The smiling façade that disguises a soulless agent of pandering and flattery

There’s lots to like about Quizno’s. Quizno’s is not Subway or Togo’s or Blimpie or any of those other depressing sandwich factories where it’s impossible to eat without wishing you’d gone to a supermarket and bought some sliced turkey and a kaiser roll and made your own damn sandwich instead. Quizno’s differentiates itself from the brutalist, almost eastern-bloc functionality of its competitors as follows: The sandwiches are cooked open-face on a conveyor-belt oven, which makes them warm and crispy and nice. The meats seem to have been cut from an actual animal rather than from a loaf made by smooshing together an entire herd in that giant trash-compactor room from Star Wars. The Quizno’s-brand chips are billed as “kettle-cooked,” although I’m not sure what that means anymore, and the cookies are excellent. These strategies have made Quizno’s a hot property: number seven on Entrepreneur magazine’s Franchise 500 for 2003, with 11 stores in San Francisco alone.

But, I submit, the toasty bread and authentically anatomic meats are merely the smiling facade that disguises a soulless agent of pandering and flattery, next to which the transparent Fordism of a Subway or a Blimpie is at least more honest, if not more enjoyable.

In many ways Quizno’s Black Angus Steak Sandwich is a remarkably good product for a fast-food chain. The beef is tender and credible. The sauteed onions and mushrooms add a note of maturity.  The rosemary-parmesan bread is warmly aromatic—you can practically see those little wavy vertical lines that cartoonists draw above pies on windowsills to connote olfactory allure. The Honey Bacon Club is more quotidian in conception—turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato—but it too is better than average: the meats are sliced thinly and delicately, and they’re folded on themselves and carefully interleaved rather than piled on the sandwich in dense stacks, as is the case at delis of the quantity = quality school.

I enjoyed eating both of these sandwiches. They were vastly superior to the equivalent sandwiches from Subway—their raison d’etre is to be superior to the equivalent sandwiches from Subway. But I left Quizno’s with no warm feelings; I left feeling like I’d been had. It took me until the second sandwich to figure out why, but it’s this: sugar in the condiments.

The Black Angus comes with a honey mustard sauce that tastes like honey with maybe a tiny little dab of mustard. The club comes with a similarly sucrotic “French dressing.” Some Quizno’s subs come with a hot sauce that goes by the cutesy name Jimmy’s Batch 81 Three Pepper Chili Sauce. (You can also buy it in bottles.) As an experiment I tried some on the club sandwich. It’s spicy, sort of—somewhere between mild and medium on the off-the-shelf salsa scale. But mostly it’s sweet.

They don’t taste bad, these candified sauces. They taste pretty good, poking sweetly around the corners of the smoky steak and salty bacon. But once you’re aware of their presence, the sandwich no longer feels sincere; it feels manipulative.

There’s nothing wrong with sweetness, of course. But for a restaurant to lean so heavily on sweetness feels like an appeal to the gustatory lowest common denominator, a deliberate attempt on the part of some high-paid corporate flavor consultant to appeal to the six-year-old in us that still thinks we’re getting away with something when we eat dessert without finishing dinner. It’s like those climactic moments in movies when the strings swell on the soundtrack and part of us swoons while another part recoils: we know when our responses are being exploited by the fascistic compulsion of the too-easy signifier. (We describe such scores as syrupy or cloying or saccharine.)

Blaming a franchise restaurant for emphasizing the ingredients with the deepest, most powerful consumer appeal is like blaming the lion for devouring the zebra. The triumph of sweetness is the inexorable logic of the food chain. But who wants to be the zebra?

Quizno’s is playing with something powerful and primitive here. What, after all, does sweetness mean? Sweets are the foods we weren’t allowed to eat as kids; they’re the foods we still ration ourselves on as adults, conscious of our weight, our teeth, our body’s needs. And yet our most intimate language associates sweetness with love: bitter or salty foods can be delicious, but few among us call our beloved “bitterheart” or “salt-lips” or “vinegar” except, perhaps, at moments of unusual rancor and creativity. Sugar is the love that the world insists on denying us, rationing it out in pitifully small portions after we’ve eaten our vegetables.

Quizno’s is running a strange TV ad right now. It’s predicated on the idea that the guy who prefers the non-Quizno’s sandwich was raised by wolves; in a striking sequence, he’s shown suckling at the mother wolf’s teat along with his fellow cubs. The implication couldn’t be clearer: anyone who has known the sweet taste of mother’s milk can taste that love again, for the price of a toasted sub.

It’s a false promise. Mother’s milk sustains us; sugar just rots our teeth.