Peter Buck, nuclear engineer who became the cofounder of the Subway fast food giant – obituary

Peter Buck - AP
Peter Buck - AP

Peter Buck, who has died aged 90, was an American nuclear physicist who co-founded Subway, the sandwich chain which became one of the world’s best known fast-food franchises.

Buck was well established in a career in nuclear engineering when he was asked for help and advice by Fred DeLuca, a 17-year-old family friend who was trying to raise money to fund medical studies but could find only low-waged work in a local hardware store. Buck recalled a popular Italian sandwich shop from his own youth in the state of Maine and offered to fund a similar venture to the tune of $1,000.

Their first outlet – offering foot-long bread rolls known as submarines or subs, with a choice of fillings plus “secret” salad dressing – opened on August 28 1965 as Pete’s Super Submarines in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They sold 312 sandwiches on the first day at a top price of 69 cents, but rapidly lost most of their stake money. A second shop lost more, but a third broke even.

A change of name to Subway in 1968 made the shop-fronts more eye-catching. By 1974, Buck and DeLuca had 16 outlets across Connecticut. To drive more growth, they changed the business model to one based on owner-operated franchises; boosted by sales of its flagship “Biggest, Meatiest, Tastiest” sandwich (and later by the slogan “Eat Fresh”), the operation eventually generated substantial profits for its founders.

The number of Subway shops in recent years passed 40,000 – including more than 2,000 in the UK, the first in Brighton in 1996 – making Subway the world’s largest single-branded fast-food chain by number of outlets, though McDonald’s has higher revenues. Buck retained a half-share of the business and accumulated a fortune estimated at $1.7 billion.

A Subway sandwich - Kevin Britland/Alamy
A Subway sandwich - Kevin Britland/Alamy

Peter Buck was born on December 19 1930 at South Portland, Maine, where his parents Ervin and Lillian, née Clayton, owned a large farm. Educated at South Portland High School, he graduated in economics and science from Bowdoin College in Maine and went on to take a doctorate in physics at Columbia University before embarking on a career with the General Electric Co at Schenectady, New York, testing nuclear power units for US Navy submarines and ships. He worked for two more nuclear manufacturers for some years before devoting himself full-time to the expansion of Subway.

Fred DeLuca died in 2015 and was succeeded as chief executive of Subway by his younger sister Suzanne Greco. By then the chain’s growth had stalled. Hundreds of its US stores closed, sales per outlet were falling and the brand was outshone by newer competitors in a crowded market, including the fast-growing Jersey Mike’s chain.

Buck loyally continued to eat at least five Subway sandwiches a week, but gave a telephone interview from his modest home in Connecticut casting doubt on the leadership of Mrs Greco, whom he had known since her school-days, and criticising what he saw as the failure of the new generation of management to invest in refreshing the brand.

Much of Buck’s fortune was invested in nature: his 1.2 million-acre holding of timberland in Maine and farms in Alabama made him America’s seventh largest landowner. As a philanthropist he gave away more than $200 million, including $30 million to his local hospital and a 23-carat ruby, named in honour of his late wife Carmen Lúcia, to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Peter Buck married first, in 1955, Haydee Piñero, daughter of the first native governor of Puerto Rico; the marriage was dissolved and he married, secondly, Carmen Lúcia Passagem, who died in 2003. He is survived by a son from each marriage, another son and daughter of the first marriage having predeceased him.

Peter Buck, born December 19 1930, died November 18 2021