On the fast track

Three fast-casual concepts tap into the trends.

As a breakfast and lunch destination, sandwiches are a main focus at this bakery café. "Value positioning is very important to meet Americans' new levels of frugality; everyone's trying to do more with less," comments Philip Smith, executive chef for Bruegger's. His "Perfect Pairs" match a full-size sandwich with a cup of soup, offering the customer a solid value proposition. Recent winners include Butternut Squash Soup paired with a hot Ham and Cheddar Panini for $6.49.

"We offer freshly made, easily understood food with enough interest to keep customers coming back," Smith explains. "Our strategy is to keep one foot in the old and one in the new." That means trying to cut down on sodium without ever skimping on flavor. "Spices with undertones of flavor—like smoked paprika—are the best route to reach this goal," he adds.

Bruegger's works closely with manufacturers to create proprietary soups and condiments, like the chain's signature sun-dried tomato spread. "We've had the same soup partner for four years," reports Smith. "We start with an idea that is developed in our test kitchen, they come back with a prototype and we tweak it a bit. Not only does the taste have to be outstanding, it has to meet our price and nutritionals."

Expanding the "& Company" side of the menu is the 2011 goal for this concept, and sandwiches are the vehicle. "Everyone eats sandwiches—they're a common language in every culture," explains Dawn Voss, chief administrative officer. All the items on the menu fall into the culinary categories of Asian, Mediterranean or American, and sandwiches follow suit. The first sandwich in the lineup is Meatball on ciabatta, with the same flavor profile as Noodles' Spaghetti & Meatballs. The second is The Med, a combo of chicken, feta cheese, vegetables and tzatziki dressing on flatbread—a takeoff on a favorite salad that's since become the most popular sandwich. A Wisconsin Cheesesteak is also on the sandwich roster—it's a riff on the chain's best-loved item, Wisconsin Mac & Cheese.

One of the most creative additions is the Spicy Chicken Caesar sandwich inspired by what the kitchen team likes to eat. "The cooks were piling Caesar salad on flatbread and dousing it with sriracha sauce for staff meals," says Voss. Each sandwich comes as a duo with soup or salad, offering value and eliminating the veto vote by the person who doesn't want pasta. "Our aim was to develop sandwiches that ranged from healthy to indulgent to fit every mood," explains Voss. All the sandwiches cross-utilize ingredients already in inventory, so Noodles & Company didn't have to add new skus. For 2011, flavored and whole-grain flatbreads will expand the line.

Ever since the first Garbanzo opened in 2008, the concept has been in step with the Mediterranean trend—which keeps getting stronger, according to Bob Bafundo, director of franchise development and operations. "There's been tremendous press on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and as the population gets older, they are actually practicing healthier eating," he says. Garbanzo's menu offers fresh, lighter items, focusing on soups, salads, sandwiches and sampler plates. Guests have the ability to customize selections, mixing and matching pitas, laffas (thin bread for wraps), falafel, shwarma, hummus, seasoned rice, sauces and dressings. Four new soups include three vegan and gluten-free options: Spinach and Rice, Mediterranean Lentil and Roasted Eggplant.

"We're paying attention to special dietary needs, and around 90 percent of our menu is gluten-free," Bafundo explains. Garbanzo is also benefiting from the snacking trend; items like hummus and wraps adapt well to mid-afternoon munching.

Right now, Garbanzo's culinary team is working on salads, ingredients to add to pitas and spicier sauces; the red chili sauce with Roma tomatoes and jalapeños and cilantro sauce spiced with jalapeños are both doing well. "I'm often surprised by the amount of kick customers are seeking these days," adds Bafundo.

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