'Eat fresh' not just a slogan for one Rock Hill family

In 1987, Vance Houston opened Rock Hill's first Subway restaurant on Cherry Road across from the old mall.

Today, the Houstons own 10 franchises in three counties, and son John now runs the day-to-day operations. The family is about to open No. 11 in a new shopping center on Celanese Road near Interstate 77.

"A lot's changed," John Houston said of the sandwich maker. The Houstons' fortunes over the past two decades mirror the rise of Subway, which has become the nation's largest restaurant chain, surpassing even McDonald's.

Although Vance is now semi-retired, he still helps out at Houston Enterprises, which owns four of the five Rock Hill Subways; the one at Manchester Village has different ownership. The family also owns stores in Lake Wylie, Lancaster, Chester and the Fort Mill area.

The newest addition on Celanese will join four to five other shops envisioned at Graystone Station, located a block west of Mount Gallant Road. The project is being done by first-time developer Robert Beaty, known to many as the owner of Animal Supply House, which recently moved to the old Todd's Place on U.S. 21 Bypass. About 60,000 cars use that stretch of Celanese daily.

"Subway is a good anchor tenant," said Randy Ligon, the broker helping to market the center. "Mr. Houston recognized with that high traffic count, they couldn't go wrong."

To open a franchise, owners must attend "Subway school" in Milford, Conn., where they spend two weeks learning about finances and sandwich operations. Afterward, they must score above 85 on a written exam.

"We've gotten into a few other things, but Subway's really been our bread and butter," the younger Houston said. "We've just hung in there for all these years. We're not going to get out anytime soon."

Thanks to his years with the company, Houston, 34, said his dad gets the right of first refusal on new Subway franchises in the area. Back when the first franchise opened, John was 14 and found himself working as a busboy and dish washer.

Now, he's scouting new locations and is looking to put a Subway in the Newport area, near where a Super Wal-Mart is going up.

"Dad started this thing back in '87, and here we are today," his son said.