Why does Subway™ stink?
December 13, 2007 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Every Subway smells the same, and it's rank and pervasive. What is it?

There's a distinct smell to Subway restaurants. I suspect it has something to do with the bread, but no other bakery or sandwich shop smells like this. And no other bread smell is so pervasive. I had a sandwich several hours ago, and I can still smell it -- oddly wet dog -- on my jacket and hat. When someone else in the office gets subway, they announce it silently upon their return. The smell is unmistakable.

As far as I can tell, it's universal -- I've been to numerous locations on the west coast that all had "the smell", this guy in the UK knows what I'm talking about, as does this guy and numerous MeFi commenters. Commenters on Chowhound think it's bad yeast.

Any food chemists in the crowd care to weigh in on this?
posted by sportbucket to Food & Drink (56 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience it's just sort of a combo of bread and onions with a slight twinge of their seafood fillings. When I was a teenager, my sister worked for subway and came home every night smelling like this.
posted by utsutsu at 2:51 PM on December 13, 2007

red onions
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:54 PM on December 13, 2007

I have assumed it's the bread - there's a subway on the corner near me and I have to rush past it holding my nose or I start to feel nauseated. But I also think a lot of fast food is pretty gross, and other people crave it, so I have just assumed they're trying to smell like "freshly baked bread" for the kind of person who loves the taste of fast food (like how SuperSize Me guy puked after a few days on a McDonald's diet, and I thought, yeah duh, whereas another guy in the movie ate Big Macs every day and still loved 'em...)
posted by mdn at 2:56 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's the toppings, along with the tuna and baked bread, and the smell of a slightly defrosting fridge (since the fixings are in a cooler, not a fridge, during the day). I worked for Subway for 6 awful exploited weeks and know of what I speak.
posted by acoutu at 2:56 PM on December 13, 2007

I totally agree with you, which is why I never eat at Subway. It's disgusting food even if it were served in a decent atmosphere but, yeah, you go in there and it smells cheap and gross. I don't know what it is.
posted by xmutex at 2:57 PM on December 13, 2007

Here's our theory: the bread (and restaurants) never smelled bad -- or never embedded permanently into your clothes -- until they started making bread with "special toppings".

Once Italian Herbs + Cheese and/or Parmesan Oregano started sprinkling on top of the bread prior to cooking, everything went south.
posted by cabel at 2:57 PM on December 13, 2007

Oh, I was gonna say, it reminds me a little bit of how cheap deli rolls sometimes taste - I think the bad yeast theory makes sense.
posted by mdn at 2:58 PM on December 13, 2007

Response by poster: Cabel: This comment complaining about the smell from 2001 appears to be the earliest mention of the stink. When did the special breads first show up?
posted by sportbucket at 3:01 PM on December 13, 2007

sportbucket: Aha! According to answers.com:

2000: Jared Fogle makes his first commercial; gourmet breads and sauces are added to Subway's menu.
posted by cabel at 3:02 PM on December 13, 2007

It's not rank, it totally makes me want to buy a sub whenever I walk past a Subway. I thought it did the same for everyone.

I always figured it was deliberate (the "guy in the UK" you referenced seems to agree). It's interesting to discover so many people are put off by it (yet since Subway is immensely successful I'd wager that most people aren't - actually there's an interesting idea for a "random street survey).

[on preview] krautland's reply makes me chuckle. I was all set to go "the Paris métro smells nothing like the NY subway!" at first. But then I did read the more inside before posting... heh.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 3:03 PM on December 13, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, I thought about the subway/Subway confusion before posting. I added the little trademark symbol (™) to the headline, but that doesn't show up on the main page. It'll be interesting to see how many people don't read the whole thing before commenting. :)

Cabel: I think you're on to something. Incidentally, the "original" breads (white + wheat) are still the best. Also, pass me the chips.
posted by sportbucket at 3:07 PM on December 13, 2007

yet since Subway is immensely successful

I think now they're fighting a rear-guard action now against Chipotle and Quiznos. Since these came here my Subway visits have all but vanished. mmm barbacoa . . .
posted by panamax at 3:10 PM on December 13, 2007

I identified the Subway smell a few years ago as "high-school pizza."
posted by rhizome at 3:12 PM on December 13, 2007

Response by poster: ClarissaWAM: The smell itself actually doesn't bother me all that much, it's what it does to my clothes for hours after exposure to the smell. Somehow the smell morphs into wet rotting dog when it attaches itself to fabric. While you're in the store, it's noticeable, but not terrible.
posted by sportbucket at 3:13 PM on December 13, 2007

Yuck. One of my least favorite smells in the world. Reminds me of a laundromat vent.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 3:14 PM on December 13, 2007

While the special breads are probably the cause, the toasters also came in around that time (2003?). That probably helps spread the smell around the restaurant.
posted by Gary at 3:18 PM on December 13, 2007

I don't mind the smell, and actually enjoy eating Subway. There must be a lot of other people like me.
posted by grouse at 3:18 PM on December 13, 2007

I've always been convinced it's some weird "Fresh Baked Bredd!(tm)" spray they have that they either use in the bread itself to make it smell "better" or in the air vents...much like real estate agents spray "chocolate chip cookies baking" crap around empty houses to make them "homier", but actually makes them smell like ass. BLEARGH.
posted by tristeza at 3:29 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A few comments removed. Subway the restaurant, not subway the transit system.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:30 PM on December 13, 2007

After reading all these comments, I'm leaning toward the idea that it's an exclusive perfume concocted for Subway by a large scent producing firm, and determined by extensive testing to draw an average person in off the street hungry better than a whole range of other scents (sizzling steak, freshly baked bread, onions, garlic, and etcetera). It's my impression that such products typically work best when they contain minute, barely detectable amounts of one or a few chemicals which would be extremely disgusting in higher concentrations ('corpse smell', dirty socks, ripe perspiration, skunk, and so on).

If so, they probably don't put it in any food because of the risk of a bad reaction and the possibility that labeling requirements might expose its existence and composition. It would be in one or more of the many non-food products they require all franchisees to buy from the parent company.
posted by jamjam at 3:45 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think it's the newer special breads and sauces. Years ago, Subway used to just smell like fresh (plain) bread (though I imagine if you worked there, you'd pick up all the food smells that all food workers come home with). Still, Subway is still one of the only chain restaurants I can tolerate visiting- and even then, only on road trips. I remember a different place, one of those hideous salad/pasta/godknowswhat buffet places near my work that reeked of sour morning breath, probably from years of mayonaise being ground into carpet. Yet people flocked to that place. It's frightening the funky restaurant smells people tolerate.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:47 PM on December 13, 2007

I always think it smells like a dodgy pizza. I don't think it's anything that's actually cooking in there though. The smell is so strong, much stronger than any other restaurant/cafe. I suspect the franchises get a machine that does nothing but emit these vapours.
posted by cincinnatus c at 4:13 PM on December 13, 2007

I always thought it was a combination of the bread and onions.
I worked at one for 3 days in high school (late 80s...back when you didn't wear gloves prepping food). I couldn't get the smell off my hands for two weeks.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 4:22 PM on December 13, 2007

It's frightening the funky restaurant smells people tolerate.

But that would be accidental smells, whereas the fact that this is true of every restaurant strongly suggests that it's purposeful or inherent to the food they're selling. I think the comparison tristeza makes above to "home baked cookies spray" is pretty apt - there are a lot of fake scents that some people think are somehow close enough or reminiscent of the real thing, and other people think they smell nice, but then for some people it is really not appealing.
Reminds me a bit of this comment...
posted by mdn at 4:28 PM on December 13, 2007

Response by poster: Several hours later, I put on my jacket and I can still smell subway. This is worse than cigarettes.
posted by sportbucket at 4:50 PM on December 13, 2007

I always assumed it was their bread, onions, and that vinegar stuff they put on some sandwiches.
posted by PossumCupCake at 5:12 PM on December 13, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, but other restaurants use bread, onions, and vinegar, and they don't smell like that.

So what is it about Subway's food in particular that makes my clothes smell for hours/days afterwards?
posted by sportbucket at 5:17 PM on December 13, 2007

I worked at Subway in the very early 90s. The smell was there then.
posted by acoutu at 5:25 PM on December 13, 2007

It smells horrible to me too. I always assumed it was the bread.
posted by meggan at 5:27 PM on December 13, 2007

Best answer: I know you linked to a thread on chowhound, but you might have missed this longer thread, which, besides being hysterical, also contains the answer: It's the smell of mediocrity.

Personally, I think it's the Frankenbread. I make bread made from water, flour, and yeast and it smells nothing like that, but Subway's bread has all kinds of crud in it.
posted by alopez at 5:32 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: alopez: I totally missed that chowhound link. Thanks!

We still don't have a definitive answer, though, which means this may be an unanswerable question, unless we can get Alton Brown to tackle it.

In truth, I'd be fine with not knowing exactly what the smell is, but why is it so strong and persistent and fabric-tainting?
posted by sportbucket at 6:09 PM on December 13, 2007

I'm surprised nobody else said this but ...

I think it's the meat. All their meat is gray. Okay, except the turkey. Old, slimy meat. And everytime I eat there -- really, every time -- I get the shits. Which is why I don't anymore, and which is why that guy probably dropped 200 pounds..
posted by Camofrog at 6:10 PM on December 13, 2007

I think it's the "baked off" bread. Subway does bake their bread on-site, sort of. The stuff comes in already in loaves (probably frozen, but maybe just chilled, I'm not sure), and gets shoved into ovens and baked. I think the smell might be whatever leavening they use.

The onions and other toppings definitely add to it, though. Personally it's really the onions and tuna stench that I don't like.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:11 PM on December 13, 2007

I hate it too. I have never eaten at Subway because of it. Interestingly, though, I have only encountered it outside stand-alone Subway stores, not around Subways in food courts. This makes me think it is some fake "fresh bread baking" smell deliberately pumped out of the air vents to entice people in, which isn't possible in a food court where they share airspace and vents with so many other fast-food joints.

I don't detect any onion or tuna anything remotely spicy - to me it smells a little bit sweet, a little bit yeasty and overall completely nauseating. I sometimes smell echoes of it in the bake-at-home bread rolls you buy in the supermarket. I love the smell of real fresh bread though - actual bread, not whatever sugary yeasty substance Subway seem to be stenching up the air with.
posted by andraste at 6:21 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I used to work at Subway in college, and if I went to work with my hair still wet, and put it in a ponytail, by the end of the day when I got home and took my hair down, I just wanted to puke.
posted by mabelcolby at 6:54 PM on December 13, 2007

Oddly, the smell while inside ordering doesn't bother me much, it's when I get outside that the air smells like a dumpster (but not on the way in, weird, haven't figured it out).
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:09 PM on December 13, 2007

Best answer: Kadin2048 has the right answer -- it's the smell of the bread proofing. The bread is sold to the stores in frozen "sticks" that are put in a warm proofer to thaw and rise, then they are baked off. The smell is from whatever leaveners (including yeast) are used in the bread.

The "bread smell spray" is just wishful thinking on the part of the commenters here. I worked for a Subway franchise agent years ago and was completely trained on the whole operation. There is no such thing being used by Subway.
posted by briank at 7:22 PM on December 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

I know exactly the smell you're talking about. It was so bad at the Subway inside of a local Walmart that I seriously almost heaved when I walked past it. It smells nothing — NOTHING — like an actual bakery. I have always thought the bad smell was from the sweet n' sour, chemical-laden bread dough.

I still eat there though when the choice is between them or McDonald's.
posted by chowflap at 7:48 PM on December 13, 2007

I know *exactly* the stench you're talking about - but due to my longstanding and powerful aversion to cold cuts, I've always blamed the meat.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:00 PM on December 13, 2007

I thought it was the veggies. This smell stopped me from eating there, after I used to eat there every freaking day. I'm going to say it's something your body can tolerate at first, but gets overwhelmed by and then averse to. Because I know I didn't smell it at first, but now the thought of subway sickens me. Or perhaps I just overdid it, eating there 4 or 5 days a week.
posted by cashman at 8:01 PM on December 13, 2007

I love good food, I eat well, and I'm a durned good cook.


While it's indefensible to be sure, I'd like to speak up and say that I love Subway. Unnaturally so. My wife actually shares this love.
It's all about the cold-cut-trio for me. With the chipotle sauce. Damn, I want one right now.

I've been teased about it by co-workers FOREVER. I don't indulge this love more than a few times a year, as there's a metric shitload of amazing sandwich and lunch places near my work. But every now and then I'm in an airport...
posted by asavage at 8:21 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

I worked at Subway in the mid 90s - The restaurant smelled like this then, and I smelled like this then as well. We didn't really have interesting toppings on our breads at this time.

I feel that it's just their bread, their toppings - involving onions and peppers especially, oils and vinegars, etc. In my day, at least, the bread arrived in frozen sticks and was risen and baked on site. This definitely would have been the strongest smell in the shop. Perhaps whatever oddness was in the sticks did it. The only other major smelly things we handled were the onions and peppers - yellow peppers being a rather stinky topping. Ham also has it's own smell. I don't really think the tuna or "krab salad" impacted it - they're not that popular and always had covers on top of them at my shop. Not so with other toppings.

At the time, I actually felt the oil and vinegar had a lot to do with it. Not sure why at this point.

The smell of a subway is all-pervasive. My hands, my clothes, my hair smelled like this and not all of it would come out with soap and water. It was a long time before I could eat it after I quit - now the smell is a bit nostalgic. And the smell is the same to me as it was nearly 15 years ago.

I have to say that I don't mind eating at a Subway. It's a pretty clean operation, in theory. At mine, at least, we had much less bare-hand-to-food contact than I see going on at your average McDonalds, etc.
posted by FortyT-wo at 8:41 PM on December 13, 2007

Bread + Oregano + Oil + Vinegar + Provelone = Subway stank
posted by Afroblanco at 8:53 PM on December 13, 2007

Could part of it be the parmesan cheese toppings? Parmesan contains butyric acid, also present in vomit, which is why some people can't stand the smell of it. Give people butyric acid to smell, some will go "EUUGH!" and others will go "Mmm, cheese!".
posted by tomble at 8:53 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Subway sandwiches always make me sick. I don't know if the smell makes me sick, or if the smell now makes me sick because I associate it with Subway sandwiches, which make me sick. I'm pretty sure this smell happened after the fancy breads, though, because I used to like Subway when I was smaller. It was the ultimate place to go to get a sandwich for the beach. However, sometime around high school (which began for me in 1999) Subway started to make me feel totally ill.

I'm glad there are others who are horrified by the Subway Stench. There was a Subway in the food court at my college and there were days when I couldn't even walk by that part of the building because it put me off food for hours.
posted by crinklebat at 9:53 PM on December 13, 2007

Read this, an excerpt from Fast Food Nation about why fast food tastes and smell the way it does. My new rule of thumb is that if eating at a place makes my pee smell exactly the way the food tasted, I don't go back there. If I were to pee 2 hours after eating a B.M.T. sub, and collect my pee in a test tube, I could wave that test tube under your nose and if you were blindfolded you'd think you were smelling a fresh B.M.T. sub, not a test tube full of pee.

As a side note, I was dismayed to learn that Subway puts Azodicarbonamide in their bread. Who cares if it's freshly baked if they're going to be putting immune sensitizers in it? And as someone who's recently been diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, I have to say that I'm looking back at nearly two years of 3 Subway sandwiches a week from a very different - and dismayed - perspective.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:37 PM on December 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

Here is the key sentence that should grab you to read the rest of that excerpt from Fast Food Nation, by the way:
The fast-food chains, understandably, would like the public to believe that the flavours of their food somehow originate in their restaurant kitchens, not in distant factories run by other firms.
Sums it up nicely.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:41 PM on December 13, 2007

Wow, I'm so glad to read this thread! A few years ago one of my coworkers and I would fight over whether or not we could go to Subway for lunch. He loved the smell, I hated it. When pressed for an explanation, I came to the conclusion it was the bread. I grew up with the delicious smell of freshly baked bread filling my whole house. The bread they cook at Subway smells nothing like it. Tastes nothing like it either, which makes me wonder why they go to all the trouble to have "freshly baked bread" when it tastes like "freshly baked cardboard.".
posted by wallaby at 3:55 AM on December 14, 2007

Best answer: OMG! I can't believe so many people have responded to this post. I thought I was the only one tortured by the Subway smell. I can tell you for sure that it's the bread that smells -- ON PURPOSE!

A couple of years ago, I was charged with finding a new office space for the nonprofit organization where I worked. We found a great, affordable office that just so happened to be located above a Subway restaurant that is in the lobby area of the building. I noticed the smell when we were looking at the raw space with the building's agent, and said "wow, this must be right over the Subway, huh?" The guy told us that yes, it was over the Subway and that the previous tenant (a dentist's office) had complained about the smell when the Subway first moved into the building. The building management talked to the Subway and it turns out that they have TWO RECIPES for the bread. One smells A LOT and one just smells. They use the extra smelly bread because people associate the smell with the restaurant and it helps bring in customers off the street. The restaurant agreed to switch over to the less smelly recipe to appease the dentist.

I'm thinking, oh - it smells a little but we'll never notice it once we've got furniture and people and activity going on in here. WRONG! It smelled everyday, all the time. And there would be waves of extra smell when the bread went into the oven. Our office building also happened to be located on top of the real subway (mass transit) and when I would complain about how my office smelled like Subway, people always assumed I was talking about the train. No! The subway station actually smelled way better.
posted by jrichards at 6:51 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I should also mention that the ever-present Subway smell did not turn the whole office off of eating there. There were a bunch of people who did (and still do!) eat there several times a week.
posted by jrichards at 6:56 AM on December 14, 2007

This page provided some insight

posted by unceman at 8:16 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's starting to sound like the yeast is the culprit here. Can anyone corroborate jrichards' two-recipe hypothesis? I'd love to hear from some disgruntled Subway executives about the market research that led them to make a smellier bread.

Once again, marketing ruins everything.
posted by sportbucket at 11:54 AM on December 14, 2007

I'm fascinated by this question, as I've often wondered what that vile, vile smell could possibly be. I'd like to submit that McDonalds franchises often have a very similar (but not identical) smell. Kind of . . . mildew-y.

I don't have an answer, but I don't buy the theory that it's the smell of baking bread or the smell of yeast. Any neighborhood bakery in Paris, say, bakes and sells much, much more bread/croissants/etc. in any given day than a Subway, and they don't smell anything less than heavenly.
posted by agent99 at 12:28 PM on December 14, 2007

And as someone who's recently been diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, I have to say that I'm looking back at nearly two years of 3 Subway sandwiches a week from a very different - and dismayed - perspective.

Maybe there'll be a Marlboro Man gets cancer style expose in ten years or so to the effect that Jared lost all that weight because he developed celiac disease.
posted by jamjam at 7:45 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm drooling just thinking of it. I'm normally as snobbish as they come, but when it comes the a nice salad packed sub I go weak at the knees.

That smell? It's the smell of freedom and liberty.
posted by oxford blue at 10:20 PM on December 14, 2007

Ah, I remember this thread. For what it's worth, although I didn't specifically mention it then, I remember the smell being the same as it is now. I always assumed it was the bread.

I find their more recent "bread with stuff on top" marginally more edible than their old bread, but the core smell is the same.

On the other hand, lots of people love Subway's smell and their bread, as that other thread will attest...
posted by mmoncur at 11:35 PM on December 14, 2007

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