This Undercover Boss Learns the Art of Sandwich-Making, the Hard Way

Subway sandwich shop
Subway sandwich shop

Don Fertman wins the award for being the Undercover Boss with the most colorful background of any Undercover Boss, hands-down.

The one-time rock-n-roll musician hooked up with Subway nearly 30 years ago, when the sandwich chain needed some help writing a jingle. Moving from the craziness of the music business to the routine of corporate life proved to be a challenge. Fertman wound up in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, which thankfully worked. Luckily for him, Subway stood by him, and Fertman, now Subway's chief development officer, has repaid the company's loyalty in kind.

To disguise himself in order to get a closer look at Subway's on-the-ground operations, Fertman transformed into a down-on-his-luck drug and alcohol counselor named John Wilson, who was supposedly trying out for a job with several Subway workers. John, whose dyed beard made him resemble James Lipton of Inside the Actor's Studio, underscored the show's central theme that not knowing the basics of your business is no barrier to a career in management. Somehow, Fertman escaped ever having to learn how to make a Subway sandwich despite working for the chain for nearly three decades. That was too good of a factoid for producers to ignore.

A "Chatty Cathy"

Jessi, a "sandwich artist" in Orlando, Fla., barked orders at Fertman like a Marine Drill Sergeant. The Subway exec is painfully slow and seems unable to memorize the ingredients of various menu items under the pressure of a lunchtime rush. Of course, that would have been difficult for almost anyone to do.

In a moment of staged hilarity, Fertman locks himself in a walk-in cooler, much to the annoyance of his manager Efrain, who oversees a separate location in Orlando. Fertman also proves inept at multitasking and almost burns the bread and cookies he's making.

Sherry, a manager at a Subway in Auburn, Ala., complains that Fertman is being too much of a "chatty Cathy" and not concentrating enough on getting customers their food quickly. And Fertman's nerves were frayed by having to take down delivery orders for Duane, who runs a location in a Buffalo, N.Y., church.

Happy Endings

These workers all had back stories that helped further along the plot. Jessi was a struggling college student whose mother wasn't in the picture. Efrain, 20, wants to help foster children like himself. Sherry was so gung-ho for the company that her children also worked there. Duane is a minister with four adopted children. In the end, there was a happy ending for every one.

Fertman agreed to pay for the rest of Jessi's college education and to pay for a trip for her and her dad. Subway will donate $5,000 to the foster children's organization of Efrain's choosing and award him $1,000 to spend as he chooses. Sherry will be paid $5,000 to appear in a customer service video and will be flown with a guest to the Subway annual convention in California. In addition, she received a spa day and a shopping trip. The company will wave the $15,000 franchise fee for Duane to set up a program to teach job skills along with a $20,000 education fund for his children.

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Subway co-founder Fred DeLuca would have been a better choice than Fertman, who nevertheless did a pretty good job. DeLuca, who is a billionaire, co-founded the chain in 1965 when he was 17 years old. He has weathered up and down economies to build a business of 32,000 locations in 90 countries.

I bet he'd have some interesting things to say about what makes a business great. DeLuca, though, didn't want to do the show because he was seen as the "face" of the company who often schmoozes with franchisees and customers. Of course, I thought the face of the company was Jared because he's featured in so many of its commercials.