Larry Feldman’s mother was so proud. Her son, whom she and her husband had raised in the projects of East New York, Brooklyn, had graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1974. Three years later, at the age of 27, he was already on his way to a successful legislative career, working on Capitol Hill as Deputy Minority Counsel to the House Banking Committee. But then, he made a change. He decided to make sandwiches.
Feldman was fed up with the institutional quality of lunch options around the Hill and jumped at the opportunity to open one of the first franchises of Subway, a sandwich shop founded by Fred DeLuca, a friend from Feldman’s undergraduate days in the late 1960s at the University of Bridgeport. In a vacant space across the street from the House of Representatives, next door to Congressional Liquors, he opened his first Subway store. His mother, to put it mildly, was not pleased. “You could hear the screaming all the way from Brooklyn to Washington,” he recalled of the phone call in which he broke the news of his career change.
That was more than 30 years ago. Today, Subway has more than 43,000 stores in 83 countries, surpassing McDonald's as the largest fast food franchise in the world. Feldman is the CEO of Subway Development Corp. of Washington, which includes Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, with nearly 1,100 Subway locations under his control. In March, he became the CEO of Subway Development Corporation of South Florida as well, with 250 locations in operation. He is also the creator of the Subway Café, a more upscale spot with an extensive menu that includes fresh-baked breakfast pastries, coffee, paninis, and gelato in a setting marked by exposed brick walls and comfortable sofas.
His overwhelming success has helped bring his mother around. “Once we bought her a condo in Florida, she came around to thinking making sandwiches was not so bad.”
LawNotes Managing Editor Andrea Strong ’94 spoke with Feldman to learn more about growing up Brooklyn, and his transition from working in the House to making heroes.
BLS: Tell me a bit about your background before law school.
LF: I am very blessed that I had great parents. My sister and I never realized that we were poor. For most kids like us who grew up in the projects, it was just about having fun. My dad, like many of the fathers at that time, had just returned from the war. It was a great life. We were outside playing from eight in the morning until dinnertime. We played baseball, stickball, and every sport imaginable, on concrete. It’s funny. I didn’t know that schools had grass ball fields until I was eight or nine years old and visited cousins in Long Island.
We left Brooklyn when my dad, who was a hairdresser, bought a salon in Monticello, New York. I loved small town living. At the age of 16, I could drive, and I remember pulling into a gas station and having the attendant say, “Good morning!” In all my years in Brooklyn, I’d never heard that. I never wanted to leave. I thought, “I’m going be a lawyer and settle here.”
BLS: You wanted to be a lawyer from an early age. Where did that goal come from?
LF: Originally, I wanted to be a doctor, but the sciences were not for me. History and English were much easier for me, so law was a logical step. It may also go back to watching Perry Mason and seeing what lawyers could do. That, plus I had two uncles, George Warmund ’31 and David Kitzes ’70, who went to Brooklyn Law School, and I loved hearing stories about the law. BLS was a great choice. I am one of those crazy guys who loved law school. I learned something new every day. Professor Crea was an awesome teacher who became a mentor to me as well. He also taught my uncles, and so there was a nice connection there.
BLS: How did you end up on capitol Hill so soon after graduating from law school?
LF: I was an intern to Congressman Stewart McKinney of Connecticut during the summers of law school. When I graduated, I went straight to Washington and became his legislative assistant. Then I moved on to become Deputy Minority Counsel to the House Banking Committee. McKinney actually loaned me the money to open my first Subway store, which is still there today. I would be involved in congressional hearings in the morning, and at lunchtime, I would run across the street, take off my jacket and tie, put on my apron, and start making sandwiches. The lobbyists would say, “Hey, you look very familiar!” Then I would run back to the Hill after the lunch rush. After opening a few more successful stores, I said to myself, “I am no longer the minority counsel, I am a sandwich maker.”
BLS: Do you have any regrets about leaving the Hill?
LF: No. I was once given good advice not to have a job, but to find a labor of love. And that’s what I have. I wake up every morning not to a job, but to a career that lets me help individuals become entrepreneurs. A woman wrote to me recently and told me that she sent her daughter to medical school because of her Subway franchise. That’s what it’s about -- creating opportunities for people.
BLS: You’ve made philanthropy a large component of your Subway business model. Why is that?
LF: Philanthropy is a big part of my family’s life and our business model. My wife Diane is extremely involved in charity work. Together, through our Subway shops and the sale of pink ribbons, we have raised almost $2 million for the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer research. We want to set an example. We are good corporate citizens and we also want to show people how to be philanthropic citizens. We give each of our employees in our corporate offices $500 to use for charity. But it’s not about writing a check. They need to be active in the work, participating in the charity as well.
BLS: What changes are you seeing within the industry?
LF: The real issues come from the obstacles that the government puts in the way of the small business entrepreneur. I have direct contact with a number of congressmen, and the conversations continue to get back to the banks saying that government regulation prevents them from loaning money, and the government saying, “What do you mean? You have money to loan!” The small business person is caught in the middle, which is a shame. If the dollars were made available, the amount of money we could give back in the form of increasing our tax base would stimulate our economy.
BLS: Do you have any advice for young lawyers and budding entrepreneurs?
LF: When I was growing up, it was about telling your children to be doctors, lawyers, or accountants. Now those doctors and lawyers and accountants are telling their children to be entrepreneurs. My wife Diane and I have three sons who have that entrepreneurial spirit. My oldest son, Daniel, is a men’s clothing designer. His made-in-America line, Feltraiger’s, takes its name from our original Russian name, which was changed at Ellis Island. My middle son, Adam, is the Vice President of Marketing for Subway in South Florida, and he really brings us into the 21st Century with his social networking expertise. And my youngest son, Jonathan, is Feltraiger’s Director of Marketing.
While I support entrepreneurship, I strongly believe that everyone considering a career in business should study law. It allows you to see the issues clearly, and to find the solutions. It’s a very different kind of thought process. It affords you the skills to do whatever you want to do. Even if it’s not in your heart and soul to practice law, you can use the study of law and apply it to business. There is no better background.
BLS: Do you have a favorite Subway sandwich?
LF: I’ve often asked people, “What would your last meal be?” My wife’s happens to be a bacon cheeseburger, but mine is a Subway tuna sub.