitability.”
The other Alaska Subways are owned and operated by franchisees located across the state in places such as Nome, Juneau, and Ketchikan. In fact, this year Subway of Mat-Su is celebrating twenty-five years of operations, and Subway of Sitka has logged twenty years in their market.
Including the new Utqiaġvik location, there are eighty-four Subway restaurants in the state, and they have an impact on every community in which they operate. In a community such as Utqiaġvik, which has a population of just more than 4,000 people, sixteen new jobs being introduced to the area—and filled by locals—makes a big difference.
In Anchorage (including JBER), Eagle River, and Girdwood alone, Subway of Alaska employs 340 people, and Adams says on average each of the rural Subway locations have ten or twelve employees year-round, often ramping up hiring to accommodate seasonal fluctuations.
“I think we have some of the better franchisees,” Adams says. “Our franchisees are in Bethel, Utqiaġvik, and Nome—off the road system; we need to pick people who are a little more independent.” While that independence is important, Subway of Alaska supports franchisees in several ways to make sure every Subway in the state finds success.
Alaska Subway franchisees do have a unique ability to make decisions to suit their market. Wilson explains, “Probably one of the smartest moves that I’ve seen over the years is how Steve [Adams] set up the state: we're compared a lot to Hawaii in terms of distribution, [but] if you go to Hawaii they might have three or four markets that collect money to spend locally. However, every city within the state of Alaska has its own market fund. It means they can spend local dollars themselves. We don't dictate to them—they come up with the strategic ways to incorporate the community… We've got thirteen or fourteen markets, and their money stays right there where that franchise needs to spend it.”
Adams says, “Part of our philosophy is you live in a neighborhood, you’re part of the neighborhood. We really push our franchisees when they start up to get involved in the community.” Subway of Alaska Statewide Director of Marketing Dee Buchanon adds, “We talk about what they want to do in their community with their advertising dollars.”
“The whole marketing portfolio is set up within the city advertising markets—you won’t find that template anywhere else in the country,” Wilson says. One distinct advantage of this system is that local franchisees have money for community engagement outside of marketing including supporting local causes and nonprofit organizations.
Subway of Alaska sets the example. In February the company gave a check for $7,600 (a fraction of the tens of thousands of dollars donated in total) to the Children’s Hospital at Providence Health & Services Alaska; that money came from proceeds donated from their Anchorage Subway restaurants. The company supports its neighbors through a multitude of partnerships, including walks/runs, sports teams and programs, fishing derbies, art and culture events, and local chambers of commerce.
In particular, Subway of Alaska invests in education. It built School Business Partnerships with five elementary schools: Abbott Loop Elementary, Government Hill Elementary, Susitna Elementary, Girdwood Elementary, and Eagle River Elementary. Wilson says, “The partnership is not just handing [the schools] coupons—at the end of the school year we want to know who we impacted, which is the students, but we also support the staff as well. Teachers are our unsung heroes.” Buchanon adds, “We’ve come up with a written program with the schools… that we measure from year to year. We can actually see an increase in attendance as a result of the program. It's really rewarding.”
New Look, New Technology
In February, Subway of Alaska announced that the Anchorage Subway restaurant located at 9000 Lake Otis Parkway was being replaced by a new restaurant (built by general contractor H. Watt & Scott) that opened next door at 8936 Lake Otis. This Subway is the first location to feature Subway’s new major redesign, which the company hasn’t done in nearly twenty years. Subway is phasing out the rustic brick and subway car design in favor of a look inspired by the company’s fresh vegetables: brighter colors, more and better lighting, and streamlined furniture.
One practical new design feature is the fresh vegetable display, which is a visual signal to guests that all Subway locations cut and process their vegetables on location—this process and focus on freshness is not new, but a well-established part of Subway’s model of which many guests were unaware.
Wilson explains that all of the food products Subway uses are a “gold standard” product, and subway employees or owners are not permitted to buy vegetables or meats from local vendors. “Because Subway puts so much emphasis on food safety, it’s set up so that if there is ever an issue, the recall method is so quick that we can pull it immediately. That’s one of the reasons they frown on buying, say, tuna fish, locally,” he says. Quality of food, and safety, is paramount.
In terms of technology, the Lake Otis location now features a touch screen drive-thru, which as far as Adams knows is the first of its kind in Alaska. The touch screen raises or lowers to suit the height of any vehicle. If guests enter their phone number, the ordering system will remember their order and pull it up on their next visit, if they choose. There’s still a speaker in the drive-thru through which Subway staff provide assistance or answer questions, but guests can order several sandwiches, beginning to end, without talking to anyone. Adams says the new touch screen drive-thru is doing well. “At first guests pull up and they’re used to someone saying, ‘Hi, welcome to Subway,’ and new customers will pause for a second, trying to figure out why no one is saying hi. But we have the speaker, so if employees see a delay they can instruct customers.”
The new Subway also has an indoor kiosk guests can choose to use instead of waiting in line. They enter their order on the touch screen and then can pick up their meal at a designated pick-up window, which is next to the traditional sandwich line.
Unique to the new Lake Otis Subway, USB ports and electric outlets have been incorporated throughout the restaurant for guest use. Much of the equipment in the kitchen has been upgraded; for example, new ovens can proof and bake the bread all in one simple process, which saves time and prevents the likelihood of mishaps.
The new design also focuses on being eco-friendly. Adams says that the average Subway store uses 4,000 watts of lighting, but the new design only requires 1,000 watts. “Everything is LED,” he says. Many of the new appliances are more efficient in water consumption. Wilson says, “Our wall coverings were made with 34 percent recyclable content, and the molding is made with 90 percent recyclable materials. Subway has worked hard in producing this new Fresh Forward look.”
Lake Otis is the first in the Fresh Forward look, but soon other Subway locations in Anchorage will feature the new design. However, not every Subway can have a drive-thru, and space is a concern for the indoor kiosk requirements. Adams says, “Our goal is to evaluate our restaurants; we’re considering moving a few.” Wilson adds, “Things change. Where you put a restaurant twenty years ago might not necessary be the best place now.”
Delivery, Catering, and Service
In March, Subway of Alaska announced it entered into a partnership with locally-owned delivery company called On the Menu. Customers can open an account at 562menu.com and have Subway delivered to a home or office in the Anchorage metro area and JBER. “On the Menu is delivery done right,” says On the Menu Manager Skyler Lovelace. “Order when you’re hungry or schedule your delivery hours even days in advance.”
Adams says Subway of Alaska’s next big push is to move more into catering. “We’re a lot less expensive than a lot of catering companies,” and catering is available statewide through every Subway restaurant. In March Subway introduced a new line of signature wraps and added two Signature Wrap Platters to their catering menu.
Amidst all the changes, the consistent theme for Subway of Alaska is a focus on fresh food and on customers. Adams credits his mother, Bobbie Scribner, as the driving force behind the friendly, service-first mindset of Subway in Alaska. “Mom was one of those people that didn’t know a stranger. She’d be sitting in the dining area with someone at the table. I was focused on getting stores built, and she was great with customer service.”
It was her influence that led to Subway’s “three second rule,” where within three seconds of entering the store all guests are greeted and welcomed. When Subway’s founder, Fred DeLuca, visited Alaska many years ago, he believed the Subway employees who were quick to say hello were putting on a show to impress him. “I told him no; my mother has had that Southern hospitality charm all her life and instilled it to all her children, which is reflected in our customer service,” Adams says. That three second greeting, which started in Alaska, has become a national Subway policy.
Thirty years ago Alaska was in the midst of an oil crisis, and people told Adams he was crazy to open a brand new franchise. He was convinced that fresh ingredients and fresh baked bread would fill a niche in Alaska, and three decades of growth agree with him.