Delis go upscale

When Dennis Pierce, associate dir. of dining svcs., Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs, arrived in Chicago for the NRA show in May, the first place he went (after dropping off his bags at his hotel) was Fox and Obel, a very upscale grocery store and cafe located on the corner of McClurg Court and Illinois Street. "I went last year and maxed out the credit card," he said. "I did the same thing this year. That place is truly amazing if you're a foodie."

Food markets like Fox and Obel or Dean and DeLuca in New York City, along with sections of grocery stores like the Rochester, NY–based Wegmans, have given new meaning to "deli sandwiches," "prepared foods" and "take-out meals."

Fox and Obel sandwiches taste as scrumptious as they sound. For example, Fox & Obel Club on Peasant Sourdough is: "A triple-decker of house-made sourdough bread layered with fresh, all-natural, hormone-free roasted turkey breast, smoked ham, Applewood-smoked bacon, marinated tomatoes, leaf lettuce, Wisconsin Muenster cheese and our own basil-spiked mayonnaise."

Garden growth: Even fast-food chains like Wendy's, McDonald's and Jack in the Box are jumping onto the premium deli food trend. McDonald's, for instance, touts 16 kinds of lettuce in its new premium salad—which is dressed with one of Newman's Own. Wendy's recorded a 4.7% increase in same-store sales (open at least a year) while that percentage fell in most other chains in 2002. Experts believe one distinction was the strength of Wendy's Garden Sensations salad sales, introduced last year.

Rudy Spano, dir. of dining services, University of San Diego, is following the lead of these upscale delis and, of course, responding to customers' requests, by adding bolder ethnic flavors to many of his deli offerings—from salads to sandwiches and spreads. For example, the department is using a lot more condiments like chipotle mayonnaise and creamy horseradish sauce—"items with more kick," he says.

Salad offerings at La Paloma, the upscale campus deli, are also heading in the same direction. "We're much more likely to offer a hummus with a vegetable tray these days," says Spano. "Before we'd pretty automatically use ranch dressing." Spano says many students are forsaking traditional dressings altogether, opting for salsas instead. This trend dovetails with an increasing concern students are showing for healthful options. Turkey is the biggest selling sandwich filler on campus, according to Spano who adds, "We also serve a lot of fresh grilled chicken breasts."

It's toast: Spano says that he's been offering more grilled sandwiches at La Paloma, too, and attributes that trend not to upscale delis but rather Quiznos, the chain that almost everyone agrees popularized toasted sandwiches.

Pierce has found toasted sandwiches popular, too, especially after the f/s department purchased a panini grill, which customers operate themselves. That way students can build their own sandwiches and then grill them to the desired degree of crispness, he says.

The UConn staff investigated a "plethora" of artisan breads from a number of suppliers, plus a variety of fillings, when they decided to upgrade sandwich offerings, according to Pierce. "We gave the ideas to the test kitchen chef—who transforms concepts into reality." Following a tasting, the dining service department now offers 16 standard sandwich "types" from a basic wrap to a focaccia, with fillings such as breaded eggplant with roasted peppers, provolone cheese and a mushroom spread.

Mary Kimbrough, nutrition services dir., Zale Lipshy University Hospital, Dallas, has also augmented the bread offerings in her two facilities to include such locally purchased delicacies as pretzel bread

Plan for sales: Glenyce Feeney, system dir., nutrition and food services, Baptist Health, Little Rock, AR, expects to open a "corner bakery kind of operation" in a brand new cafeteria slated for completion in 18 months. "We'll introduce different kinds of breads and fillings—like bruschetta and more gourmet cheeses," she says. "We'll also be offering condiments and spreads like cranberry relish, and pesto with our grilled chicken breast sandwich. Interest in 'different' kinds of foods is growing here. We wouldn't be planning to offer these items if we didn't think they were going to sell."

But it's not just sandwiches that have been gussied up. Salads have, too. Not many operations are offering plain wedges of iceberg anymore. Customers are demanding salad selections that match the complexity of their sandwiches. For example, Spano finds that the bold ethnic flavors that tantalize San Diego students when they're choosing sandwiches, do the same when they're selecting salads. A Greek salad offering is gaining in popularity on campus, he says.

UConn upgraded its salad offerings with different toppings, including Caesar, for students looking for a fancier salad option. They've also made salads portable, adapting McDonald's "shakes" for customers who want movable healthful options no matter the time of day. For example, spring weekend is challenging at best, says Pierce. "We've got a lot of people working early into the morning who want something to eat but not an entire meal. These salads work well for those customers."

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