Piled High
By Lynn Petrak
Sandwich makers are laying it on thick with new meat, cheese and upscale bread selections, and they’re going more gourmet by emphasizing freshness at all levels of foodservice.

What, one wonders, would Dagwood Bumstead think? Would the famous “Blondie” character, popularized in the 1930s and ‘40s in print and on screen, trade in his beloved basic quadruple-deckers for ciabatta piled high with Angus beef, fresh mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, basil leaves and garlic aoili? Would he pop for a panini? Would he run to the nearest fast food outlet to start his day with a breakfast sandwich made from syrup-infused pancakes filled with eggs, cheese and pepper bacon?
Chances are, Dagwood would be in hog heaven in 2006, now that the once-humble sandwich has become ubiquitous and can be found in increasingly diverse and upscale forms in multiple foodservice and retail channels.
Ham and cheese on white and corned beef on dark rye still are all-American mainstays, of course. But bread producers, foodservice operators in the quick-service, fast-casual and family casual business, and even retailers ranging from convenience stories to corporate supermarket chains, are expanding their offerings in an effort to respond to growing demand for fresh-made sandwiches.
That sandwiches have successfully evolved shouldn’t be too surprising. The handheld meal with bread as its carrier has been around for centuries. On-the-go populations who had to make long journeys and workers who labored long days in the field looked for foods that were easy to transport, held up well and were palatable. Meat or fish tucked between slices of hearty bread fit the bill.
The same attributes that made sandwiches the meal of choice several hundred years ago still are relevant today.
“People want something that tastes good, is better for them, is relatively inexpensive and that they can eat on the go,” sums up Mark Mears, chief marketing officer for Atlanta-based Blimpie International, Inc., which moves to Scottsdale, Ariz., later this year as part of its recent acquisition by the Kahla Corp.
Freshening Up
Where, exactly, sandwiches are today in their evolution reflects significant consumer trends driving the market. The current mantras of fresh, fast, healthy and value apply to sandwiches and are evident in expansions in product lines around the country.
For starters, today’s consumers want foods that are better for them.
“There is an increase in health and nutrition, and, in some cases, sandwiches are positioned as better for you,” says food industry consultant Bob Sandelman, chief executive officer of Sandelman and Associates, San Clemente, Calif.
Bob Goldin, who tracks and reports food trends as executive vice president of Chicago research firm Technomic, Inc., reports that operators, retailers, bakers and other food industry processors looking to get a corner on the halo of healthfulness like the concept of the sandwich.
“Sandwiches play to perceived healthfulness, and to consumers, that’s important,” he remarks.
Tied into perceived healthfulness is the notion of “fresh,” which is why restaurateurs who sell sandwiches increasingly emphasize their fresh-baked breads, meats and toppings.
“Fresh is the entryway to the category,” notes Mears, who candidly gives credit to a competing chain. “Hats off to Subway for talking about eating fresh first. They got across to people about eating a fresh sandwich.”
“Fresh” can mean something beyond just-made or just-prepared foods. In another connotation, fresh refers to non-traditional types of proteins, condiments, toppings and breads used for sandwiches. In other words, it’s not just turkey, but mesquite-smoked turkey. It’s not just mayonnaise, but roasted red pepper mayo. And for those in the bread business, it’s not just white buns and slices, but garlic focaccia or rosemary “rustique” rolls.
“Generally, this trend fits into the new emerging tastes of American consumers, which include bolder, more exotic flavors, often influenced by various ethnic cuisines,” observes Annika Stensson, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.
Goldin concurs that sandwiches are layered with increasingly sophisticated components.
“People are definitely looking for variety in breads, and in other areas, they [operators] try to differentiate themselves through the use of condiments and sauces,” he says.
Adds Sandelman: “Consumers may go from a plain sub sandwich to something with more expensive toppings, and many chains are upgrading their offerings to provide better types of breads.”
Not to be overlooked by ongoing consumer clamor for fresh, healthy foods is the ever-present driver of convenience, which goes hand-in-hand with the portability of sandwiches. Much of the growth in sandwich menu items stems from QSR, retail bakey/deli and convenience store channels, where supplying customers with fast, easy meals is key.
Although many diners ask for sandwiches that are made to order, many other outlets — such as C-stores, grocery stores and coffee shops such as Starbucks — offer grab-and-go sandwiches for more immediate consumption.
Value, too, plays a role in the marketing of sandwiches. Part of their popularity comes from a relative inexpensiveness; even the priciest sandwiches in quick-serve, fast-casual and retail and C-store deli settings are typically less than ten dollars.
On the foodservice side, those that serve sandwiches to customers in a jiffy and at a good price point are doing well. According to a recent report featured in the Arizona Republic newspaper, QSR sales are expected to hit the $142.4 billion mark this year, a projection that’s up 5% from 2005 sales.
Meanwhile, sales at fast-casual restaurants, which include the likes of Panera Bread, Corner Bakery, LaBrea Bakery and other artisan-style bread specialists, are expected to reach $511.1 billion in 2006, growing at a faster clip than traditional and often more expensive sit-down restaurants.
Value and convenience trends aside, sandwiches are not so humble as to be ignored by gourmet dining establishments. One restaurant in Chicago offers a Kobe beef burger topped with goose liver pate. Meanwhile, the world’s most expensive sandwich just went on the menu at an upscale deli in Britain. It features Wagyu beef, brie de meaux cheese, foie gras, black truffle mayonnaise, arugula, red pepper and mustard confit and plum tomatoes set between sourdough bread that’s been fermented 24 hours. And it costs just $148 American dollars.
Burger Barons Break Tradition
One of the more marked trends in sandwiches sold at foodservice over the past year has been the inclusion of more deli-style and poultry-based sandwiches at QSRs known for their burger fare. Indeed, the so-called Burger Barons have all launched new sandwiches that represent a departure from their traditional fast-food fare.
Last August, Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. launched a series of Premium Chicken Sandwiches, capitalizing on the continuing popularity of chicken among its consumer base. The lineup offers more upscale lettuce, condiments and chicken and are served on artisan-style rolls from the company’s longtime bread supplier. In February, the company added a new Spicy Premium Chicken Sandwich, which combines the chicken with smoked jalapeño, cayenne pepper and other spices, served on a warm honey wheat roll.
“We were looking to develop something with bold flavors and contemporary ingredients,” says Dan Coudreaut, McDonald’s director of culinary product innovation.
Burger King Corp., too, has continued to go beyond the basic burger and standard bun. The Miami-headquartered company introduced two new sandwiches in May: the Texas Double Whopper Sandwich, with two large patties topped with bacon, cheese, jalapeño mayonnaise, mustard, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and pickles; and the Extreme Spicy Tendercrisp, with a trendy corn-dusted bun, chicken breast filet, spicy sauce, jalapeño peppers, pepperjack cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.
To capture the sandwich lover at another daypart, Burger King earlier this year went national with a limited time-only French Toast Sandwich, made from cinnamon and maple-flavored bread paired with a folded-egg omelet, melted American cheese and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage.
Columbus, Ohio-based Wendy’s International, Inc. recently made a big splash with its new line of Frescata deli-style sandwiches. Unveiled with a major media blitz earlier this spring, the sandwiches are billed as “a whole new menu category for us” by company executive vice president and chief marketing officer Ian Rowden.
The Wendy’s sandwiches are served on artisan bread said to be baked fresh daily in the restaurants. They come in four varieties: Frescata Club, Frescata Roasted Turkey with Basil Pesto, Frescata Black Forest Ham & Swiss and Frescata Roasted Turkey with Swiss.
“The deli sandwich category, which continues to expand, represents a growth opportunity and another way for us to meet our customers’ needs,” Rowden said at the time of the launch.
Goldin notes that burger chains are encroaching on the territory of sandwich stores for their own competitive reasons.
“Burger sales are doing just fine, but there has been a real growth in chicken as a course and deli-style sandwiches, both hot and cold,” he explains. “I think McDonald’s, for instance, is seeing a lot of growth in that segment of the market and obviously wants to put their toe in the water.”
QSRs that specialize in deli-style sandwiches are watching all of this closely.
“The burger boys are starting to get involved, and that means more competition for sandwiches,” remarks Mears.
Today’s Specials
Sandwich chains, of course, are not going quietly in the face of new competition from burger-oriented QSRs. Milford, Conn.-based Subway, for instance, continues to introduce new products, such as a Chicken Parmesan sandwich.
Blimpie, meantime, is evolving right along with the consumer’s taste for new types of sandwiches. Its most recent limited-time menu addition is a trio of paninis served on garlic-herb focaccia bread. According to Mears, the development of that new line was to showcase Blimpie’s offerings on a different level.
“This is to differentiate our brand position,” he says. “And to emphasize taste, we look at breads, which are the foundation of sandwiches and which we’ve always known are major carriers of flavor.”
He adds that the new panini-style offerings also reflect rising customer interest in hot sandwiches.
“We think the panini grill has breathed new life into our business,” he says.
The shift toward hot sandwiches is evident in other sandwich chains’ recent R&D efforts, as well.
Quiznos, the Denver-based operation that recently entered into an agreement with JPMorgan Partners for majority ownership, lives up to its self-description as one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains, with new menu items such as the Double Stack Pastrami and the Thinly Sliced, Slow Roasted Prime Rib, again indicative of consumers’ interest in heartier flavors and large portions.
For those patrons still counting carbs, Quiznos also recently began offering Low Carb Toasty Flatbreads.
Industry consultants agree that sandwich chains have had to step it up to meet the multi-channel challenge, and they seem to be holding their own.
“Most of the sandwich chains are doing well,” says Goldin, citing brands like Quiznos, Champaign, Ill.-based Jimmy Johns and Chicago-based Potbelly.
Sandelman points to recent research showing that the sandwich QSR segment is experiencing incremental growth.
“Over the past five years, we have seen sandwich chains command 9.5% of the market, compared to burger chains, which command almost 41% of QSR occasions,” he says. “In the past four quarters, it’s been higher, probably closer to a bit over 10%.”
That’s good enough news to make Dagwood’s stomach growl. SF&WB
Editor’s note: Next issue, we look at the rise of the fast-casual channel, where upscale, gourmet sandwiches made with signature artisan breads are on the rise. Also, we’ll offer insight into other growing outlets for grab-and-go sandwiches, including convenience stores, supermarket delis and even coffee and doughnut chains.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance writer living in LaGrange, Ill. Her first job in high school was at a sub shop called Dagwood’s Sandwiches.
A Lotta Ciabatta
Nearly all national quick-service restaurants are diversifying their menus using deli-breads, French breads, Italian breads, sourdough and even artisan offerings.
Ten years ago, only a handful of consumers knew what ciabatta was. Today, it’s popping up on menus across the country.
 Earlier this year, for instance, Jack in the Box Restaurants, San Diego, Calif., introduced a new Chipotle Chicken Ciabatta Sandwich that can be ordered in a grilled or spicy, crispy form.
The move by leading burger QSRs to broaden once-limited menus is based on the sheer competition factor, notes Bob Sandelman, chief executive officer of Sandelman and Associates, San Clemente, Calif.
“The dynamic is that the chains are trying to do what they can to build or maintain their share,” he says. “The average consumer sees a whole variety of chains being an acceptable alternative to them now, and when it comes to restaurants and, in particular, fast food restaurants, consumers have a variety of chains they like to go to.”
A Morsel of History
As aficionados such as Dagwood know, the foodstuff got its name from the Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. As legend goes, the Earl, John Montagu, didn’t like to get up from his British naval ship’s table during long nights of gambling, so he started asking for meat tucked into bread. Soon, other people wanted what “the Sandwich” had. Before long, the dish became less synonymous with the man than its components.