On Wednesday night I decided that I had eaten my last sandwich from Taylor Gourmet. Admittedly, I came to this decision lightly, in the aftermath of a minor service gaffe at the Gallery Place location that warrants mention only because it clarified a fact I’d avoided admitting to myself for a long time: This is no longer a special place for sandwiches.
For those unfamiliar with the sandwich scene in Our Nation’s Capital, some context: Taylor Gourmet is a local chain of Philly-style hoagie shops that opened its first location on H Street NE in 2008, when that now bustling nightlife corridor was still the kind of place cab drivers refused to go. Like the handful of quirky and curious taverns that neighbored it, it took on an air of exclusivity. Anyone who experienced it firsthand came home and told tales of its awesomeness. The sandwiches are huge! It’s open late! It has really cool rustic/industrial decor!
But at some point between the opening of that first location and the ninth, something changed, and it’s hard to say exactly when or what. “Selling out” is a phrase that comes to mind, but we’re talking about a business here. Really it was something more than that. Much was made of the switch, in 2011, from Philly-baked Sarcone’s rolls to those of a local, ostensibly lower-quality baker. It could have been when Taylor stopped serving the Aramingo Avenue, history’s greatest breakfast sandwich. The owners opened and closed Taylor Charles Steak & Ice, a really decent cheesesteak shop, and replaced it earlier this year with Parts Parts and Service, a pretty lousy pizza joint. Or maybe it was President Obama’s visit late last year; it’s hard to maintain any semblance of mystique once the world’s most powerful suit has been there.
In a previous life, I had the opportunity to interview Bryant Keil, then and now the chairman and CEO of Potbelly. It was 2007, and Potbelly already had more than 100 locations, but was still years from becoming the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Keil told me, “Many businesses in our industry start out as something special, and then, over time, get really smart people who figure out cheaper, faster ways to do things and it all becomes the overprocessing of a culture.” Keil’s goal was to maintain a unique character at each Potbelly location, no matter how large the chain became. Has he achieved this goal? Probably not. Are Potbelly’s sandwiches still pretty good? I think so. Is Taylor Gourmet in danger of suffering the same fate on a local level? Maybe it already has.
Taylor has continued to rack up various best-of-D.C. honors, and for good reason. They have a huge menu with something for everyone. They deliver. They serve breakfast. They’ve gradually opened enough locations to effectively blanket the DMV region. I made this same argument is the argument to justify their choice as Best Sandwich in the 2012 Post Express poll. Even today, after six years of sandwiches, I’ve never been anything more or less than satisfied with my meals there, and that’s no small feat.
Ultimately, though, the most significant development since the advent of Taylor Gourmet is an explosion of high-quality, diverse sandwich options in Washington, D.C. The bar has been raised. Taylor is probably partly responsible for this, but competition is fierce, and it has plainly not kept up with the high standards it helped establish. Instead, it expanded its reach without evolving its offerings. It will remain popular as long as there are still folks finding Taylor for the first time, but for me, the time has come to experience life beyond hoagies.