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Will Roark’s Acquisition of Subway Lead to a Sandwich Monopoly? It Depends on How You Slice It!

Right before Thanksgiving, Josh Sisco wrote that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether the $9.6 billion purchase of Subway by private equity firm Roark Capital creates a sandwich shop monopoly, by placing Subway under the same ownership as Jimmy John’s, Arby’s, McAlister’s Deli, and Schlotzky’s. The acquisition would allow Roark to control over 40,000 restaurants nationwide. Senator Elizabeth Warren amped up the attention by tweeting her disapproval of the merger, prompting the phrase “Big Sandwich” to trend on Twitter.

Fun fact: Roark is named for Howard Roark, the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, which captures the spirit of libertarianism and the anti-antitrust movement. Ayn Rand would shrug off this and presumably any other merger!

It’s a pleasure reading pro-monopoly takes on the acquisition. Jonah Goldberg writes in The Dispatch that sandwich consumers can easily switch, in response to a merger-induced price hike, to other forms of lunch like pizza or salads. (Similar screeds appear here and here.) Jonah probably doesn’t understand the concept, but he’s effectively arguing that the relevant product market when assessing the merger effects includes all lunch products, such that a hypothetical monopoly provider of sandwiches could not profitably raise prices over competitive levels. Of course, if a consumer prefers a sandwich, but is forced to eat a pizza or salad to evade a price hike, her welfare is almost certainly diminished. And even distant substitutes like salads might appear to be closer to sandwiches when sandwiches are priced at monopoly levels.

The Brown Shoe factors permit courts to assess the perspective of industry participants when defining the contours of a market, including the merging parties. Subway’s franchise agreement reveals how the company perceives its competition. The agreement defines a quick service restaurant that would be “competitive” for Subway as being within three miles of one of its restaurants and deriving “more than 20% of its total gross revenue from the sale of any type of sandwiches on any type of bread, including but not limited to sub rolls and other bread rolls, sliced bread, pita bread, flat bread, and wraps.” The agreement explicitly mentions by name Jimmy John’s, McAlister’s Deli and Schlotzky’s as competitors. This evidence supports a narrower market.

Roark’s $9.6 billion purchase of Subway exceeded the next highest bid by $1.35 billion—from TDR Capital and Sycamore Partners at $8.25 billion—an indication that Roark is willing to pay a substantial premium relative to other bidders, perhaps owing to Roark’s existing restaurant holdings. The premium could reflect procompetitive merger synergies, but given what the economic literature has revealed about such purported benefits, the more likely explanation of the premium is that Roark senses an opportunity to exercise newfound market power.

To assess Roark’s footprint in the restaurant business, I downloaded the Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) database of sales and stores for the top 500 restaurant chains. If one treats all chain restaurants as part of the relevant product market, as Jonah Goldberg prefers, with total sales of $391.2 billion in 2022, then Roark’s pre-merger share of sales (not counting Subway) is 10.8 percent, and its post-merger share of sales is 13.1 percent. These numbers seem small, especially the increment to concentration owing to the merger.

Fortunately, the NRN data has a field for fast-food segment. Both Subway and Jimmy John’s are classified as “LSR Sandwich/Deli,” where LSR stands for limited service restaurants, which don’t offer table service. By comparison, McDonald’s, Panera, and Einstein are classified under “LSR Bakery/Café”. If one limits the data to the LSR Sandwich/Deli segment, total sales in 2022 fall from $391.1 billion to $26.3 billion. Post-merger, Roark would own four of the top six sandwich/deli chains in America. It bears noting that imposing this filter eliminates several of Roark’s largest assets—e.g., Dunkin’ Donuts (LSR Coffee), Sonic (LSR Burger), Buffalo Wild Wings (FSR Sports Bar)—from the analysis.

Restaurant Chains in LSR Sandwich/Deli Sector, 2022

ChainSales (Millions)UnitsShare of Sales
Subway*9,187.920,57634.9%
Arby’s*4,535.33,41517.2%
Jersey Mike’s2,697.02,39710.3%
Jimmy John’s*2,364.52,6379.0%
Firehouse Subs1,186.71,1874.5%
McAlister’s Deli*1,000.45243.8%
Charleys Philly Steaks619.86422.4%
Portillo’s Hot Dogs587.1722.2%
Jason’s Deli562.12452.1%
Potbelly496.14291.9%
Wienerschnitzel397.33211.5%
Schlotzsky’s*360.83231.4%
Chicken Salad Chick284.12221.1%
Penn Station East Coast264.33211.0%
Mr. Hero157.91090.6%
American Deli153.22040.6%
Which Wich131.32260.5%
Capriotti’s122.61420.5%
Nathan’s Famous119.12720.5%
Port of Subs112.91270.4%
Togo’s107.71620.4%
Biscuitville107.5680.4%
Cheba Hut95.0500.4%
Primo Hoagies80.4940.3%
Cousins Subs80.1930.3%
Ike’s Place79.3810.3%
D’Angelo75.4830.3%
Dog Haus73580.3%
Quiznos Subs57.81650.2%
Lenny’s Sub Shop56.3620.2%
Sandella’s51520.2%
Erbert & Gerbert’s47.4750.2%
Goodcents47.3660.2%
Total26,298.60230,629100.0%

Source: Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) database of sales and stores for the top 500 restaurant chains. Note: * Owned by Roark

With this narrower market definition, Roark’s pre-merger share of sales (not counting Subway) is 31.4 percent, and its post-merger share of sales is 66.3 percent. These shares seem large, and the standard measure of concentration—which sums the square of the market shares—goes from 2,359 to 4,554, which would create the inference of anticompetitive effects under the 2010 Merger Guidelines.

One complication to the merger review is that Roark wouldn’t have perfect control of the sandwich pricing by its franchisees. Franchisees often are free to set their own prices, subject to suggestions (and market studies) by the franchise. So while Roark might want (say) a Jimmy John’s franchisee to raise sandwich prices after the merger, that franchisee might not internalize the benefits to Roark of diversion of some its customers to Subway. With enough money at stake, Roark could align its franchisees’ incentives with the parent company, by, for example, creating profit pools based on the profits of all of Roark’s sandwich investments.

Another complication is that Roark does not own 100 percent of its restaurants. Roark is the majority-owner of Inspire Brands. In July 2011, Roark acquired 81.5 percent of Arby’s Restaurant Group. Roark purchased Wendy’s remaining 12.3 percent holding of Inspire Brands in 2018. To the extent Roark’s ownership of any of the assets mentioned above is partial, a modification to the traditional concentration index could be performed, along the lines spelled out by Salop and O’Brien. (For curious readers, they show in how the change in concentration is a function of the market shares of the acquired and acquiring firms plus the fraction of the profits of the acquired firm captured by the acquiring firm, which varies according to different assumption about corporate control.)

When defining markets and assessing merger effects, it is important to recognize that, in many towns, residents will not have access to the fully panoply of options listed in the top 500 chains. (Credit to fellow Sling contributor Basel Musharbash for making this point in a thread.) So even if one were to conclude that the market was larger than LSR Sandwich/Deli chains, it wouldn’t be the case that residents could chose from all such restaurants in the (expanded) relevant market. Put differently, if you live in a town where your only options are Subway, Jimmy John’s, and McDonald’s, the merger could significantly concentrate economic power.

Although this discussion has focused on the harms to consumers, as Brian Callaci points out, the acquisition could allow Roark to exercise buying power vis-à-vis the sandwich shops suppliers. And Helaine Olen explains how the merger could enhance Roark’s power over franchise owners. The DOJ recently blocked a book-publisher merger based on a theory of harm to input providers (publishers), indicating that consumers no longer sit alone atop the antitrust hierarchy.

While it’s too early to condemn the merger, monopoly-loving economists and libertarians who mocked the concept of Big Sandwich should recognize that there are legitimate economic concerns here. It all depends on how you slice the market!

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