At Subway, Executives Will Do Time Behind the Sandwich Counter, Thanks to Undercover Boss

Last Updated Dec 17, 2010 2:16 PM EST

While slinging subs as an undercover employee, Don Fertman, Subway's chief development officer, gained such valuable lessons that he's decided every top manager at Subway headquarters should have a similar experience. Starting in the spring, executives will be required to spend time once a year behind the sandwich counter, slicing bread, peeling apart cheese slices, baking loaves and dealing with hungry customers.

It's part of a new plan for enhanced communication between Subway's corporate offices in Milford, CT and the 22,740 U.S. restaurants, all of which are owned by franchisees. In an interview with BNET, Fertman, who appears on CBS' Undercover Boss this Sunday November 21st, says Subway managers have been told that they should show up at the company's system advisory council meeting in April prepared to talk about their experiences as "sandwich artists," the title Subway gives to its restaurant employees. It hasn't yet been determined exactly how many hours or days of sandwich artistry executives will need to do.

An important part of our business is the in-store experience and we all need the perspective I got during my time undercover. You don't know what it's really like until you're actually behind the counter sweating with a line out the door.
Fertman says it's important that the people who make decisions about new products and processes get to see how those changes actually play out in stores on a day-to-day basis:
I got to see how sandwich artists have to deal with the fact that we've added flat bread to the line. We've added spices and cheese to our breads, and we've added toasting. Every time we add something it's that much more for employees to think about, that much more to integrate into the operation. If we throw too much at folks all at once, it can create a bottleneck.
While it's not unusual for corporate executives to do store visits where they sniff around and chat with employees, this sort of plan, in which managers are forced to remove their Berluti loafers and do actual work alongside people earning a small fraction what they do, is rare, if not unprecedented. The move is both a nice touch of egalitarian populism and smart business, since most companies don't pay nearly enough attention to the ideas and advice of people working on the front lines with customers.

Fertman seems to understand this and he's initiated another program, also born from his undercover experience, where founder and CEO Fred DeLucca will do regular conference calls with groups of in-store managers and "sandwich artists."

For Subway, this makes lots of sense since a big part of the company's success lies in the simplicity of its restaurant operations. It takes a lot less money to open a Subway franchise than almost any other fast food restaurant and the stores are so small they can go just about anywhere. As it attempts to meet the ambitious goal of opening another 5,000 to 7,0000 stores in the U.S., Subway will certainly need a corporate level understand how new things could complicate the in-store process.

Image from Flckr user Cara_VSAngel
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