Subs & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Part 1: With a Little Help From My Friends

Don Fertman, longtime Subway exec, writes about a pivotal moment in his 40 years of sobriety: what happened after he went public about his recovery on "Undercover Boss"

January 11, 2024
Don Fertman

In 1983, after a difficult transition from rock life to office life, Don Fertman got sober. Given a second chance by the founder of the small fast-food company where he worked, called Subway, Don rose through the ranks to become its global chief development officer. He’s sharing excerpts from his forthcoming memoir, “Subs & Drugs & Rock & Roll: A Boomer’s Long and Winding Road From The Beatles to Subway Boss, Descent Into Addiction and Road to Recovery,” with All Sober. Read Part 2 here!

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 2010, I appeared on the reality show “Undercover Boss” as the chief development officer of Subway. I had been nominated to represent the company by our CEO and cofounder, Fred DeLuca, since he himself was extremely high profile within the organization and would easily be recognized by employees. On one of the show’s highest-rated episodes, I publicly admitted to being an alcoholic.

No, I did not fit the old stereotype of alcohol addiction — in the gutter, retching and hopeless — but instead had become a very successful sober alcoholic in a very prominent company, who was and remains in long-term recovery.

I had no reason to admit this, other than that somewhere in the back of my mind it seemed an important part of the story that was about to unfold, given the show’s theme about second chances and turning one’s misfortunes into good fortune. I knew it would not be a surprise to my peers at Subway HQ, as I was already very open about being a recovering alcoholic and tried to carry that message whenever possible.

I did not discover the true importance of my very public admission, however, until two days after the show ran, when I received an email message that changed my life, primarily because I had helped change somebody else’s. That letter was from a man named Harold Andrews, barely two weeks past his last drink, and it was sincere, earnest and touched me deeply. By the time I finished reading it, I knew in my heart that I had done the right thing with my public admission.

Harold’s note began with an important statement, “Please understand that I am not asking you for anything,” and ended with, “Please let me thank you once again for being brave enough to go on national television and let a fellow recovering alcoholic know that with determination and hard work, anything is possible.”

Two years later, the full impact of Harold’s email hit me when I discovered, during the filming of a documentary entitled “The Anonymous People,” that he was now two years sober himself. The director of the documentary, Greg Williams, went on a quest to find Harold, last reported to be living in Indiana. Greg found and filmed Harold, who was once again earnest in his claims that my television appearance had given him the hope he needed to stay sober and get a job back in his chosen field.

When I viewed the footage of Harold describing his transformation, it dawned on me that there were hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Harolds in the world, and they needed help and hope. And thanks to Harold, his story and mine were told once again on network television in a follow-up “Undercover Boss” episode.

It was Harold’s story and the outreach to me from a number of drug and alcohol recovery organizations, several of which I joined, that gave me the idea to write a book based on my own experience, strength and hope. Perhaps if I tell my own full story, others can understand the incredible benefits of long-term recovery. Or as Harold said, “With determination and hard work, anything is possible.” That, and a little — no, a lot — of help from my friends!

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