Peter Buck, Co-Founder of the Subway Sandwich Chain, Dies at 90

The $1,000 loan he gave to a friend’s son was used to start a single sandwich shop. That shop grew into the world’s biggest fast-food chain.,

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Peter Buck, whose $1,000 investment in a sandwich shop grew into Subway, the world’s largest chain of fast-food restaurants, died on Thursday in Danbury, Conn. He was 90.

His death, in a hospital, was announced by Subway in a statement. No cause was given.

Dr. Buck was a nuclear physicist by training. He was helping to design nuclear power plants in 1965 when Fred DeLuca, the 17-year-old son of a friend, asked him for advice on how to pay for his college education. Dr. Buck, who had fond memories of an Italian sandwich shop that his family had patronized when he was growing up in Maine, suggested he open something similar.

But first Dr. Buck drove Mr. DeLuca to Maine and took him to Amato’s, the sandwich purveyor of his youth, which now has franchises throughout Northern New England. Dr. Buck gave him a $1,000 loan, and within two weeks Mr. DeLuca had opened Pete’s Super Submarines — named after Dr. Buck, who became his partner — in Bridgeport, Conn.

Mr. DeLuca, a native New Yorker, made radio ads for what he called “Pete’s Submarines.” It turned out that listeners thought he was saying “Pizza Marines,” and so, for clarity’s sake, the partners changed the name in 1968 to Subway. (The sandwiches had long been called subs because the shape of the bread resembled a submarine, though they are known variously in other parts of the country as heroes, grinders, po’boys or hoagies.)

The two soon started opening restaurants in other locations. Today Subway has nearly 40,000 restaurants worldwide. Though a few thousand of its shops have closed in recent years, Subway is still the world’s largest food chain by number of outlets. (McDonald’s and Starbucks are larger by revenue.)

Forbes has estimated Dr. Buck’s net worth at $1.7 billion, and he is listed by The Land Report as the seventh-largest landholder in the country. His holdings include more than 1.2 million acres of timberland in Maine.

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The inside of a Subway sandwich shop in Manhattan. Subway has nearly 40,000 restaurants worldwide, making it the world’s largest food chain by number of outlets.Credit…Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Peter Buck was born on Dec. 19, 1930, in South Portland, Maine, where his father, Ervin Buck, and his mother, Lillian (Draper) Buck, ran a large farm. Peter and his brother, David, helped plant, cultivate and pick lettuce, squash, celery and other crops. Their mother later became a journalist and worked at The Portland Press Herald.

Peter was the first in his family to go to college. He studied economics and science at Bowdoin, graduating in 1952, and then earned a doctorate in physics at Columbia.

He was hired in 1957 by General Electric at its Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y., where he performed tests on atomic power plants that were being developed for Navy submarines and surface ships. In 1965 he joined the United Nuclear Corporation in White Plains, N.Y.; he later worked at Nuclear Energy Services in Danbury, Conn.

While immersed in high-level calculations for nuclear power plants, Dr. Buck was also helping to build the sandwich business. He even donated his own kitchen table to outfit the first shop, at a strip mall in Bridgeport.

The day the shop opened, on Aug. 28, 1965, he and Mr. DeLuca sold out of their foot-long subs, which they topped with Pete’s secret salad dressing and sold for 69 cents (about $6 in today’s dollars). Subway’s foot-long subs today range in price from $5.50 to $8.95.

Dr. Buck said it took 15 years for the business to become profitable. But the two opened additional shops anyway, Mr. DeLuca told Fortune magazine, to “create the image of success.” They earned enough for Mr. DeLuca to go to college after all, at the University of Bridgeport. He graduated in 1971.

Through a relative, Dr. Buck met Haydee Pinero, the daughter of Jesus T. Pinero, the first native-born governor of Puerto Rico. They married in 1955 and had three children. They later divorced, and Dr. Buck married Carmen Lucia Passagem, who died in 2003.

Dr. Buck is survived by two sons, Christopher, from his first marriage, and William, from his second; and five grandchildren.

Mr. DeLuca died in 2015.

Dr. Buck was a major philanthropist, especially in the field of education and health care. He also donated a 23.1-carat ruby, named the Carmen Lucia ruby after his wife, to the gem collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

But mostly, he kept a low profile. He drove an old car, The Wall Street Journal reported, and ate at least five Subway sandwiches a week.

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