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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.