Subway: Lessons learned while undercover

Development exec Don Fertman discusses appearance on 'Undercover Boss'

Subway's chief development officer, Don Fertman, recently learned it's not as easy as it looks to quickly assemble one of the chain's popular foot-long subs. It was one of the many insights about the daily challenges faced by Subway employees that Fertman gained while filming an episode of the CBS show "Undercover Boss."

For nine days, the 29-year Subway veteran built sandwiches, wiped down tables and received direction from supervisors for the episode, which airs Sunday night. As a result of his experience, Fertman said Subway plans to send more of its upper management into stores to learn from its employees and improve operations throughout the more than 32,000-unit chain. He spoke recently with Nation's Restaurant News about what he learned from his days undercover. 

Your Subway boss featured in the show’s promo worked you over pretty nicely. What was your reaction when your supervisor said things like, “Welcome to Subway, sweetheart,” or called you a “comedian” when you answered, “a lot,” to her question about how many tomatoes go into a foot-long?

Her name is Jessi. She had a strong personality, She was someone who I couldn’t do something and get away with it by just charming her. I’m pretty good at talking the talk. I had to walk the walk this time around. She was truly a taskmaster. She got so discouraged with me at one point that she took me off the line and threw me in the back room and had me washing dishes.

During the promo, you were videotaped throwing out a plastic bag of garbage and wiping down tables. You're an executive, so what was going through your mind when you were doing tasks like those?

We’re all members of the same team. If I’m going to learn the job from the inside out, I have to do every task I’m assigned to and do it with a smile.

Your boss was billed as one of the toughest no-nonsense employees on the show. It made for a great TV promo, but did she also have a soft side?

On the show, you’ll see Jessi’s other side. Her toughness with me was really about caring about the business. She cared about the speed of customers getting though the line, and she got upset when the line was getting too long. She cared that the store was running right. That was truly her focus. That was the reason she was the way she was.

How did you feel at the end of the day after assembling foot-longs compared with how you feel at the end of the day at the corporate office?

My diary at the end of the day had to do with the aches and pains of the job and some level of exhaustion. It was a physical exhaustion. At headquarters, it’s more of a mental exhaustion at the end of a day. I’m drained from developing Subway stores around the world. It was physical and mental doing sandwiches and doing it quickly while interacting with the customers and having bosses like Jessi telling me what to do.

What did you learn from working in the trenches?

I learned that we have wonderful people on the Subway team. I wanted to catch people doing things right and that’s what I found in the field. The four stores all had great employees with great ideas on how to make the business better. We need the right mechanism to harness these ideas.

Do you think you’ll change anything you do now based on your experience?

We will be putting our upper management in touch with the field and having our folks work in stores and really feel the business and be on the frontline and understand the interaction between the sandwich artist and the customer.

What’s the toughest part about making a foot-long?

The cutting of the bread. That was my first task. Then, peeling apart the meat, the slices of ham ... then lying them on the bread and doing that whole thing while wearing gloves and doing that quickly. There was one point that Jessi said to me that there’s no such thing as a five-minute sandwich, but I guess I broke that barrier.

Alan Snel is a contributor to Nation's Restaurant News. Contact editor Molly Gise at [email protected] [3].