The Green Goddess Tuna Melt. It’s the newest sandwich on sale at Subway now. And while it might not sound delicious to you–it certainly doesn’t to me–it’s tested with consumers as one of the most successful subs Subway has created in years. And it represents a new way the company is working to break out of a multi-year rut by working with the modern food publishing brand Tastemade.
When you think Subway, your mind probably goes to the $5 footlong jingle (RIP). Turkey sandwiches. Meatball sandwiches. The Italian BMT. These mainstays have helped Subway best even McDonald’s as the most popular fast food franchise in the world. But the past few years have been tough for the company. One problem was that Subway–which owns none of its own stores–had over-franchised itself, creating so many Subways that they competed with one another. So as of January 2019 it has closed 2,305 locations since its peak in 2015. It closed 1,100 just last year. The other problem was that fancier, fast-casual sandwich chains–including Jimmy John’s, Potbelly, and Firehouse Subs–began to take a bite out of the $30 billion U.S. sandwich chain market.
To compete, Subway knows it needs to expand beyond the old mainstay subs the company is known for. “What we’ve been hearing from our guests consistently is they’re hungry for bolder flavor options,” says Len Van Popering, vice president of global brand management and innovation at Subway. Instead of being defined merely as the healthiest fast-food option, Subway wants to be a little bit more craveable. It’s a fine line to walk. Fast food is struggling as consumers are increasingly eschewing red meat (even bacon!). So how do you go viral without creating the next Double Down?
So in 2018, it formed an exclusive partnership with the food publishing company Tastemade–not to make sponsored content in some typical media partnership–but to, essentially, make sponsored subs. Tastemade is mining its own insights, born for the 300 million monthly engagements it has with readers on recipes on its site and videos on Facebook, and putting them on a bun. Maybe that sounds vague; to publishers, it’s not. Publishers have an intimate understanding of the types of content people want to read about (just see how often Fast Company writes about why open office plans stink!). Tastemade’s initiative seems to be the first of its kind, but it is reminiscent of how Buzzfeed’s Tasty food brand sells its own ice-cream flavors in a deal with Nestlé.
The first Tastemade products have just hit stores for the month of April, and both are tuna subs. One is the Tuna BLT (which is exactly what it sounds like–a tuna sub with bacon, lettuce, and tomato). The other is the aforementioned Green Goddess Tuna Melt, which is a toasted tuna sub with mozzarella cheese, spinach, tomatoes, onions, and green goddess dressing.
Anyone who has eaten a salad in the last five years has probably been green goddessed to death already. It’s perhaps the greatest branded dressing in history–exuding a combination of wellness and female empowerment–that seems to have made its way to every cute lunch café on the planet (even though the dressing has a surprisingly racist origin story). With an ever-interpreted flavor that’s not quite as predictable as a ranch, it often has your typical fat-meets-acid base of mayo, oil, and lemon, but a variety of herbs and greens can be blended in to give it a green glow that exudes health. It’s perfect for Instagram, and it often tastes truly delicious.
It wasn’t so obvious to Subway, though, that green goddess was a thing–not before Tastemade could point to the historical growth of the number of engagements with green goddess in its own data from its site and social. “Prior to working [with Tastemade], we didn’t have green goddess on our radar,” admits Van Popering. Perhaps hearing the surprise in my voice, he later clarified that trendspotting with a massive corporation that answers to shareholders and franchisees is a bit different from doing it casually as an individual. “If you look at the [fast-food] industry itself, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone serving green goddess on a sandwich. Maybe there are occasions on a salad,” he says.
So what did Tastemade do? It offered an outside perspective. As a publisher, Tastemade isn’t guessing at trends. It gathers, from the performance of every post, recipe, and video, across social media, what foods are in, and what foods are out. Because each of these pieces of content are tagged with words like “sriracha” and “eggs,” it’s a relatively straightforward process to both spot and quantify trends as they come in.
“Trends in food often appear on social space first,” says Jeff Imberman, head of sales and brand partnerships at Tastemade. “It’s usually a good year and change ahead of where you see it explode in the actual marketplace.”
Subway started from a point that it knew it wanted to do something new around tuna–which is actually one of its three most popular sandwiches at Subway already (making Subway one of the largest buyers of tuna worldwide). Tastemade produced a list of potential food pairings for tuna, and green goddess seemed like a standout. Subway chefs then worked with the concept, homing in on a flavor for the dressing, and figuring out if it could work at the scale of tens of thousands of restaurants. Along the way, the concept was also presented to, and taste-tested with, Subway customers.
“What we’ve found through this first wave of ideas [from Tastemade] . . . they’ve been scoring among the top 20% of all the sandwiches the brand has been testing over the past five years,” says Van Popering. “We are seeing when consumers even hear of the idea, there’s an immediate, emotional reaction. And ultimately that’s where the magic happens. That’s one reason we’re so bullish.”
Only now are the first fruits of the paid Tastemade partnership coming to market, but Subway is convinced it has a hit on its hands, having seen a few weeks of early rollouts nationwide–so much so that the Green Goddess Tuna Melt could become a year-round fixture at Subway. Meanwhile, Subway and Tastemade have expanded their agreement to an exclusive that will last years into the future. And Tastemade is looking at its global market data, like Latin America and Europe, to figure out Subway’s next Green Goddess Tuna Melt moment.
For the past several years, fine dining has been appropriating fast food. Burgers are now a mainstay inside the fanciest, most experimental restaurants around the U.S. Rarely do you see this go the other way around. Fast food tends to emulate fast food, stacking more meat onto a bun in the towering push for innovation. Perhaps the Tastemade partnership represents a path to a more dignified fast food, in which restaurants don’t just try to make the irresistible foods we crave, but feed us the types foods we aspire to eat. Even if that’s just green mayo dressing atop a scooped pile of tuna.