Interview: Larry Feldman

From being a Deputy Counsel for the Congressional Banking Committee
to becoming a “Sandwich Maker”

By Palmer Hasty

Larry Feldman was born in Brooklyn in 1950 and spent his early childhood in the Projects at 845 Schenck Street. In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Feldman said: “As far as Brooklyn contributing to my success? I could be the poster child for Brooklyn, I was poor, but I didn’t know I was poor.”

After graduating from Brooklyn Law School in 1974 Feldman worked at the U.S. House of Representatives, eventually working up to Deputy Counsel for the Banking Committee. After several years he made a sudden career change and decided, as he lightly called it, to become a “sandwich maker.”

He opened a Subway sandwich shop franchise and thirty seven years later, today Feldman is a resident of Boca Raton, Florida, controlling a sandwich shop empire of 1,500 Subway franchises, including over 300 in Florida alone.
Like so many Brooklyn youths in the 1950s and 60s, Feldman grew up playing sports in the streets. “I grew up playing stickball, baseball, stoopball, and handball. As a kid, every sport I played was on concrete.”

Feldman laughed; “Don’t tell anyone; but until my cousin took me when I was eight years old to see his school on Long Island, where they had these gigantic green fields in the backyard where they played baseball and football, I had imagined all sports were played on concrete.”

Many times during the interview Feldman used the familiar term “back in the day” when referring to his youth, in a tone that revealed both how proud and how fond he still is of his Brooklyn background. “What can I say? In my opinion it was just a better time back then, a time that I miss.”
Feldman continued: “Life back then was all about being outside with your friends from morning until night. We never had to worry about security. You were always with groups of people and everyone was out there for the same reasons.”

“Culturally, in terms of their family and school, everyone kind of grew up together. And to me it was more than just a childhood,
it was a Brooklyn childhood.”

As someone willing to leave a prestigious career and take the leap in a completely different direction to realize a vision, Feldman embodies the classic entrepreneurial spirit; but he also freely admits that “it’s a very different world today, everything seems so disjointed. You can be sitting there talking to two kids, for example, and they’re busy texting. I understand that’s the way it is, but to tell you the truth I would prefer to go back to the other way, I feel we’re losing something important.” Feldman paused for a moment, then finished his thought; “I know I sound nostalgic, of course, but the way the world is today is just not my preference.”

When he was thirteen his family moved to Sheepshead Bay where they lived at 2533 Batchelder Street. As he put it, they had moved up in the world. “We moved to Sheepshead Bay, that was a big move for us, from the Projects to the Co-ops. It was like moving up-town.”
Feldman’s father was a hair dresser who commuted to his business on Long Island every day. His father later managed Hair Salons in the Borsch Belt in Monticello, New York, where the family had moved when Feldman was seventeen. His mother was a housewife, who sold Avon products part-time to earn money so she could send he and his younger sister to camp during the summer months.
Feldman’s grandfather was a Russian immigrant who landed on Ellis Island in 1922. He had an interesting story about his name. At Ellis Island the immigration officials thought the name Feltraiger was too Russian sounding, so they simplified it to Feldman.

Although living in Boca Raton for the past 25 years, Feldman still loves to bring a conversation back to Brooklyn. He was proud of the fact that two of his three sons, who currently own a men’s clothing label called Feltraiger (named after their great-grandfather) recently moved their flagship clothing store from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Feldman attended grammar school at PS 273 and junior high at Shellbank, before attending Sheepshead Bay High School.
Throughout the interview he never hesitated to praise some aspect of his Brooklyn childhood, for example, his education. “Everything was so different back in the day. I would put my education and training in the Brooklyn public schools during the 1950s and early 60s up against any school today, even the private schools my sons attended later.”

When Feldman was 17 his family moved from Sheepshead Bay to Monticello, New York. “Monticello was where the Jews and Italians went during the summers in early 1960s,” he recalled. “I remember the city would empty out at the beginning of summer as everyone headed for the bungalow colonies in Monticello. That was a huge part of our culture.”

Before going to Brooklyn Law School Feldman earned his BA at Bridgeport University in Connecticut. One of his college acquaintances at Bridgeport, Fred DeLuca, the co-founder of the multi-billion dollar Subway franchise empire, would later play an instrumental role in Feldman’s decision to make what some people would consider, especially his mother, a drastic career change.

While Feldman was still at Brooklyn Law he interned for the House of Representatives in Washington. Following graduation and completion of his Internship, Feldman landed a prestigious job as Deputy Counsel for the House Banking Committee.

Three years into his job as Deputy Counsel, one morning in 1977 Feldman was at his desk in the U.S. House of Representatives reading the Wall Street Journal, and noticed that Subway (the venture co-founded by his college acquaintance Fred DeLuca) was offering a franchise opportunity in a space across the street from the House of Representatives. Feldman was familiar with DeLuca’s founding of Subway while they were still in college. DeLuca had borrowed a $1,000 from a family friend and opened a sandwich shop called Pete Subs which was very popular with all the college kids in Bridgeport. Pete Subs eventually became Subway.

An idea flashed through Feldman’s mind. A quality, health conscious sandwich shop just a quick walk from where 14,000 Congressional employees were eating institutional food for lunch every day, and without any sandwich competition nearby. Feldman recalled thinking: “That’s a no brainer.”

So Feldman convinced a Congressman to invest in a Subway franchise. Feldman said he told his friend, “You put up the money and I’ll do the rest.” They established an absentee ownership.

Feldman would hold Congressional hearings with lobbyists in the morning, then go across the street to his new franchise, put on an apron and serve sandwiches during lunch hour, then return to The House and hold more hearings in the afternoons.
He enjoyed telling the story of how lobbyists would enter the sandwich shop for lunch and see Feldman behind the counter. They would look puzzled and say, “You look very familiar.”
Feldman’s hypothesis was right. That Subway shop became an instant, and huge success.

His first Subway franchise quickly became the #1 Subway in the country, and it’s still there today. Feldman added; “The Congressman and I were successful with the venture from day one.”

It didn’t take the intuitive entrepreneur in Feldman long to realize the potential of the Subway brand. Soon thereafter, he opened another very successful franchise at Andrews Air Force Base. He was then able to finish the first phase of his plan; to buy the Congressman out as well as convince DeLuca “to give me a larger role in the franchise business.”   After opening yet another franchise at the University of Virginia, he remembers thinking he must have been a frustrated entrepreneur all along.

In his words; “That was when I called my mom and told her I’m no longer your son the minority counsel, I’m now your son the sandwich maker…I’m still fond of saying…after she stopped screaming in protest, we bought her a condo in Florida and she got over it.”

In addition to his position as CEO of Subway Development Corporation of Washington for over three decades, Feldman has also become CEO of the Subway South Florida territory where he has 300 restaurants. In fact, Entrepreneur Magazine ranks Feldman’s Subway Development Corporation of Washington as one of the leading franchise operations in the country.

Feldman has also achieved a childhood dream of living in Florida. He and his wife Diane have lived in Boca Raton for the past 25 years. He said as a child he flew to Miami with his family to visit his grandmother. When the doors of the Miami airport opened, and he felt that wave of warm Florida air, right then and there he decided; “Yes, this is the kind of weather I want to live in.”

Over the years Feldman has received many awards for his philanthropic work. This year he will serve on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Boca Raton and the Boca Regional Hospital Foundation.
When I asked Feldman if he has ever had any second thoughts about choosing to own sandwich shops which required leaving a prestigious position working for a Congressional Banking Committee in Washington, he immediately and unequivocally replied: “I don’t regret for a second making that choice. I was born to be an entrepreneur.

Photos and Captions: In order of appearance.
Larry Feldman: Photo Courtesy of Larry Feldman.
Larry Feldman with Subway Founder Fred DeLuca: Photo Courtesy of Larry Feldman.
Larry Feldman in front of Subway logo wall: Photo Courtesy of Larry Feldman.