Subway is the largest franchise restaurant in the United States and also in the world. At some point, Subway became the most ubiquitous fast-food restaurant. In many small towns I have been to, the Subway is the only chain business present.
What is the most surprising about this is that Subway's spread never happened in a single moment. Compare this to the growth of chain pizza restaurants such as Domino's and Pizza Hut. Some of you might not believe this, but there was a time before pizza was an ever present part of American life. Pizza chains started up in the 1980s, with loudly announced promises that you could have a pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes! This was an aggressive and novel advertising campaign that put pizza front and center as a new, fun food choice, to the point that by the end of the 1990s, we had the Domino's Pizza mascot The Noid in his own video game, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles endorsed Pizza Hut.
I apologize for that tangent about the history of pizza, but it is relevant. At no point did Subway have a cute mascot (Jared Fogle, the man who lost weight and later was sent to prison for sexual molestation doesn't count, for several reasons). There were no Happy Meals, no tie-ins to animated movies, no edgy advertising campaigns. Subway was almost utilitarian in its approach to fast food dominance. It opened up unassuming restaurants until one day, you couldn't avoid eating at Subway. According to the timeline on their website, the 1000th location opened up in 1987, the 2000th in 1988, and the 5000th in 1990, an incredibly rapid growth. Its first national television advertisement only aired in 1991, meaning that the chain managed to quintuple in size in three years, without the help of a national "brand".
There is a pretty explanation for Subway's quick spread: compared to other franchise businesses, it requires less capital, less workers, and less training. Compared to a standard fast-food restaurant, which needs a full kitchen, which involves a larger size, more capital expense for equipment, more energy bills and insurance bills, a Subway franchise can usually fit in a smaller location, and needs only the bread oven and an oversized toaster. I invented this explanation just now, but apparently more reliable sources have documented it: it costs around $200,000 to open a Subway, as opposed to 2 million for McDonalds. And so, Subway pursued its r-strategy until it became commonplace, in every locale from cool urban neighborhoods, to university cafeterias, to suburban strip malls, to small towns, to airports and train stations.
I like Subway. I should be critical of any fast food, and I know that many of the claims of Subway, especially about the health of its food, are suspect. But as a person who has spent a lot of time traveling, it has also been a welcoming site to me, a place where I could get reliable fresh food. Yes, paying 5 dollars for a single serving of vegetables is not really an economic or health masterstroke, but it is better than the alternative. As a vegetarian, it is also often my only option while traveling. I have comforting memories of going to Subway when I first moved to Brookings, Oregon, when I would ride my bike through Stevensville, Montana, when I got off the train station in Dallas, Texas, and ate a Subway sandwich in Dealey Plaza, and when I was waiting in the Amtrak Station in New Orleans (which didn't have free drink refills). I could pretend to myself that my multiple cookies and overpriced bag of chips were balanced by the fact I was eating lettuce. I could look out the window and drink refill after refill of diet Coke while digesting my vegetables and spongy bread. Some might look down on me saying that my experience of American cultural unity is heralded by the wafting smell of cooking, yoga mat chemical bread coming out of a mass business selling basic subway sandwiches, and to them I will only say: extra mayonnaise, please.