A basic sandwich gets a big flavor boost when the traditional elements are upgraded, as with this “Portobello Panino” with sweet soy glaze, Dijon mustard and smoked mozzarella. Photo courtesy of kikkoman sales usa. As away-from-home sandwich consumption rises, familiar menus call for inspiration and innovation
By Rita Negrete
Sandwiches have been a constant of the restaurant industry through the decades. They’re the menu equivalent of comfy, go-anywhere jeans. Convenient, portable, filling and inexpensive, sandwiches are the most frequently menued type of entrée in both full-service and limited-service restaurants.
Yet familiar as they are, sandwiches are also a nexus of creative innovation. The format of bread, meat, cheese and toppings gives chefs and operators plenty of room to play with ingredients and flavors, and at the same time reassures customers that they won’t be getting into anything too unexpected.
That combination of familiarity and surprise, convenience and thriftiness, seems to align with the mindset and cravings of Americans today. Away-from-home sandwich consumption has risen significantly over the past couple of years. Consumers polled for Technomic’s 2012 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report say they are eating sandwiches more often and are sourcing more sandwiches away from home than they did two years ago: 43 percent say they eat at least four sandwiches each week, compared to 39 percent of consumers polled in 2010. And consumers report that half (49 percent) of the sandwiches they consume are purchased at restaurants or other foodservice locations, up from 44 percent in 2010.
The slow improvement in the economy since the recession likely plays a role in this increase. Another significant factor is the continued growth of breakfast sandwiches in the limited-service segment. Data from Technomic’s MenuMonitor database shows that, over the past two years, sandwich entrées have increased 35 percent on breakfast menus at the Top 500 limited-service restaurants.
Sandwiches are created using several basic categories of ingredients — breads, meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments — providing unlimited potential for interesting options. Many consumers indicate a willingness to try new varieties of the basic ingredients. Half say they are likely to try new or different breads for sandwiches purchased away from home, and nearly as many say they like to sample new or unique meats and cheeses in their sandwiches. More than a third of consumers polled say they’d be likely to try new flavors of sandwich condiments and spreads.
Digging into the bewildering variety of sandwiches and wraps offered on today’s chain and independent restaurant menus, Technomic’s recent sandwich report uncovered four key trends that are likely to continue influencing sandwich menus through the coming years.
The latest menu trends for sandwiches call for innovation at breakfast, with builds and proteins that emphasize craveability, health and quality. Look for increased innovation in terms of proteins, with new breakfast sandwiches featuring chicken-apple sausage, grilled chicken breast or fried chicken.
Other menu trends include: sandwich “thins,” a broadening array of flavors for mayonnaise and the expanded use of turkey. Beyond the conventional low-calorie offerings, “thin” preparations are another way for menu developers to highlight health for sandwiches. Mayonnaise presents itself as a platform for flavor differentiation, with next-level global flavor accents mixed in — including sriracha, harissa, curry and wasabi. Finally, turkey proves its viability as a versatile protein, and allows menus to underscore variety with new preparations for poultry beyond chicken.
Increasing consumer interest in both upgraded grilled cheese sandwiches and mini-sandwich forms makes these “grilled cheese minis” a craveable and simple menu solution. Photo courtesy of la brea bakery. GOURMET GRILLED CHEESE TAKES OFF
In the midst of a tough economy, consumers tend to gravitate to classic, feel-good comfort foods. The simple American grilled cheese sandwich is one comfort-food staple getting an update.
The retro grilled-cheese-sandwich trend has been going strong for a while, but now whole concepts are being built on the appeal of high-end, high-quality grilled cheese sandwiches.
In 2010, 36 percent of consumers expressed a preference for grilled or toasted sandwiches; today, that has risen to 44 percent. In addition, more consumers are willing to wait longer and pay more for hot, grilled sandwich options. As consumers’ food preferences shift — and as diners learn to appreciate the distinctive flavors imparted by higher-end ingredients — grilled cheese sandwiches that feature new cheeses, complementary toppings with a gourmet spin, and artisan breads are increasingly popular. Several emerging concepts are capitalizing on the demand for gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, often in a fast-casual setting or even from a food-truck kitchen:
> In New York City, Artisanal Bistro offers upscale grilled cheese. Selections include: The Big Cheese, with Fontina, Taleggio, Gruyère and Emmental cheeses; and The Frenchie, with Brie, mushrooms and black truffles.
> Cheesies in Chicago offers grilled cheese sandwiches from classic versions to the Jalapeño Popper, featuring cheddar, cream cheese and fresh jalapeño slices on sourdough bread.
> At Little Muenster in New York City, grilled cheese sandwich varieties include: Asiago, Parmesan, Muenster, butternut squash and sage brown butter on peasant bread; Gruyère, chèvre, leek confit and pancetta on French sourdough; and Manchego, anchovy, caramelized onion, mushroom and red pepper on peasant bread.
> In San Francisco, The Melt pairs a Brie & Apple Butter grilled cheese sandwich with creamy wild mushroom soup.
HOT DOGS GET HAUTE
Similar to the rethinking of grilled cheese sandwiches is the new approach to the humble hot dog. Chains looking to drive interest in signature offerings are introducing hot dogs that feature eclectic extras. Some of the past year’s menu additions and limited-time offers include:
> Sonoran Hot Dog — a quarter-pound hot dog wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon and topped with charro beans, pico de gallo, spicy pickles, lime mayonnaise, jalapeño-ranch and mustard, wrapped in a Mexican bolillo roll — Hacienda Mexican Restaurants, South Bend, Ind.-based
> Grilled Beef Hot Dog — topped with coleslaw, cornichons and spicy mayonnaise — Parc Brasserie, Philadelphia
> Guacamole Steak Frank — all-beef sirloin frankfurter topped with diced tomatoes and made-from-scratch guacamole — Steak ’N Shake
Based on consumers’ perennial craving for comfort foods, the trend of innovation in traditional American fare won’t stop at hot dogs. As chefs continue to experiment with standard menu offerings, look for other traditional comfort-food sandwiches to be modernized with unconventional toppings.
MINI-SANDWICHES, BIGGER THAN EVER
One of the hottest trends in the sandwich format is mini-sandwiches — a versatile dining option suitable for a variety of occasions and needs. Technomic research shows that consumers increasingly prefer downsized sandwiches. This increased interest is strongly driven by consumers aged 25 to 34, who seem to find minis a particularly good fit with their sociable, on-the-go lifestyles. Two out of five consumers in this age group say they’d like more restaurants to offer mini-sandwiches, compared to just a quarter of the same age group surveyed in 2010.
The idea of a medium-sized portion for a moderate price strongly resonates with guests who gravitate toward a more-for-the-money idea of value. Quiznos’ $4 line of slim Toasty Torpedoes offers a pared-down portion with a price to match. Another motivator is calorie control. For instance, among Crispers’ “health-a-licous” menu of items less than 500 calories are: Half Chicken Pecan Salad Sandwich, Half Signature Steak Sandwich, Half Southwest Chicken Sandwich and Half Caribbean Chicken Flatbread. And Caribou Coffee introduced a 160-calorie Canadian Bacon Mini breakfast sandwich featuring smoked Canadian bacon, eggs and melted Wisconsin cheddar cheese on a toasted mini ciabatta roll.
Other innovative light bites seen on recent menus include:
> Mini Tri-Tip Dips — tri-tip roasted and simmered in French onion broth, topped with smoked Gouda, roasted pasilla peppers and caramelized onions on three mini brioche buns — Claim Jumper
> Mini-Sandwich Sampler — Piña Colada Chicken Sandwich, Wild Mushroom Chicken Sandwich, Skinny Dip and BBQ Pork Sandwich — Kahunaville Island Restaurant & Party Bar, Las Vegas
> Beef Brisket Sliders — three mini rolls topped with horseradish cream, crunchy mini potato pancake, savory beef brisket and caramelized onions — TooJay’s Gourmet Deli, West Palm Beach, Fla.-based
The Mexican torta is the latest in a line of global sandwiches showing up on mainstream menus. This version layers pork, refried beans, pickled jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cilantro and mayo on a soft bolillo. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL PORK BOARD. GLOBAL SANDWICHES EVOLVE
Globally inspired sandwich options are a great way to offer variety and novelty. A third of consumers say they’d be likely to try global flavors and ingredients in their sandwiches. Three out of 10 consumers — and two-fifths of Millennials — say they’d like to see more global sandwiches on restaurant menus.
Italian and Mexican are the most mainstream varieties of global sandwiches, but, beyond these, Cuban- and Mediterranean-style sandwich items show room for growth. Newer types of global sandwiches, such as Korean and Vietnamese, are particularly appealing to younger consumers. Indian naan sandwiches and South American arepas are also coming into vogue.
Some recent examples of new-world sandwiches in chain restaurants:
> The Mediterranean Trio — Turkey Titan with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, black olives, roasted turkey breast and red pepper hummus; Veggie Hummus Supreme with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, cucumbers, black olives, cheddar, provolone and red pepper hummus; and Mediterranean Beef with lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumbers, black olives, mayonnaise, roast beef and spicy Mediterranean relish — Milio’s Sandwiches, Madison, Wisc.-based
> Cuban Sandwich — made on a pressed roll and topped with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard — Tedeschi Food Shops, Rockland, Mass.-based
> Vietnamese Chicken Tartine — with pickled carrots, radish, cilantro and chile aïoli — Le Pain Quotidien, Belgium-based
> Thai Hot Tuna Wrap — made with tuna salad, cheddar cheese, spicy Thai sauce, lettuce, tomato, avocado, alfalfa sprouts and mango chutney — Roly Poly
Although Mexican flavors are among the most popular for global sandwiches, the market is already saturated with taco and burrito offerings. An alternative and more recent trend is Mexican tortas — soft, round buns typically filled with meat, beans, guacamole, salsa and lettuce. Taco Bell recently introduced a variation on the torta with its Tortadas — grilled chicken and other fillings folded and grilled inside a flour tortilla. Capt’n Nemo’s, a limited-service sub chain based in Illinois, serves a hot sandwich called the Mexicanne, featuring guacamole, turkey breast, refried beans, brick cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and giardiniera mix.
Asian influences are also finding their way to popular sandwich chains, with Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches leading the way. Lee’s Sandwiches sells all types of banh mi at its roughly 40 locations, mostly in California. There, adventurous diners can find banh mi prepared with such ingredients as grilled chicken, pâte, head cheese, sardines and shredded pork skin, all served on a fresh French baguette. Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group, parent of Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill and Flat Top Stir-Fry Grill, has launched
SC Asian, a fast-casual concept that menus several versions of the banh mi, including its Saigon Meatball, with chiles, pickled veggies, cilantro and spiced butter.
A new generation of sandwiches is ever-developing. With the fusion of innovative ingredients, including unique combinations of flavor and influences from afar, the traditional American favorites are readily, although delicately, evolving into upscale indulgences. Contemporary twists on the familiar will be well received by the rising number of sandwich lovers hungry for flavor.