With more than 350 chains in Technomic’s Top 500 offering sandwiches, it’s challenging for a restaurant kitchen to take the standard elements—bread, fillings and condiments—and build a sandwich that’s not only widely appealing but also a differentiator. So what are the ingredients and other elements that turn an ordinary sandwich into a menu signature? These operators just might have the secret sauce, as their concepts have become sandwich destinations.
1. Triple play
“There are three things that make a great sandwich: texture, flavor and temperature, all working together,” says Jay Miller, director of product development for Firehouse Subs. Firehouse’s signature Hook & Ladder hits on complementary flavor notes with its filling of sweet-salty ham, smoked turkey, mellow Monterey Jack cheese and a hint of spicy brown mustard, he says. That’s combined with “the magic that happens when we steam the meat and cheese,” and it all comes together with the crunch of the bread.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop’s signature, A Wreck, is also a carefully choreographed layering of ingredients, with attention to proper portioning. “It's kind of like if Potbelly’s bread had a short list of BFFs, the meats and cheese would be at the top of the list,” says Ryan LaRoche, vice president of culinary innovation for the chain. “Roast beef, old world salami, oven-roasted turkey, hickory-smoked ham and Swiss cheese—it has every flavor you want in one sandwich in perfect proportions.”
2. Beyond basic condiments
Condiments and what LaRoche calls “crazy toppings” can be a key differentiator, operators agree. Potbelly’s proprietary hot peppers, for example, add that signature touch to A Wreck. Miller worked on the flavor profile for Firehouse’s new Spicy Cajun Chicken Sub for over a year, perfecting the housemade Cajun mayo that ties the ingredients together. To signaturize it, he developed a blend of dry seasonings—cayenne, black pepper, white pepper and a couple of secret spices—that he mixes into mayonnaise. Pepper jack cheese adds another layer of heat.
At casual-dining concept Rusty Bucket, “We spend a lot of R&D time on condiments to create unique sandwich flavor profiles,” says Corporate Chef Josh Yosick. The Asian Tuna Wrap, for example, features seared, soy-marinated yellowfin tuna with wasabi mayo and marinated Asian vegetables with a ponzu dip. The combination of condiments and cooking techniques builds layers of flavor that customers crave, Yosick adds.
3. Crafted with care—and speed
Condiments can be made ahead and cross-utilized, but many sandwich ingredients have a short shelf life, so it’s imperative to make sandwiches fresh to order, says Yosick. But speed is also of the essence during lunchtime at Rusty Bucket, even though it’s full service. “We push for 20 minutes or less on checks,” he says. To make that happen, the kitchen slices tomatoes and onions every morning and preps filling ingredients, keeping everything accessible in the walk-in to build sandwiches fresh to order. Burgers and sandwiches make up 60%-65% of orders at lunch.
For Potbelly, speed isn’t the deciding factor when developing and evaluating a sandwich addition, says LaRoche, but “People are time-constrained at lunch, so it’s a significant consideration. Every sandwich is made to order, but simple builds with the ability to customize result is the outcome we desire. We’re not slow or expensive, but we’re not the fastest or cheapest, either.”
4. Make it delivery-friendly
At many limited-service spots, including Firehouse, more sandwiches are going out the door than are being eaten in the restaurants, says Miller. As part of the R&D process, Firehouse tests every sandwich in its new eco-friendly to-go containers to make sure it travels well. “You can’t compress subs or the juices go into the bread and ruin the texture,” he says. “We used to wrap the subs in paper, but the [sugarcane pulp clamshell] containers better retain their integrity.”
5. Market the ‘wow’
Marketing is the final building block that can turn a sandwich into a signature. Firehouse and Potbelly both build their sandwiches in front of customers, tempting them ahead of time with eye-catching photos on menu boards, POP materials and Instagram feeds. “The visuals get the message across,” says Miller.
Plate presentation actually boosted Rusty Bucket’s pork tenderloin sandwich to signature status, says Yosick. This Indiana specialty features a beer-battered, pounded tenderloin on a bun. At Rusty Bucket, the proprietary sesame buns are made by a local bakery, and the tenderloin is pounded so thin, it outstretches the bun by 2 to 3 inches, making for a “wow” presentation as the sandwich comes to the table. To add more of a regional connection, the chain is testing a new, more descriptive name: the Hoosier State Fair Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. “It’s already the No. 1 seller in our Indiana locations after 10 years,” says Yosick.