Subway’s recognizable yellow color scheme and logo are the brainchild of Dick Pilchen. The 71-year-old was the first employee with the company, hired to help market the fledgling concept at the request of founders Fred DeLuca and Dr. Peter Buck.
Pilchen is now a multi-unit operator of Subway, co-owning five stores throughout Massachusetts. He anticipates opening at least five more with his business partner within the next five-plus years, and even forgoing retirement to work in a Subway store.
Pilchen’s experience within the company runs deep – starting as a marketing consultant, moving to franchising director, then marketing director, marketing vice president and, currently, profit consultant and franchisee.
“It really is like a family operation here. People stay with the company for years and we all feel as though we’re part of a team,” Pilchen said. “I love my job just as much as I did when we started.”
Getting Subway started
Subway – now the largest single restaurant brand in the world – used to be called Pete’s Subs (after Buck, who gave DeLuca the start up money in the hopes of turning enough profit to pay for a college education). The first four units were all-white, with few design elements and no catchy emblems. In the beginning, then-Pete’s Famous Footlong Sandwiches sold for 69 cents.
Things may not have changed so much had it not been for Pilchen’s creative input. He remembers the formative years well, including the official Aug. 28, 1965 opening date of the very first restaurant in Connecticut.
At the time, Pilchen was working a company desk job during the day and writing ads for a Buffalo, N.Y.-based sandwich chain, promoting bands and working radio spots on the side. Knowing about his ad-writing experience, Buck and DeLuca approached him on how to get the word out about their new concept.
“I was never thrilled with the name, but I wanted to help them out and see how far we could take it,” Pilchen said. “We were just young guys looking for opportunities to grow. I thought if I helped, what’s the worst that can happen?”
Subway finds college niche
On the first day of business, Subway sold 312 sandwiches. As business grew, Pilchen continued to work his day job, but admits to spending more time sneaking in work for Pete’s Subs with the company’s office equipment. Eventually, the small team decided to aggressively market toward a college crowd and, upon Pilchen’s suggestion, changed the name, logo and design. The Subway name was first used in 1968 when the fifth unit opened.
“I wanted a hipper name and décor since we were going after that younger crowd. Fred is originally from Brooklyn, so I joked about naming it Subway. He liked it. So, we had the new name and the brown and yellow design and the logo in place by the time we opened our fifth store,” Pilchen said.
Subway expanded throughout college towns in Connecticut, advertising cheaply on late-night radio courtesy of Pilchen’s connections. When a store opened across the state, in Wellingford, things started to get a little overwhelming for the small team.
“(Wellingford) was further than what we were used to traveling, but Fred wanted to keep going. He has always been a big thinker,” he said. The group took a page from McDonald’s and began franchising. In 1974, they signed on friend Brian Dixon to be the company’s first franchisee.
Franchising takes the company throughout the country and beyond
The first Subway unit to open outside of Connecticut was in Massachusetts in 1975. Shortly thereafter, DeLuca named Pilchen as franchise director.
“We didn’t have a plan to grow, we just went wherever the action was,” Pilchen said. “I wound up traveling all over, selling franchises to people who liked Subway in Connecticut but moved to other places.”
Seeds were planted, he added, by tapping into that college crowd, since most left the state eventually and were eager to take the brand with them. The growth took off internationally in 1984, when Subway’s first overseas unit opened in Bahrain. Pilchen was then asked to test more potential territories abroad, which is when he started to realize how big the concept was getting.
“When I went to Russia and walked into this strange place and didn’t understand the language, I saw the Subway logo on the side of a building and it was very emotional,” he said. “I had no clue it would get to this point. Knowing Fred, I’m not surprised, but it is still all very special.”
A focus on healthy eating
Although Subway has grown far and fast, Pilchen said the biggest change since that opening day in August 1965 was its shift in focus to healthier items in 1999-2000. When Chicago area resident Jared Fogle began a self-imposed weight loss journey, he tried eating Subway’s lower-calorie options every day. The initiative worked and he pitched his story to the Subway chain as a marketing idea.
“The board voted it down at first, so he went to a Chicago franchisee and a local advertising agency went with it,” Pilchen said. “The sales in that area went up 20 percent after the campaign. It came back to the national board and January 2000 was Jared’s first national commercial for the brand. In my opinion, this campaign is what changed everything. It put us on the map.”
Chains had healthier options at that time, but nobody was outwardly embracing the idea in a marketing strategy. Pilchen admits it was a risky move.
“There was a fine line as to whether it was exploiting Jared’s weight loss, but we believed the world was changing and people were starting to eat better. It was a pivotal time,” he said.
Although Fogle’s campaign was a game-changer, Pilchen’s favorite moments in his almost 50 years with the company are a bit more playful. One of his jobs included product placement of the brand, and he got a call to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a promotional partner for “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” in 1991, the same year the first Subway commercial aired on TV.
“This was at the height of (Schwarzenegger’s) career and he loved the Subway concept. He invited us to participate in his bodybuilding event in Columbus (Ohio) as a promotional partner after that and his connection to the brand really helped get the word out,” Pilchen said.
Subway’s products were also strategically placed in “Happy Gilmore,” which came out in 1996. Pilchen still has Chubbs Peterson’s fake hand from the movie.
The streaking stunt
A marketing guy by nature, Pilchen has been constantly thinking about promotional opportunities since the concept was started. His favorite idea came to him in the 1970s after reading a magazine article.
“I read in a publication – now, remember, this was in the 1970s and things were very different then – that streaking was becoming very popular on campuses around the country. I thought that would be a good idea for a promotion if I did radio spots after midnight,” Pilchen said.
The offer was simple: Customers who streaked into a Subway – quickly to grab a coupon – would earn a free sub. Pilchen said they were expecting 30 or so people to take advantage of the unusual offer.
“We gave away 367 subs that night. We gave away an ‘I streaked at Subway’ bumper sticker and everything,” he said. “It was amazing. I never thought we’d have that many. It showed a lot about our customers’ connection to the brand.”