As stories go, the one of how Anglo-American sandwich brand Sub Cult first came into being is hardly the stuff of legend.
“The idea came to me while I was lying in the bath,” remembers Ben Chancellor, who founded the brand back in 2014 with friend and chef Gareth Phillips. “I’d been watching London’s street food scene go from strength to strength with the rising popularity of traders such as BAO, MEATliquor and Pizza Pilgrims, and thinking more about how there might be a gap in the market for a deli-style sandwich concept akin to the ones you see in the States.”
Phillips, who by happenstance was in America when Chancellor excitedly called to explain this bathroom-based epiphany, immediately understood the logic behind it. “To me it made perfect sense,” he explains. “We’d seen the evolution of burgers and pizzas; why not sandwiches?”
In contrast to the story of its inception, Sub Cult’s journey from that fateful phone call to where it is now holds plenty of narrative heft. Chancellor, a former Mod, came up with the name as a cheeky play on the subculture term; a theme that has come to help define the brand.
“Everybody loves sandwiches, but we wanted to show that there’s more to it than just sticking some meat or cheese between two pieces of bread.”
Originally operating out of a gazebo on Berwick Street, serving gourmet sandwiches including the brand’s now signature Rodeo (bavette steak with truffle mayo, onion jam, chilli oil and parmesan) and Sub Marine (slow cooked pork with marinated calamari, salsa verde mayonnaise, crackling and torched scallops) rolls, Sub Cult’s reputation grew quickly.
A residency at the Duke of Wellington in Dalston followed soon after the initial launch, as did the opportunity to expand into other markets including Brockley and Maltby Street. And within eight months of first opening, Sub Cult was mentioned in the Evening Standard’s round-up of London’s best sandwiches.
Fast forward five years – during which time operations shifted to a food truck and later a shipping container – and Ben and Gareth find themselves sitting in their first bricks and mortar site on Watling Street, close to St. Paul's Cathedral. You get the impression the pair are still trying to process the reality of their own success; BigHospitality spoke to them on launch day, which saw the restaurant sell out of sandwiches before the end of lunch.
“It used to just be us and our tent, with the odd congestion charge thrown in along the way,” says Phillips, almost in awe. “Now we’re overseeing a fully-operational kitchen while dealing with lawyers, architects, PR agencies and landlords.”
The restaurant itself is designed to predominately operate as a QSR outfit, with only a handful of seats available. The space is dominated by a long counter where diners can watch their sandwich being made, while the walls chart a pictorial history of British subcultures; a throwback to the brand’s roots.
It’s certainly grander than a gazebo, but the boys insist that deep down Sub Cult hasn’t really changed.
“It was and still is about making really fucking good sandwiches,” says Chancellor. “We wanted to offer diners something gourmet that could be served at speed, and I think we’ve done that.”
The menu is certainly approachable, in both scale and price. It currently features four breakfast and eight lunchtime subs that are priced between £4.95 and £8.95, making it very competitive in the lunchtime market; not significantly more expensive than Pret, and cheaper than many fried chicken or burger options.
A changing landscape
What has changed, certainly in London, is the scale of the premium sandwich market. Monty’s Deli and Max’s Sandwich Shop are both stalwarts that have developed significant followings. While other brands that look to be gaining traction include grilled cheese specialists Morty & Bob’s, and global deli concept Bodega Rita’s; both, curiously, hold permanent sites at the Coal Drops Yard development in King’s Cross, where they will soon be joined by Pidgin duo James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy’s Sons and Daughters. It’s fair to say that in the years since Sub Cult first launched, the humble sandwich hasn’t so much evolved as metamorphosed.
Chancellor and Phillips are both aware of the changing landscape, although neither appear to be particularly daunted by it. “To us they’re not really competitors, they’re contemporaries,” Chancellor muses. “The space is so vast and each concept so different that I think there’s room for us all to exist comfortably; none of them are doing the same sub rolls we do. In terms of direct competition, our closest rival is probably Subway, but even then, the difference between the final product is vast.”
The mention of Subway is an interesting one. The high street chain has been a dominant force for years and shows no signs of abating, with plans to operate 3,000 locations in the UK and Ireland by the end of the year. Some brands are keen to take them on – Which Wich is currently eyeing two more sites having launched in London last year – while others – Potbelly and Quiznos, for example – have either struggled to make an impression, or failed completely.
When it comes to the question of their own future, Chancellor and Phillips know that even thinking they could replicate the success of Subway isn’t merely unrealistic, it’s ridiculous. But the prospect of expansion is certainly something they’re open to; although perhaps not immediately.
“It’s wise to be modest,” says Phillips. “We wouldn’t want to over promise and then under deliver.”
“This is a huge step for us,” adds Chancellor. “We've moved from a shipping container to something four times the size, and I think it’s important for both of us to really make sure we’ve got this right before we look forward any further. We’ve always wanted to open our own place, and now we’ve done that we need to take stock of it… then we'll establish what the next steps is.”