The Sharp End: Meat in the sandwich

In the lunch-hour rush at Subway, Dave Waller's filling skills are put to the test.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Time to slap on a have-a-nice-day smile as I join the team at Subway, feeding the workers of London with mutant foot-long sandwiches. It's 11am when I arrive at the Farringdon branch, which is empty save for a businessman tucking into a hurried brunch. The store's owner, Hemant Dixit, sits me down and shows me the Subway 'formula sheet', which all new recruits have to study before their one-day trial. The chart dictates the exact elements to go into each 'sub' - three slices of ham for a 6-inch ham number, six slices of turkey for a 12-incher - and the right way to approach the salad line: lettuce first, then tomatoes, and all the way through to the jalapenos and sweetcorn.

It's a draconian approach to the humble sandwich, but Hemant tells me it's imposed with good reason: Subway has an overriding need for speed. There's no way you can service 100 ravenous punters in the lunch-hour rush if everyone doesn't know exactly what they're doing.

Hemant doesn't know my credentials. As a youthful 'traveller', I spent four months working in an Israeli sandwich joint alongside Khalid, a pouting Arab who obsessively dictated the correct technique for wiping surfaces. 'You have to be strong here, Jeff,' he'd shout, grabbing my wrists. Later, he'd emerge wearing a tiny pair of red shorts. 'We work well today, Jeff,' he'd say. 'Now I make sleepy-sleepy.' He never once called me Dave. I find the Subway system less unsettling.

Hemant learned the method in a two-week franchisee training blitz in the US two years ago. Clueless about the food industry when he went, he came back 'knowing everything'. Soon, decked out in visor and apron, I'm shown to the 'smile zone', the customer-facing counter where the sandwich magic takes place.

Store manager Arifur tells me they're lucky to have such polite customers. My first job comes when a City boy with a wax-heavy hairdo and violet shirt waves a packet of crisps. 'How much are these?' he grunts. I handle it so well that I'm rewarded with a badge saying 'Sandwich artist in training'. It's like giving someone a paint-by-numbers book and calling them Picasso.

It's all a long way from Subway's origins. A while ago, I interviewed founder Fred DeLuca. He'd set up his first sandwich shop at 17, learning how to run it by trial and error. Now he's a billionaire, franchising out more than 30,000 stores worldwide.

I try to invoke Fred as I take my place on the production line for my first go at sandwich assembly. Shielded by my beginner's badge, I'm put on the salad line, the easiest for newbies, as customers pick out the ingredients they want. You just have to remember the correct portions. 'He may be a bit slow,' Arifur warns my first punter, who sees a 31-year-old man vacantly counting tomato slices. 'Ah, that explains it,' he probably thinks.

Arifur is right, though. As I'm busy trying to fulfil a middle-aged man's order - extra olives and a 'medium' amount of red onion - a logjam of subs builds up along the counter. Under such pressure, the formula goes out the window, and I chuck 30 olive slices in just to keep things moving.

It's no surprise when, as the lunch-hour kicks in, I'm relegated to the sidelines. The four pros operate like a well-oiled machine, each taking up their position in the chain, handling several orders at once as they propel the subs along the assembly line.

My role during lunch is to eat. 'Jeff,' says Arifur, taking me back 10 years, 'get in the line and get yourself a sandwich.' I opt for the 12-inch 'sub of the day': meatball and cheese, toasted. It's enormous. Afterwards, I feel a bit weird: it may be the result of eating a lunch that stretched a foot. Mohil tells me most of the staff eat there nearly every day. They all seem healthy enough.

Mohil is a law student, working to pay off his rapidly mounting debt. It may take a while on minimum wage, but he enjoys the job. As does Lokeman, a Bangladeshi student who has been there two years. It's kinder than I expected of a fast-food kitchen: no shouting, no getting coated in grease, no sense that the people who work there are suffering any crushing self-esteem issues.

Arifur ends my trial with an appraisal. 'You were excellent,' he says. 'You kept the meat and salad separate, and did well on the portions.' I must give off the vibe of someone who's very unsure of himself if I need this level of encouragement when it comes to making a sandwich. The only problem was the olives. I gave my man around 22 slices too many. I must study my formulas.

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