Customers are demanding unique interpretations of the tried and true—and restaurateurs are giving it to them. These days especially, the sandwich can be a menu’s best friend. What other single item can span the dayparts so deftly, from breakfast and snacks to dinner and late-night supper—to say nothing of its lunchtime bastion? And what other item is flexible enough to suit so many menu concepts and price points, from the iconic 49-cent White Castle “slyder” to an upscale choice like the $25 Tuna Sandwich served at Belvedere in the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel: seared ahi tuna on nori brioche with edamame aïoli, mizuna, and enoki mushroom salad?
“The marketplace is hungry for unique sandwiches,” says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, which recently published its 19th Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America. “The sandwich is the number-one thing that Americans eat—at home and away from home—and not just at lunch.”
In fact, we consume nearly 200 sandwiches per capita, according to NPD data, or close to four sandwiches a week counting all eating occasions.
Restaurants’ share of this bounty has increased in recent years, accounting for 53% of all lunches in 2004, with non-burger sandwiches making up 30% of that total.
“Subway’s success made everybody realize that sandwiches are where the action is,” says Balzer. “Now we’re seeing operators taking the sandwich category and making it their own by tinkering with the bread, the fillings, and the condiments and toppings.”
That’s precisely what executive chef Sean Hardy has done at Belvedere in Beverly Hills. “At lunch, you can be most creative with sandwiches,” says Hardy. “People aren’t willing to spend the time or psychic energy to really think about what they order at lunch, so we find ourselves taking a lot of relatively familiar sandwich ideas and giving them an exotic twist to bring them up to Belvedere status.”
That tuna sandwich is a case in point. Other popular choices have taken their inspiration from regional standards or childhood favorites. There’s usually a po’ boy sandwich, such as this summer’s crispy soft-shell crab on a baguette, served with roasted garlic and habanero coleslaw and chick-pea fries ($23). A garnish of pickled watermelon rind—based on Hardy’s sister’s recipe—rounds out the sophisticated Southern reference. For heartier appetites, there’s an open-faced hickory-smoked brisket sandwich on sliced housemade brioche, garnished with crispy shallot rings and an upscale rendition of three bean salad ($19). Even the “standard” burger ($16) gets an upgrade, with Angus beef, grilled onions, and Tillamook cheddar. Collectively, sandwiches account for 30-40% of Belvedere’s lunch sales on any given day.
From an operator’s point of view, sandwiches are also great for food costs. At duckfat, a new quickservice café in Portland, ME, specializing in crispy pressed panini and Belgian-style frites (cooked in 25% rendered duck fat, for flavor), sandwiches solve many utilization dilemmas. Duckfat is the second restaurant of chef Rob Evans and his partner Nancy Pugh, owners of the $70-average-check Hugo’s across the street. Trim, overproduction, and other Hugo’s ingredients find their way onto the menu at duckfat, including not only the cooking medium itself, but also duck confit (for the second restaurant’s signature salad), braised short ribs, lamb shoulder, and so on.
“If I have trim from beautiful halibut at Hugo’s, I’ll make a chowder as the soup du jour at duckfat,” says Evans. “Before we opened duckfat, we had to trim everything super-meticulously at Hugo’s in order to keep our costs in line. Now, knowing that I can just lop off the end of a lamb shoulder and use it in a sandwich special at duckfat saves a lot of time, energy, and money.”
Sandwich-loving operators are fanatical about how their sandwiches come together. Noting the lack of quick but creative sandwich options in Austin, TX, Eddie Bernal won a loyal following when he opened the 34th Street Café in 1995. Competitors have arrived in droves, but Bernal and lunchtime catering chef/manager Lorie Lawler have kept customers coming with strict attention to quality and variety.
“I love sandwiches—I always have,” says Bernal, whose background is in casual chains. “At 34th Street, you get more than just a quick pickup food. Here, a sandwich is a meal.”
Bernal has gone to great pains to source all the right kinds of bread, including fresh five-inch Kaiser rolls (“soft enough so that they don’t hurt the roof of your mouth”), seven-grain loaves, and thick-cut amber rye, which is a little more delicate than a New York-style rye bread.
“You know what’s the toughest part of making a great sandwich, especially for a little restaurant like ours?” asks Bernal rhetorically. “It’s not the lettuce, it’s not the tomato, it’s not the cheese, it’s not even the meat. It’s the bread. The bread is the canvas for a sandwich masterpiece.”
Not surprisingly, however, equal care is taken with what goes inside the bread: top-of-the-line cold cuts and cheeses, freshly cut vegetables, homemade condiments like horseradish cream with Creole mustard and roasted red pepper caper aioli. Many of the most popular sandwiches are griddled to order under a heavy cast-iron pan, but even the cold sandwiches benefit from quickly passing the bread and cheese through a convection oven before the sandwich is built, to crisp the bread and melt the cheese.
“You have to take sandwiches seriously,” says Bernal. “You have to respect them, think about them, try to make them more creative.”
‘Which Trends to Watch
Bigger is better…from Hardee’s Monster Thickburger to overstuffed heroes and multi-layer sandwiches á la Dunderbak’s in Whitehall, PA, where you can “super stack” any sandwich with double meat for a buck extra.
Ethnic derivations…French croque monsieur, Vietnamese banh mi, Italian panini, Cuban roast-pork-and-ham sandwiches, Mexican tortas, Jamaican beef patties, and so on.
Full meal sandwiches…consider the pot roast sandwich at Moline, IL-based Machine Shed restaurants: pot roast topped with grilled onions, melted Colby cheese, and horseradish sauce, served on a toasted garlic-butter onion Kaiser roll.
Regional specialties…New Orleans-style muffalettas and po’ boys, Kentucky Hot Browns, beef on weck (Buffalo’s other famous food), Chicago hot dogs, Philadelphia cheesesteaks, etc.
Super burgers…not just a meat patty on a bun, but Angus beef on a homemade roll with caramelized onions, arugula, and aged cheddar or Maytag blue cheese.
Sandwich platters…assorted sandwiches for meetings, business lunches, box lunches, and other self-service catering applications mean big incremental sales.
Hot sandwiches…toasted, grilled, oven-melted, panini-pressed—anything hot, melty, and crispy demands attention.
Classics, upgraded…in New York City, ’wichcraft offers Sicilian tuna on a baguette with fennel, black olives, and lemon: “Tuna salad, anyone?”