Subway lost a net of 443 restaurants in 2023, but still maintained its spot as the largest quick-service chain in America.

The sandwich concept finished the year with 20,133 stores nationwide. It’s a decline of about 7,000 shops since the beginning of 2016—that alone would be the fifth-biggest quick-service brand in the U.S.

Starbucks has the next-largest footprint at around 16,500 stores.

The brand has seen a drop in footprint for years as it shutters underperforming locations and looks to relocate units based in outdated trade areas. However, the decreases appear to be getting less severe. The brand closed a net of 1,043 shops in 2021 and 571 in 2022.

CEO John Chidsey told QSR that Subway’s domestic business is concerned with growing AUVs through higher digital sales, building the catering channel, continuing menu innovation, and implementing remodels. However, that’s not to say Subway doesn’t have whitespace within the U.S.

“I’m not suggesting for a minute that you can go back and re-open 6,000 of them, but you could easily go back and probably open half of those,” Chidsey said earlier this year. “I think there are growth opportunities in the U.S. Smart growth opportunities.”

READ MORE: QSR’s Transformational Brand of 2023: Subway Becomes a Winner Again

The sandwich chain secured a deal with Roark Capital, which reportedly agreed to buy the brand for almost $10 billion.

Subway is welcoming well-funded franchisees with multiple brands to join its network, allowing them to acquire stores from existing franchisees and expand into profitable markets. This marks a departure from the traditional approach of the brand, which previously aimed to be the sole concept within a franchisee’s portfolio, as envisioned by founder Fred DeLuca. Under this old philosophy, franchisees were discouraged from operating other quick-service restaurant chains, and the emphasis was on keeping operations small.

However, the company has shifted away from this approach. Chidsey emphasized to franchisees that to revitalize the brand in the U.S. and expand globally, it’s essential to bring in experienced industry professionals who operate on a larger scale. Nevertheless, smaller operators will still have a place within the system, particularly in smaller communities where a single-unit operator may be better suited for success.

Meanwhile, existing restaurants are undergoing renovations under the banner of the “Fresh Forward” design. These updates encompass LED lighting, refreshed floor coverings, redesigned containers, tables, colors, and chairs. When coupled with a franchisee relocating their restaurant to a more favorable location, these changes typically result in a sales increase of 20-25 percent. Without relocation, the sales boost averages around 10-11 percent. Regardless of the incremental revenue, Chidsey stressed that these remodels are crucial for remaining competitive. He explained that in an industry where others are constantly upgrading their establishments, having a dated and worn-out appearance makes it difficult to compete effectively.

More than 18,000 units worldwide were updated to the brand’s contemporary image as of February, including 12,000-plus in North America. A record 4,000 remodels were completed in the region in 2023.

Subway’s global same-store sales rose 6.4 percent in 2023 year-over-year. In North America, comps lifted 5.9 percent, with the top 75 percent (17,000 units) up 10.1 percent. Subway finished 2023 with 12 straight quarters of positive same-store sales. Global and North American digital sales increased double digits in 2023, aided by the enhancement of the chain’s loyalty program, Subway MVP Rewards.

The company’s bigger growth aspirations come internationally. Despite the large dips in the U.S., Subway reported earlier this year that it experienced net growth globally for the first time since 2016. The brand sits at nearly 37,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries. It is the third-largest restaurant chain in the world, following McDonald’s and Starbucks. The chain has inked roughly 15 major franchise deals over the last couple of years, resulting in over 9,000 restaurant commitments spanning across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Fast Food, Franchising, Growth, Sandwiches, Story, Subway