Subway, the sandwich chain founded 50 years ago this year, is not doing well.
As The Washington Post's Drew Harwell reported last week, sales declined 3 percent in 2014, or $400 million, faster than any other of the country's top-25 food chains.
Subway is the country's largest sandwich shop by far, comprising 41 percent of all sales volume in the sandwich category. As a result, its struggles are bringing down the entire sandwich-making industry. According to data from analyst group Technomic, sandwiches are the only category to have seen three-consecutive years of significantly flagging sales growth. If trends continue, it will be the worst-performing category of them all.
However, Technomic's Darren Tristano says the headline number obscures the other story that is happening: Eaters, especially young adults, are now willing to pay more to patronize "fast casual" chains. These may be somewhat pricier than "fast food" chains like Subway, Quiznos, and Arby's — which are also struggling — but usually have better ingredients and slightly nicer dining areas.
"They have really created a better version [of the sandwich shop], and with the price-point just slightly higher, American consumers are showing their up for paying it to get better value," he told Fusion.
Within this category, the Technomic data show, there are three standouts. We present them below.
Jimmy John's was founded in 1983, but like the other two chains here, has seen an explosion of growth in recent years thanks to a commitment to quality ingredients. It did more than $1 billion in sales in 2014, an 18-percent increase year-over-year, and now has over 2,000 locations, the most of the three (though still a fraction of Subway's 27,000+ locations).
A relative up-and-comer, Firehouse was started by literal firemen in 1994 in Jacksonville. It now has 550 locations on sales of $552 million, a 25 percent year-over-year increase.
Despite (or because of its unabashed Jerseyness), the Point Pleasant-based is officially the fastest-growing large sandwich joint in the country. In 2014 it had 857 locations, a 30.2 percent year-over-year increase. It did $523 million in sales last year, 6th best among all sandwichmakers.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.