NEW YORK (AP) — Subway said Tuesday it mutually agreed with Jared Fogle to suspend their relationship after the home of the chain’s longtime pitchman was raided by federal and state investigators.
The separation was jarring because the 37-year-old everyman has become a familiar face around the world. To many, he’s known simply as “the Subway guy” who shed a massive amount of weight by eating the chain’s sandwiches. His story is perhaps the biggest reason for Subway’s image over the years as a healthy place to eat.
“That story played a huge role in (Subway’s) growth,” said Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at Technomic, a market research firm. “It’s not just Jared the man, it’s what it represents.”
Though Fogle hadn’t been front-and-center in Subway’s advertising recently, he had still been acting as a Subway spokesman and appearing at events on the company’s behalf.
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Fogle’s history with Subway reaches back to when he was a student at Indiana University, and he said he lost 245 pounds by regularly eating the chain’s sandwiches. The college paper featured the story, which was then picked up by Men’s Health, according to a page on Subway’s website that was removed Tuesday.
Soon after, Subway’s advertising agency reached out to Fogle and asked if he wanted to be in a TV commercial. The ensuing ad campaign resonated in part because Fogle seemed like such a regular guy, which made weight loss seem simple and achievable.
Of course, Fogle wasn’t the only reason for Subway’s growth over the years. Its $5 Footlong was popular with people looking for a deal, and some liked that they could customize their sandwiches. And even while touting its “Eat Fresh” motto, the chain catered to people who just wanted something filling with options like meatball subs and a chicken enchilada melt stuffed with Fritos.
Still, Fogle was instrumental in Subway’s success over the years. The company’s continued relationship with Fogle until Tuesday is also a testament to his enduring importance to the company.
In 2013, Subway celebrated the 15-year anniversary of Fogle’s famous diet by featuring him in a Super Bowl ad and making him available to news organizations for interviews. At the time, Fogle said he still traveled regularly throughout the year on behalf of Subway. He also said he had a Subway “Black Card,” which lets him eat at the chain for free.
The company, based in Milford, Connecticut, has declined to provide details on its financial arrangements with Fogle. But his roles for Subway have varied; last year, Subway had Fogle deliver bouquets made of vegetables to news organizations for National Eat Your Vegetables Day.
His Twitter feed also showed he was still making appearances in connection with the company as recently as this weekend.
Subway’s competitors have felt pressure from the chain’s “Eat Fresh” image, too. When McDonald’s added chicken McWraps to its menu in 2013, the company referred to the new menu item as a “Subway buster” that would keep customers from heading to the sandwich chain, according to an internal memo obtained by Ad Age.
In 1999, the year before Fogle appeared in his first Subway commercial, Subway had about 11,800 stores in the U.S. and 2,200 overseas, according to Technomic. As of last year, those figures have mushroomed to about 27,000 U.S. locations and about 16,000 overseas, making Subway the world’s largest restaurant chain by locations.
More recently, Subway has run into challenges.
The company is privately held and does not release financial information. But last year, Technomic said average sales for Subway stores in the U.S. declined 3 percent from the previous year.
The chain has been trying to keep up with changing attitudes about health and said last month it would remove artificial ingredients and colors from its menu in North America by 2017.
Another problem for Subway is that it has strayed from its low-price appeal, noted Chapman of Technomic. She said Subway is also facing more competition, including from places such as Firehouse Subs.
The FBI on Tuesday wouldn’t provide details on the nature of the investigation. But Subway said it was “shocked” and believed the news to be tied to a previous investigation of a former employee of Fogle’s foundation. In May, the foundation’s former executive director Russell Taylor was arrested on child pornography charges.
In a statement about the suspension of the relationship, Subway said Fogle “continues to cooperate with authorities and he expects no actions to be forthcoming.”
An attorney for Fogle said he was cooperating with the investigation and “looks forward to its conclusion.”
Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi