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Sandwiches: Filled with promise

What makes for a successful sandwich menu? Variety and differentiation are the winning characteristics. That means sourcing a quality assortment of breads, filling ingredients and condiments and layering flavors and textures for maximum taste appeal. Techniques like grilling, pressing and saucing can also add to the eating experience. See how the sandwich gurus at these concepts get the formula right.

As operators played it safe by limiting new menu introductions over the last year, one category continued to soar: sandwiches. “Sandwiches, burgers and wraps were the most resilient food category in this economic downturn,” reports Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for market research company The NPD Group. In fact, it was the only broad category to post servings growth at both quickservice and full-service restaurants, with customers gobbling up more than 22 billion in 2009. The reason, Riggs adds: Sandwiches, are accessible, customizable, affordable, portable, and can be dressed up, gourmet-style, or dressed down. They also cross all dayparts—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and late night.

What makes for a successful sandwich menu? Variety and differentiation are the winning characteristics. That means sourcing a quality assortment of breads, filling ingredients and condiments and layering flavors and textures for maximum taste appeal. Techniques like grilling, pressing and saucing can also add to the eating experience. See how the sandwich gurus at these concepts get the formula right.

Concept: Big Daddy’s

New York City; 3 locations

Sandwich guru: Michael Siry, head of culinary operations

Sandwich: Mr. Big Stuff: Buffalo chicken breast, crispy onion rings, bacon, homemade bleu cheese sauce, lettuce and tomato on rustic ciabatta.

Price: $12

Sourcing smarts: Our bread comes from Orwasher’s—an old-world bakery that makes focaccia and ciabatta with a slight sourdough accent. They also supply marble rye, seven-grain and white bread. Getting the bread order right is the hardest part; not too little or too much in one day. For the Buffalo chicken, we tested out a bunch of hot sauces and settled on a basic Sysco wing sauce that we mix with butter, Worcestershire and ketchup. We buy everything from Sysco; one-stop shopping makes most sense.

Success secrets: Big sandwiches that offer value, plus lots of variety and flavor combinations. Our menu has a mix of healthy (grilled veggie) and indulgent (the big BLT) to please everyone.

Concept: Cousins Subs

Menomonee Falls, WI; 155 locations

Sandwich guru: Larry Weissman, VP of marketing

Sandwich: Cousins Cheese Steak Sub: Thinly sliced steak, melted provolone cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes. Patrons can customize this bestseller with a choice of four breads and several sauces and toppings.

Price: $4.49 for 7½-inch size; $8.98 for 15-inch size

Sourcing smarts: We purchase frozen bread dough from two vendors; two employees in each store thaw, stretch and proof it, then bake it into sandwich rolls two to three times a day. Deli meats and cheeses are private labeled for us by companies including Kraft, Unilever, Badger and Sargento; we work with their R&D departments on specs. We even source a proprietary mayonnaise from Kraft; it’s a heavy-duty mayo with a special flavor that’s a signature of Cousins. 

Success secrets: The aroma of baking bread attracts customers. Toppings like garlic-herb, jalapeño-cheddar and asiago are applied in house to produce breads that complement our fillings. Dressings and condiments give our sandwiches a “wow” factor and deliver big flavor. Greek vinaigrette and bacon/tomato dressing are two recent introductions.

Concept: Manhattan Bagel

Lakewood, CO; 77 locations

Sandwich guru: Chad Thompson, senior director of research and development

Sandwich: Turkey Chipotle Wrap: Turkey in a whole wheat wrap with Southwest corn & black bean salsa, chipotle dressing, jalapeño salsa cream cheese, Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, tomatoes, greens

Price: $6.50

Sourcing smarts: We opted for a whole-wheat wrap to fit into our healthy platform. Although we bake bagels, rolls and other fresh breads in stores, we purchase a high-quality wrap for this item. We source cream cheese spreads in various flavors to cross-utilize from breakfast to lunch.

Success secrets: Fresh-baked breads, proprietary cream cheeses and flavorful sauces are the differentiator; they’re a great way to deliver many options.

Concept: The Crooked Tree

New York City; 1 location

Sandwich guru: Daniel Rivera, partner and GM

Sandwich: Merquez (spicy lamb sausage) with goat cheese, tomatoes, red onions and greens

Price: $9

Sourcing smarts: We get two types of bread delivered everyday from Elio’s in New Jersey—ciabatta and an 8-inch soft hero, that we toast. The merquez sausage comes from Les Tres Cochons, a charcuterie company. Several produce vendors supply our salad ingredients, fruits and vegetables; we’re very hands-on buyers.

Success secrets: Every sandwich is made to order and we use a special technique to make it airy. We make our own pesto, which goes on several sandwiches, including the Crooked Veggie and Grilled Chicken with Mozzarella and Pesto. We’re in the process of bottling our pesto and selling it out of the restaurant. 

Concept: Napa Valley Grille

Los Angeles, CA; 3 locations

Sandwich guru: Joseph Gillard, executive chef

Sandwich: Stag’s Leap: Slow-roasted prime beef with bacon, red onion jam, creamy horseradish and smoked Cheddar on pretzel bread

Price: $11.50

Sourcing smarts: We buy our pretzel bread, nine-grain bread, sourdough and other artisan varieties from wholesaler LaBrea Bakery. We purchase beef and turkey breast and roast it in-house; charcuterie and cheeses come from Opus, a premium supplier. We make our own seasoned chips, salads and spreads to differentiate the sandwich lunches.

Success secrets: We started a boxed lunch program to make it easy for patrons to do business with us. Even our chefs and managers will deliver; we set ourselves apart by offering quality, handcrafted sandwiches to office workers who can spend a little more for lunch.

Concept: The Pita Pit

Coeur d'Alene, ID; 180 locations

Sandwich guru: Peter Riggs, VP of corporate development

Sandwich: Chicken Breast Pita: Grilled chicken in pita with choice of veggies, toppings and dressings

Price: $6

Sourcing smarts: The pitas come from a bakery in Eastern Canada in whole wheat and white. Standard is 8½ inches but we’re testing a 6-inch size. We buy whole muscle, boneless chicken breasts from one supplier. All our dressings are Hellman’s; we offer Ranch dill, Caesar, mayonnaise, spicy vinaigrette and several others. The tzatziki is a proprietary product.

Success secrets: Making every sandwich to spec. Customers choose ingredients to grill with their protein. Some keep it simple, but some ask for the works: avocado, pineapple, peppers, onions. We train employees to respect each person’s tastes.

Inside scoop

What trends are the sandwich gurus following? Here’s what may soon end up between the bread at their operations.

Joseph Gillard, Napa Valley Grill: Salume. Assorted salume—either housemade or purchased from a salumeria company layered with homemade condiments like olive relish and mostarda.

Michael Siri, Big Daddy’s: Boneless ribs. Our sister concept, Duke’s, has a lot of ribs on the menu. I’d like to pull the cooked meat off the bone and cross-utilize it for a boneless rib sandwich at Big Daddy’s.

Chad Thompson, Manhattan Bagel: Challah rolls and croissants. We’re looking into new breads to use in lunch LTOs. We’re also testing a bagel thin product; it’s a little softer and thinner and easier to eat on a sandwich.

Larry Weissman, Cousins Subs: Intense flavors. We are expanding our line of $2.99 sandwiches, which change every two months. They are slightly smaller in size with slightly less protein but more intense flavors.

Daniel Rivera, The Crooked Tree: Hot sandwiches. The merguez sausage, Cubano (made with chicken instead of pork) and others sell really well, so we’re adding more to the menu. Customers can order the same fillings enclosed in a crepe.

Peter Riggs, Pita Pit: Emerging vegetarian options. It’s no longer necessary to use a chicken or burger “substitute” for a vegetarian sandwich. We’re looking to source premium vegetarian patties and other products.

New options for the bread buyer

The best sandwiches start with the bread, and today’s bakeries and suppliers offer countless shapes, sizes, flavors and forms. There’s a push toward rustic, artisan-style breads and rolls, whole grains, ethnic-style breads and gluten-free options. Products are available fully baked, par-baked and thaw-to-oven. Many operators also purchase frozen dough that they shape, proof and bake in-house.

Rich Products offers numerous solutions so operators can bake their own distinctive sandwich covers—and attract customers with the aroma of fresh-baked bread. Frozen loaves of marble panini, wheat ciabatta rectangles, flax bread and foccacia buns are some of the on-trend choices.

The new Fresh ’n Ready Classic Sandwich Breads can be taken directly from the freezer and baked; no proofing is required since they rise directly in the oven. The first product in the line is a 4-inch square sandwich carrier roll in five varieties: multi-grain, Italian herb, Italian peppercorn, wheat and white.

French Meadow Bakery has launched three new gluten-free breads to meet the sandwich cravings of the growing number of customers with celiac disease and wheat allergies. The gluten-free trio includes a multi-grain bread, sandwich bread and cinnamon raisin bread. All are made with gluten-free ingredients, but the multi-grain bread combines amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff—in enough quantity to merit a whole-grain stamp by the Whole Grains Council.

Flatbreads and wraps are a growing trend in the sandwich category. Supplier Grecian Delight has long marketed pitas and panini squares to restaurants; new additions to their product lineup are Indian naan and Mediterranean lavash. “Lavash is unlike any other flatbread on the market,” says president Peter Parthenis Jr. “It’s the thinnest ever to be produced in our ovens and is versatile enough for wraps, calzone, pizza and more.”

Freschetta Flatz from Schwan’s come in two versions: Buffalo Chicken Flatz and 3 Meat Italian Flatz. These flatbread sandwiches come folded, packaged and ready to grab-and-go or menu. 

Sandwich stars

Chicken is the top sandwich variety—90 percent of chains and large independents that offer sandwiches have one on their menu, according to Datassential MenuTrends DIRECT. This includes quickservice, midscale and casual concepts. The second most popular sandwich across the board is turkey. Midscale and casual places have pushed it into the number two spot, but QSRs give ham sandwiches a slight edge over turkey. 

Other interesting tidbits: Midscale restaurants serve more BLTs and grilled cheeses than other segments and fewer meatball sandwiches. Paninis have grown to be as popular as hoagies or subs, and casual dining menus are zipping up their sandwiches with BBQ and Buffalo flavors and offering more wraps.

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