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5 ways to innovate with sandwiches

restaurant sandwich menu tips

Anyone can slap together a simple ham and cheese on rye, but today’s chef-inspired sandwich menus are expanding the boundaries of this humble meal.

From fillings to breads, flavor mashups to spreads, today’s sandwiches provide a blank canvas with unlimited possibilities for ambitious chefs seeking to make a mark in this ever-popular category.

Latin and Asian influences are altering the sandwich landscape. According to Technomic’s 2017 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches have doubled their presence on menus over the last four years. Younger patrons are fueling much of that demand: 25% of consumers aged 18-34 said they are interested in ordering Vietnamese sandwiches, while 39% of that same group say they’d like to try Cuban sandwiches. Mexican cemitas and tortas are also moving into mainstream dining.

Premium ingredients are also gaining ground, driven by consumer demand. Quality and taste are by far the top factors consumers weigh when deciding where to buy sandwiches, according to Technomic’s 2016 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report. Consumers also said they would be more likely to order and pay a premium for sandwiches described as fresh (57%), premium (56%), prepared daily (53%), housemade (46%) and natural (44%).

Savvy operators provide more detail about the source or heritage of sandwich ingredients, calling out higher end meats, local bakers or cheesemakers to underscore the thought that goes into choosing individual sandwich components.

Reimagined classics are a popular way to experiment and energize a menu. Contemporary takes on grilled cheese pack in everything from fried chicken and pork belly to lobster and short ribs, while Reubens stray so far from the definition that they’re unrecognizable.

The Not Your Grandma’s Reuben from Electric Hero Sandwich Shop’s five Michigan locations combines turkey, slaw, guacamole, provolone and bacon on grilled sourdough. Butcher & Bee, with locations in Charleston, S.C., and Nashville, serves a Pulled Squash sandwich, a variation on pulled pork, with thin slices of squash tossed in housemade barbecue sauce, then topped with cabbage slaw on a hoagie roll.

Chicken is still a hotbed of innovation, with many consumers waxing poetic about fried chicken sandwiches. That popularity has inspired multiple variations on a theme. Sack, chef Michael Voltaggio’s busy Los Angeles sandwich shop, serves several cold fried chicken sandwiches adorned with little more than cheese, lettuce, pickles, hot sauce and mayo, along with a handheld variation on chicken cordon bleu, with ham, Swiss cheese, arugula, Dijon mustard and mayo.

At nearby Plan Check Kitchen, the Southern Fry teases many flavors out of a simple chicken breast: It’s cold smoked; buttermilk-brined; dipped in seasoned rice flour; fried in beef tallow; topped with duck breast ham, spicy green pimento cheese and housemade kombu-seasoned pickles; and served on a housemade bun.

Breads are getting more attention from many restaurants, with less-mainstream choices such as multigrain, pretzel rolls, sprouted varieties, ciabatta and focaccia providing a distinctive chewy, crusty or pliable characteristic to sandwiches. For in-demand breakfast sandwiches, English muffins, croissants, tortillas and wraps enfold eggs, burritos and other options.

As chefs and restaurants explore the possibilities of sandwiches, the scope of options and craveability only stands to increase.

This post is sponsored by Butterball Foodservice

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