On Oct. 11, a special issue of People magazine highly anticipated on 16th Avenue hits newsstands, devoted entirely to country music. It will profile 25 of the genre’s hottest stars—from baby-faced Miranda Lambert to rugged George Strait—and will reveal where the stars shop, train, get styled and pampered, party and eat. The usual, oft-chronicled suspects are on the circuit: Jamie, Trim Classic Barber, Katy K’s Ranch Dressing, Robert’s Western World and Pancake Pantry. Slipping in under the media radar, though, is a small eatery just on the periphery of Music Row, a sandwich shop that has been around so long it was feeding Barbara Mandrell when country wasn’t cool: Sub Stop.
While it might not be as hip and photo-ready as Bar Twenty3 and Mirror, the Pepto-Bismol-pink building is hard to miss. “We thought painting it bright pink would be good, cheap advertisement,” says Judy Hall, co-owner with longtime friend Bill Taylor. “We figured it would get people’s attention.” It did, though not exactly in the way they imagined. “Déjà Vu had opened on Demonbreun, and it was painted bright purple,” Taylor recalls. “While we were working on this building, people kept coming in and asking if we were gonna be a strip club, too. I would tell them, ‘No, we’ll be making fully clothed sandwiches.’ ”
That was 1989, when Sub Stop was forced to abandon its tiny freestanding shop across 17th Avenue from its current location. By then, it had been feeding Music Row, Vanderbilt and much of midtown for more than a decade. Taylor and Hall are natives, locals that can give directions around town entirely by where places used to be. They both went to Bellevue High School, where Red Caboose Park is now. The current Sub Stop is where Carco used to be, and The Box Seat in Green Hills is where Nautilus Submarine Sandwiches—the precursor to Sub Stop—was. That was one of a small, homegrown chain of submarine sandwich shops owned by Fred VanColln, who had a successful business on 20th Avenue South, Copies Unlimited, now known as Midtown Printing.
“Fred had spent time in the Northeast, so he was familiar with that kind of sandwich,” Taylor says. “I grew up here, so all I knew was barbecue and fried chicken. My first partner though, John Cates, had gone to school in Boston, and he said there was a deli on every corner. He thought we should go in the food service business, and we went to work for Fred. He had several locations of Nautilus—in Green Hills, downtown, across the street here and on Elm Hill Pike. He sold all five locations and a bakery to us. That was a lot for guys as young as we were at the time. Eventually, John and I split up, and I took the shop on Elm Hill Pike.”
Taylor came up with what he thought was a pretty good name for his place: Nashville Subway. “One day a guy walked in the door and said, ‘Hey buddy, you have to change the name of your store.’ He wasn’t even nice about it. I thought, ‘Who the heck is this guy telling me I have to change the name of my store?’ ” As it turned out, he was the franchisee of the Subway chain, which would ultimately surpass McDonald’s in number of locations worldwide. “It turned out okay,” Taylor says. “They paid for us to have everything changed—signage, the menus.” It was his sister who came up with the name, taking a cue from a local convenience store chain. “She said that it seemed like there was a Hot Stop on every corner in Nashville, why not a Sub Stop? So that’s how it happened.” While Taylor can remember exactly how a customer likes his sandwich fixed after just one visit, he’s a little fuzzy on the exact timeline of the Music Row Sub Stop. It was probably in 1979 or so that Cates sold his Nautilus shops, and not long after, they went into bankruptcy. With the Elm Hill Pike area’s industrial profile changing, business there had declined, so Taylor decided to leave that shop and purchased the 17th Avenue store from the bank, renaming it Sub Stop. In 1980, Hall—then going through a divorce—came on board, quite unexpectedly entering the sandwich business. “I knew I needed to find something to do to make a living,” Hall says. “I had known Bill since high school, I like people, and it seemed like a great opportunity.”
The original Music Row Sub Stop was so small, Hall says, that two people could cover the place. “We only had about 15 seats; the kitchen and counter were on a platform higher than the dining room. One person would take the order and hand it back to the person making the sandwich, then that person would hand the sandwich back and the counter person gave it to the customer. That’s how we came to know all our customers so well.”
They included Barbara Mandrell, in spite of her attempts to be incognito. “She used to come in wearing a scarf around her head and sunglasses,” Taylor remembers with a laugh. “We finally said, ‘You can take those off, we know who you are, and it doesn’t make any difference to us anyway.’ She used to order the same thing all the time, bologna and American cheese. It wasn’t on our menu, and we didn’t keep bologna for anyone but her. [Producer] Norro Wilson figured out a way to get in the back door even when it was locked, and he’d just come in and make his own sandwich when we were busy.”
In 1989, the owners of the property where the shop sat asked Hall and Taylor if they would consider moving and taking over the much larger corner building across the street. They agreed, and spent the next three months renovating the former auto accessory store. “It like to have killed us,” Taylor says. “Working all day in the store, then running over there. Of course, it ended up being a much bigger job—and a lot more money—than we anticipated.”
Hall adds, “We closed on a Saturday and opened on a Monday. We didn’t miss a day. That Monday, we did three times the amount of business we normally did. People had just been curious about it and wanted to check out the new store in the pink building. The only things we brought over from the old store were our sink and our ice machine, and that broke the first week from overuse.”
When they expanded their space, they also added some new items to the menu—soups made fresh daily, salads and some side items—but the submarine sandwiches remain the calling card for this beloved shop. The most popular are the Super Sub, with ham, turkey, cooked salami, Genoa salami and mozzarella cheese, and the chicken salad. “People like ours because it’s not sweet—we use a lot of garlic, so it has a lot of flavor,” Taylor reveals. “And everyone says our tuna salad is the best.”
“We use industrial-strength mayonnaise,” Hall confides. “You can stand a knife up in the jar, it’s like concrete.”
Quality ingredients and personal attention define Sub Stop sandwiches, which are to Subway what Fat Mo’s burgers are to McDonald’s. Boar’s Head meats or in-house roasted birds, hand-sliced tomatoes and onions (they do use pre-shredded lettuce), and white or wheat bread fresh-baked by Charpiers Bakery are standard. Taylor and Hall arrive every day around 7:30 a.m. and informally share the duties. “We just do whatever needs to be done—we’re the chefs,” laughs Hall, who makes the potato and pasta salads, while Taylor concentrates on soup. They use seven employees through the lunch rush, which generally starts around 11:30 a.m. and goes steady for the next couple hours. Though their celebrity clientele includes everyone from Kenny Chesney to Jay Cutler—whom they fed all through his Vanderbilt career—no one gets special treatment. “Everybody stands in line,” says Hall. “The atmosphere in here is a lot like it was at Vandyland. Everybody knows everybody, and they get to talking and visiting so much that sometimes we have a hard time getting them to come back and pick up their sandwich.”
As most all of Nashville knows, Vandyland closed this summer after more than 75 years of business on West End Avenue, a victim of spiraling real estate values in midtown. The Sub Stop partners—who have been operating without a lease for some time now—know that a similar fate could well be around the corner for them. “Look around us,” Taylor says. “There’s so much building going on, it’s inevitable that eventually there will be a high-rise condo on this corner one day. But until then, we’ll keep doing our best to feed our customers every day. We’re not Subway. This is who we are—this store represents Judy and I, and we’re grateful that that’s been what our customers have wanted all these years.”
And what exactly does Kix Brooks want when he comes to Sub Stop, as he does on a regular basis? According to Hall and Taylor—and now People magazine—tuna salad on whole wheat with jalapeño peppers. Always.
Sub Stop is open 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday.