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A Tall Order

How Subway landed a franchise atop the steel frame of Manhattan's Freedom Tower

During the past two decades, Subway sandwich shops have popped up in almost every imaginable location, from gas stations to college dorms to the country of Oman. Now the ubiquitous chain is daring to go where no franchise has gone before--the stratosphere. Or at least the part that will be touched by Manhattan's Freedom Tower, destined to be the tallest office building in the United States when it tops out at 1,776 Footlongs.

As the building rises story by story above ground zero, Bill Grutta, vice president of operations for DCM Erectors, the company putting up the massive steel frame, estimates it could eventually take as long as 45 minutes for the building's 200 ironworkers and 1,500 to 1,800 tradesmen to ride the three separate elevators needed to reach the ground--and lunch. That's why the New York-based construction company solicited bids for a restaurant to operate at the top of the work site. Subway's bid beat out eight others, and the company put Manhattan franchisee Richard Schragger in charge of the skyline sandwich shop.

In late 2009, DCM welded together 36 shipping containers and painted them yellow to create the new restaurant, which includes six more boxes that make up an adjacent cafeteria. Then a crane lifted the restaurant, along with restrooms, offices and changing shanties, to the top of the construction site, where all of the restaurant's water and sweet chicken teriyaki are delivered by crane. As the building grows, a hydraulic system will lift the restaurant level by level until it tops out on the 105th floor.

"There's a sign on the outside, and it has all the wall coverings and graphics normally supplied by the company," Grutta says. "When you walk in there, you think you're in a normal Subway."

Well, not completely normal. For starters, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, including snacks such as hamburgers, hot dogs and pretzels to give workers some variety during the two to three years they'll be hanging out above Manhattan. DCM is also guaranteeing Subway a profit--though it won't say how much--in case the ironworkers tire of Cold Cut Combos.

Schragger has assembled a crack team of veteran employees from his other shops to man the quarter-mile-high shop. "Most employees are really excited about it," he says, pointing out that just getting to it could be difficult. "They feel they are building a piece of our country's history. But I expect one or two will start working, look down and realize they're actually afraid of heights."

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the April 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: A Tall Order.

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