Revised and updated December 19, 2020.
Sandwich franchises have been on the rise in recent years, in large part due to the power of Subway. With 42,000 outlets, Subway is the largest quick service restaurant (QSR) chain in the world, the centerpiece of a QSR industry worth $273 billion in 2019. Even with the impact of COVID-19, the industry is expected to be worth $239 billion in 2020, a decline of less than 13% in a year when many parts of the restaurant industry face virtual collapse.
In the US, the sandwich franchise industry saw 2.6% annualized growth in its market size in 2015-2020, reaching a value of $25 billion. The industry did a better job than many competitors at keeping up with consumer preferences for healthier options. This kept the sandwich franchise industry growing at a healthy clip while other fast-food segments stagnated or even declined.
While many outlets for the big burger chains are run by investment firms, the sandwich franchising landscape has traditionally been dominated by individuals and families, thanks in large part to Subway’s lower initial fee. Subway has 10,000 franchisees, owning an average of around two restaurants each, and its competitors are often relatively smaller scale operations, having struggled to achieve Subway’s prominence.
Subway was going through a difficult period at the start of 2020. It was down to around 24,000 restaurants in the US, from a peak of 27,000 in 2015. The company had come under serious criticism for its management of franchises, and in particular for its system of regional management, which led to 29 litigation actions per 1,000 stores in 2018, massively more than other high profile food franchises.
As part of attempts to turn things around, the company appointed a new CEO in November 2019 in the form of John Chidsey, but his previous stint at Burger King had led to slumping sales and a shrinking market share, alarming Subway franchisees. A new pricing policy, which would make things tougher for franchisees, immediately led to more tensions within the chain, where the franchisor takes a higher cut of revenues than many others, leaving franchisees with a greater financial challenge.
Because they are usually sit-in and carry-out restaurants rather than drive-thrus or delivery businesses, sandwich shops were hit harder than some other takeaways by the initial wave of COVID-19. However, even at the peak of the crisis, only 15% of US Subway franchises were shut down, mostly ones in malls and college campuses, where the whole shopping area might be shut down.
As takeaways, they were in a stronger position to cope with the crisis than more traditional restaurants, and sales were well on their way to recovery by May. The industry’s growth is expected to stall rather than go into decline over 2020, increasing by only 0.1%. If this happens, it will still put sandwich franchises in a far better position than many competitors.
Sandwich shops were already moving slowly toward takeaway and delivery, as they sought to increase their presence in this market. COVID-19 has accelerated that trend, and this angle will help sandwich outlets survive local waves of the pandemic, as well as to set themselves up for long-term growth.
One of the big advantages of sandwich franchises is the variety they offer. Unlike a burger or a chicken meal, a sandwich can contain just about anything, and customers come looking for choice. This has made it easy to cater to demand for healthier options and specialized diets, while still providing brand-building novelties and traditional favorites. It also protects supply chains during periods of crisis, as a sandwich outlet sells a broad mix of proteins such as ham, turkey, tuna, and cheese as the central flavor and nutrient in its meals, and so is less likely to struggle if supplies of one filling are disrupted.
The sandwich industry is a site of both uncertainty and potential, due to continuing problems with its biggest player. Subway has come under criticism from franchisees both for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis and for introducing an offer which would significantly cut into the profits of hard-pressed franchisees. If its struggles make some Subway outlets unviable, this could create challenges for its franchisees. But without any reduction in demand for sandwiches, this may also provide an opportunity for other sandwich franchises to fill the gap.
As a cheap and easy fast food option, sandwiches are likely to do relatively well in an economic downturn, and the variety they can offer caters to the demands of the modern market. A shift toward delivery and takeaway is needed in the current climate, but the real question for the industry is what’s next for Subway. Other sandwich franchises have struggled to achieve prominence in competition with it. Is that about to end, or will Subway come back stronger than ever? Either way, variety and value for money make sandwiches a solid option for a fast food franchise.
The Top Sandwich Franchises of 2021
Subway is the undisputed king of sandwich chains in terms of number of locations, and yet it ranks a surprisingly distant third in terms of sales ($10.4 billion compared to McDonald’s at $38.5 billion and Starbucks at $19.7 billion). And it’s still a privately-held company.
Fred DeLuca started the company to fund his medical school education, but he ended up sticking with his very lucrative sub concept. In 2018, the chain saw revenues drop by almost half a billion dollars, and it closed more than 1,000 locations in the US. But it’s currently remodeling stores through its Fresh Forward design initiative, and those retrofitted locations are pulling in more traffic and higher gross revenues.
Founded in 1965 and franchising since 1974, the number of locations reached a high of 44,830 in 2016 but has since been declining to the current total of 41,600, none of which are company-owned and 17,471 of which are located outside the US.
Arby’s isn’t buying into the plant-based meat craze that is supposedly sweeping the nation. In fact, it poked fun at the idea by coming up with a meat-based vegetable creation it calls a marrot, which is turkey prepared in a way that it looks like a carrot.
Arby’s has experienced a resurgence in recent years under the leadership of CEO Rob Lynch and his highly successful “We have the meats” campaign. But Lynch recently left the company to become the new CEO of the Papa John’s pizza chain. Chief Marketing Officer Jim Taylor has been promoted to the Arby’s CEO position to keep the chain’s new-found momentum going.
Founded in 1964 and franchising since 1965, the number of locations was declining from 2010-2016, but has since been rising to the current total of 3,505 (up from the previous year’s total of 3,492), of which 1,190 are company-owned and 154 are located outside the US.
3. Jimmy John’s
Jimmy John’s has gotten a lot of media attention lately, and not all of it good. On the good side, the chain ran a sweepstakes contest in which the winner would receive a free house within five minutes of one of its restaurants, which delineates its delivery zone. On the not-so-good side is an old photograph of the chain’s founder Jimmy John Liautaud with an elephant he killed, along with photos of him with his other big-game kills. The photos and calls for boycotts periodically resurface and make the rounds on social media, but the chain keeps plugging away, and quite successfully at that.
The company has been around since the early 1980s and does things a bit differently – no oven-baked hot sandwiches and only one cheese (provolone). But JJ’s delivers, which is rare among sandwich chains, and does so freakishly fast. The chain’s quirky, irreverent ad messaging is a big hit with the college-age crowd.
Founded in 1983 and franchising since 1993, the number of locations has climbed over the last 10 years from 1,043 in 2010 to the current total of 2,724 (down from the previous year’s total of 2,818), of which 56 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
4. Jersey Mike’s Subs
Jersey Mike’s Subs is also receiving a lot of media attention, and for all the right reasons. After weeding through the constant stream of stories about new locations opening all over the place, they’re also doing lots of great, creative promotions. These recently included its first-ever 14-week, 16-stop college tailgate mobile tour with free sub samples as well as a free regular sub offer for first-time orders through its newly-improved mobile app.
Any sub on the menu can be ordered Mike’s Way: onions, lettuce, tomatoes, spices (salt and oregano), and the Juice (a mixture of red wine vinegar and olive oil). The menu includes 28 hot and cold subs along with five signature wraps.
Founded in 1956 and franchising since 1987, the number of locations has grown steadily over the past 10 years from 367 in 2008 to the current total of 1,742 (up from the previous year’s total of 1,592), of which 61 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
5. Firehouse Subs
Firehouse Subs has become well known for its donations to local fire departments and other first responders all over the nation. A portion of every sale the chain makes goes to the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation to support first responders in the communities where the chain has a presence. The foundation has granted more than $44 million to provide equipment, training, and support to hometown heroes.
Founded by former firefighting brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen in Jacksonville, Florida, the chain’s restaurants feature a firefighting theme on the menu with hot and cold sub names such as Hook & Ladder and Engineer, as well as in-store décor featuring firefighting equipment, memorabilia, and artwork.
Founded in 1994 and franchising since 1995, the number of locations has increased rapidly over the past decade from 388 in 2010 to the current total of 1,177 (down slightly from the previous year’s total of 1,180), of which 37 are company-owned and 36 are located outside the US.
6. Charleys Philly Steaks
Charleys Philly Steaks has found success through annual limited-time offers to keep its menu fresh and exciting for customers. Recent features have included the Prime Jalapeño Steak-Q (2019), the Zesty Baja Chicken Philly (2018), and the Triple Bacon Steak Philly (2017).
When founder Charley Shin took a wrong turn on the way to New York City and wound up in Philadelphia, he tasted his first Philly cheesesteak sandwich and knew he wanted to make the venerable sandwich his vocation, opening his first shop when he was only 22. The menu now includes four signature Philly-style steak subs, four chicken subs, four deli subs, three kinds of gourmet fries, and three salads.
Founded in 1986 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations has grown steadily over the past decade from 409 in 2010 to the current total of 626 (up from the previous year’s total of 621), of which 57 are company-owned and 82 are located outside the US.
7. Pita Pit
Pita Pit is taking its successful sandwich franchising techniques into the Canadian cannabis industry through a partnership with federally-licensed producer and distributor WeedMD to help people open and operate their own retail cannabis stores. But the core business of selling pita sandwiches remains the primary focus of the chain founded by Nelson Lang and John Sotiriadis in Kingston, Ontario, back in the mid-1990s.
Their Lebanese-style pita sandwiches offer a healthier alternative relative to most fast food and are filled with fresh veggies, grilled meats, and zesty sauces. Many of the shops stay open late into the night/morning, which appeals to university students. With 20 pita fillings and 40 toppings to mix and match, millions of combinations are possible.
Founded in 1995 and franchising since 1997, the number of locations peaked at 628 in 2017 and has since declined to the current total of 540, of which four are company-owned and 384 are located outside the US.
8. Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Potbelly Sandwich Shop strives to be known as the go-to “neighborhood sandwich shop” in each community where it has a presence. The menu focuses on simple ingredients in its toasty warm sandwiches, salads, soups, fresh baked cookies, and hand-dipped milkshakes and smoothies.
The company got its start in the mid-1970s when Peter Hastings took over a Chicago space that was previously an antique shop. The décor of the first location used many items from the antique store, including a potbelly stove that gave the sandwich shop its name. Bryant Keil purchased the restaurant in 1997 and began expanding it into a chain. Potbelly does most of its business during lunch, and many locations also feature live music from local musicians.
Founded in 1977 and franchising since 2009, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 377 in 2015 to the current total of 488 (down slightly from the previous year’s total of 491), of which 429 are company-owned and 14 are located outside the US.
9. McAlister’s Deli
McAlister’s Deli recently underwent its biggest evolution to date, which is significant considering its humble beginnings in Oxford, Mississippi, back in the late 1980s with its first location in a renovated gas station. The new restaurant design features an overall smaller interior, but expanded patio seating for locations that want it, along with drive-up window for pickup orders.
It takes a southern-hospitality approach to its atmosphere, has seasonal menu items, is incredibly kid-friendly, and makes a big deal of its sweet tea with an annual Free Tea Day each summer. In fact, its famous sweet tea is its best-selling item and accounts for more than 10% of all the company’s sales. It can also now be ordered in 5-gallon and 15-gallon kegs for special events.
Founded in 1989 and franchising since 1994, the number of locations has risen in recent years from 308 in 2011 to the current total of 469 (up from the previous year’s total of 452), of which 31 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Schlotzsky’s just upgraded its c-suite executive cred by naming Beto Guajardo, previously the SVP of Global Strategy for Starbucks, as the chain’s new President. He’s taking over from Kelly Roddy, who left to become CEO of Saladworks. The sandwich chain is in the midst of a big brand refresh, and Guajardo’s deep strategic expertise should prove valuable.
The refresh includes changing the name to Schlotzsky’s Austin Eatery, a nod to the place of its founding. The Original remains its most famous sandwich, but new additions will include making tacos and nachos to order. The menu also includes fresh-baked breads, artisan flatbreads, specialty pizzas, toasted wraps, freshly-tossed salads, gourmet soups, and more. Many locations also feature Cinnabon and Carvel ice cream products since the chain is owned by FOCUS Brands, an affiliate of Roark Capital Group, which owns a number of restaurant chains.
Founded in 1971 and franchising since 1976, the number of locations reached a high of 372 in 2018 and has since declined to the current total 339 (down from the previous year’s total of 353), of which 23 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
11. Which Wich Superior Sandwiches
Which Wich Superior Sandwiches is aimed squarely at a more Millennial hipster market than most sandwich chains. Its founder and CEO, Jeff Sinelli, is also called the Chief Vibe Officer. The Dallas-based chain also recently added crinkle-cut French Fries to its menu. When asked why, Sinelli responded with a question of his own: “Fry not?”
The company is a newcomer compared to most sandwich franchises, and has taken a novel approach with its ordering system. Customers use red Sharpies to mark pre-printed menus on sandwich bags, selecting from among 10 categories of sandwiches, then choosing the bread, cheese, spreads, and toppings. Patrons are encouraged to use the red markers to decorate their bags and hang them in a gallery area in the shop.
Founded in 2003 and franchising since 2004, the number of locations expanded steadily from 111 in 2010 to a peak of 467 in 2018 but has since declined to the current total of 338, of which only one is company-owned and 11 are located outside the US.
12. Penn Station East Coast Subs
Penn Station East Coast Subs, like many restaurant franchises in a very tight labor market, is doing everything it can to attract and retain quality workers. It focuses on finding people who want to climb the company ladder from the beginning and has created what it calls the My Penn Path – a way for franchisees to show candidates that there is a clear path for them to advance if they join the company. Their recruiting process helps them identify standout hires who can be put on a fast-pace promotional track.
Company founder Jeff Osterfeld, after successfully operating a delicatessen, discovered the Philly cheesesteak concept and opened the first Penn Station in Cincinnati. His innovations back in the mid-1980s included “display cooking” where customers could see their food being prepared, fresh-cut French fries, and hand-squeezed lemonade. The menu includes four classic subs, three chicken subs, and three Italian subs that can be served hot or cold.
Founded in 1985 and franchising since 1987, the number of locations had expanded to 315 as of 2018 but has since declined slightly to the current total of 304 (down from the previous year’s total of 313), of which only one is company-owned and all are located in the US.
Togo’s recently undertook a major brand refresh including a revamped logo, a new slogan (“True to the Sandwich”), and a new menu item called the Pretzelrami – more than a quarter pound of pastrami on a toasted soft pretzel roll with two slices of white cheddar cheese, yellow mustard, and dill pickles. Its new marketing campaign to go with the brand refresh is “How Far Would You Go for a Togo?”
The core menu features 19 subs, six salads, four veggie sandwiches, and a selection of soups that changes daily. Any sub can be ordered without bread and served up as a salad with romaine lettuce or in a tortilla wrap.
Founded in 1971 and franchising since 1977, the number of locations has been declining in recent years from 251 in 2014 to the current total of 184 (down from the previous year’s total of 199), of which 6 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Capriotti’s geared up for the latest football season by offering those who order catering (trays of assorted sandwiches) online or through the company’s CAPAddicts Rewards App, access to special “score-worthy” deals throughout the season.
The chain distinguished itself from other sandwich shops early on with its in-store slow-roasting of whole, fresh, all-natural turkeys overnight to hand-pull fresh turkey meat each morning for sandwiches. The menu features 17 different subs, two sandwiches made with sliced bread, and six different salads.
Founded in 1976 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations has held relatively steady in recent years and currently stands at 104 (up from the previous year’s total of 100), of which 15 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
15. Cousins Subs
Cousins Subs CEO Christine Specht took the reins of the Wisconsin-based chain of sub shops, founded by her father and his cousin, in 2015. She leads the company based on four simple values of being grounded, optimistic, passionate, and purposeful. Speaking of being grounded, she keeps it real by regularly working a shift as a cashier to see first-hand what’s happening in her stores.
The menu features eight different grilled-to-order subs, six classic subs, five deli fresh subs, salads, sides, soups, two-footer party subs, and party boxes with 12 or 20 assorted subs.
Founded in 1972 and franchising since 1985, the number of locations has mostly been declining in recent years from 150 in 2010 to the current total of 98 (up from the previous year’s total of 95), of which 27 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
16. Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shops
Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shops recently launched a free mobile rewards app to give customers a robust rewards system that will send them exclusive promotions and offer free items. It’s just one point of a multi-layered branding overhaul that includes a new store prototype, new logo, new slogan (“Out of This World Sandwiches”), and a new radio and TV campaign called “Bold Between the Breads.”
Many of the subs on the menu have odd names such as Narmer, Bornk, Girf, Comet Morehouse, and Quatro because they are all characters from the stories the founder’s father used to tell his children when they were little. In addition to subs, the chain’s menu also features nine different soups for the soup-and-sandwich effect.
Founded in 1987 and franchising since 1992, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 49 in 2011 to a peak of 97 in 2017 and 2018 and has declined slightly to the current total of 91, of which two are company-owned and all are located in the US.
17. Lennys Grill and Subs
Lennys Grill and Subs was started by Len Moore, who had more than 25 years of experience in all kinds of restaurants before he and his wife Sheila opened the first location in Memphis, Tennessee. They only wanted one location to help pay for their daughter’s college education, but the demand was so strong they soon opened five more. After opening 20 locations, franchising was the next logical step. The menu features Philly-style submarine sandwiches with 10 deli subs and 12 grilled subs.
Founded in 1998 and franchising since 2001, in spite of a major brand and store design overhaul, the number of locations has been steadily declining over the past ten years from 158 in 2010 to the current total of 81 (down from the previous year’s total of 92), of which only one is company-owned and all are located in the US.
PrimoHoagies launched its Italian Hoagie potato chips in 2019, flavored to evoke the memory of its namesake sandwich beloved by many. The chips are available at all store locations as well as in some supermarkets and convenience stores in the greater Philadelphia area.
The first PrimoHoagies was opened on Ritner Street in south Philadelphia when it seemed like there was a hoagie shop on every corner. PrimoHoagies distinguished itself by focusing on the sandwich’s Italian origins, and the chain’s Italian Hoagie is its best-selling sandwich. But the chain has something for everyone with its 59 different hoagies.
Founded in 1992 and franchising since 2002, the number of locations held steady at around 90 for several years but has recently dropped to 78 (down from the previous year’s total of 86), of which six are company-owned and all are located in the US.
19. Goodcents Deli Fresh Subs
Goodcents Deli Fresh Subs was the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Joseph Bisogno in the late 1980s, after having previously run a lemonade stand when he was six years old, purchased an ice cream truck when he was 18, and a gas station later on as well. This is a chain of dine-in, drive-thru, carry-out, and delivery restaurants with a menu featuring 17 different submarine sandwiches, five pasta dishes, and three different giant soft-baked cookies.
Founded in 1989 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations has been slowly declining from 101 in 2010 to the last known total of 78 in 2018, of which two are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
20. Tubby’s Sub Shop
Tubby’s Sub Shop has been around since the late 1960s when founder Richard Paganes opened the first location in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. The menu features 16 different grilled subs, five deli-style subs, five specialty subs, nine salads, monster party subs, and party sub platters.
In 2015, Tubby’s bought the failing Just Baked cupcake franchise and added the dessert offering to its menu in 2017. All new Tubby’s locations will be co-branded with Just Baked, and Tubby’s is considering expanding the number of standalone Just Baked stores, which had dwindled to just four franchised locations back in 2015 after attempting to expand too rapidly.
Founded in 1968 and franchising since 1978, the number of locations has been relatively steady in recent years and currently stands at 61 (down by one from the previous year), none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
21. Great Steak
Great Steak (formerly The Great Steak and Potato Company) has been serving up cheesesteak subs and potato dishes since the early 1980s when it was started in Dayton, Ohio by founder Nicola J. Lanni. This is a true meat-and-potatoes operation featuring four cheesesteaks, four chicken Philly subs, seven different grilled sandwiches, six kinds of French fries, five different baked potatoes, potato skins, and four breakfast sandwiches. Great Steak is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kahala Brands, which operates 18 different restaurant chains.
Founded in 1985 and franchising since 1986, the number of locations has declined over the past 10 years from 199 in 2008 to the current total of 58, of which none are company-owned and 13 are located outside the US.
22. Deli Delicious
Deli Delicious offers hungry customers a menu of made-to-order cold sandwiches, hot sandwiches, specialty sandwiches, salads, soups, and sides. In Fresno, California where it started, it won the People’s Choice Award for Best Sandwich shop for nine years in a row. The chain prides itself on friendly service, fresh produce, premium deli meats, and high-quality bread. Like many of the delis on this list, it offers catering as well as fundraising opportunities for schools, teams, clubs, and other groups.
Founded in Fresno, California in 1996 but franchising only since 2008, the number of locations has grown from 11 in 2011 to the current total of 53 (up from the previous year’s total of 51), none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
23. CHēBA Hut
CHēBA Hut (pronounced cheeba) is one sandwich chain poised to take advantage of the growing legal cannabis culture. The pronunciation of the chain’s name approximates the Spanish Chiba, a slang term for highly potent Colombian marijuana. The core menu features 26 “toasted” subs that are all named for different kinds of marijuana. The company mascot is a bird named Flip who is always smoking a joint. The vibe is strongly anti-establishment and anti-corporate.
Founded by Scott Jennings in Tempe, Arizona in 1998 and franchising since 2002, the number of locations has been growing over the past decade from 13 in 2010 to the current total of 32 (up from the previous year’s total of 25), of which 13 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
24. Groucho’s Deli
Groucho’s Deli dates back to the early 1940s when Harold “Groucho” Miller came to Columbia, South Carolina with a handful of original recipes for potato salad, coleslaw, and various salad and sandwich dressings, most of which were thought up during his childhood in a Philadelphia orphanage. He also had a big personality, always joking, and he not only looked like Groucho Marx with his big moustache and cigar but he even sounded like Groucho Marx.
He innovated with Dipper Style Subs in the 1960s with his original sauces, like Formula 45 developed back in 1945. Dipper Subs are still on the menu today, along with a variety of other subs, sandwiches, folded pitas, 19 different signature salads, seven famous dressings, deli sandwiches, original recipe sandwiches, BLT Clubs, healthy options, soups, sides, and desserts.
Founded in 1941 but franchising only since 2001, the number of locations had marched slowly but steadily upwards to a peak of 34 in 2018 and 2019 but has since declined slightly to the current total of 30, two of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
25. Tom and Chee
Tom and Chee is for everyone who loves the classic grilled cheese sandwich paired up with tomato soup. The company was started by friends Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward along with their wives Jenn and Jenny in Cincinnati, Ohio. After a year in a tent, they were able to open a real store and people were willing to wait in line well over an hour for creative offerings such as the grilled cheese donut: A donut sliced like a bagel and grilled with your choice of cheese or many other interesting toppings.
Although the company received a boost by landing a $600,000 investment during season 4 of Shark Tank from Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban, it’s struggling to find its footing in spite of having a great concept. Founded in 2009 and franchising since 2012, the number of locations was as high as 35 in 2015 but has since plummeted to the current total of just 9, all in the US and one of which is company-owned.
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.