The Sandwich Struggles
By Anne Ford
Quick-casual restaurants are fighting for attention from consumers in a crowded marketplace. Choosing the right bread is one way to turn people’s heads.
Harried parents slap them together for school lunches. Dagwood Bumstead disciples stealthily assemble them before bed. Hikers shove them into backpacks before a stroll through the woods. The humble sandwich’s worth traditionally lies in its simplicity, portability and convenience. After all, nobody takes spaghetti carbonara on a picnic, right?
Actually, these days, they very well might, thanks to Quiznos’ Chicken Carbonara Signature Sub, which features chicken, bacon, mozzarella, mushrooms and creamy bacon alfredo sauce. It’s far from your usual PB&J, and it’s certainly not what the 4th Earl of Sandwich had in mind when he scarfed down the first sammy back in 1762.
But the chicken carbonara sub is just one example. As befits their royal roots (thanks, Earl), sandwiches are becoming ever more upscale and elaborate. Artisanal breads and gourmet meats, cheeses and condiments now are the norm. And with an increasingly crowded market, the fast-casual industry is under the gun to offer consumers novel taste profiles and premium ingredients.
“If we can bring in new customers, if we can give them another reason to come to us instead of somebody else with all the choices that are out there, that’s what we’re going to do,” says Larry Weissman, vice president of marketing for Menomonee Falls, Wisc.-based Cousins Subs.
In the sandwich market, it’s all about choice. It’s not enough to be “fresh.” To differentiate themselves from the competition, chains must offer alternatives that capture the imagination of consumers.
Ciabatta, Flatbread & Focaccia: Oh, my!
In the fight for sandwich supremacy, the most powerful weapon — now that the nation has recovered from Atkins fever (see “The Atkins Aftermath,” page 25) — might be bread.
“The bread makes the sandwich,” says Marc Geman, CEO of the young, fast-growing Spicy Pickle, Denver, Colo., which has locations or planned locations in 13 states.
Weissman chimes in: “Our tagline has always been ‘Better bread, better subs,’ because in all the research we’ve done, consumers say you can’t have a good sub sandwich unless you start with really good bread.”
Think focaccia is as exotic as it gets? Please. In addition to rosemary focaccia, Spicy Pickle offers ciabatta and two kinds of filone — a crusty white or honey-wheat loaf that looks like a chubby baguette. It’s a sturdy foundation for subs such as the Wise Guy, with three kinds of Italian cured meats (capocolla, mortadella, and hard salami), two kinds of peppers (roasted red and pepperoncini), provolone and basil mayonnaise. But that’s just a beginning.
“The idea is that not only will we have our traditional breads to choose from, but once we really have confidence in the whole baking operation, we’ll introduce some limited-time offerings, “ Geman says. “So maybe in the holiday season, there’ll be a cherry brioche or something different from time to time.”
Those limited-time offerings are powerful lures to consumers, who “like a change of pace,” Weissman points out. “They like something different.” And, of course, it’s human nature to want to snap up something that we know won’t be around forever.
“Last summer, I’ll tell you, we did a steak mushroom Swiss on a garlic herb bread, and it just flew out of the stores,” he continues. “The garlic herb bread did so well that it’s now part of Cousins’ standard lineup, along with Italian, wheat and parmesan-asiago varieties.”
Atlanta, Ga.-based Blimpie ratchets the flavor factor up a notch with strong tastes such as Cheddar jalapeño, garden Italian and marble rye. However, the sandwich chain hasn’t gotten rid of the tried and true.
“You’ve still got to keep your tried-and-true Italian white sub bread,” says Robert Jacks, brand and creative director.
But it’s Blimpie’s more gourmet bread forays that have helped make it the country’s third-largest sandwich chain.
“We are some of the forerunners within the QSR [quick-service restaurant] industry in terms of ciabatta offerings,” Jacks says. Ciabatta undergirds the company’s panini, which include a grilled chicken Caesar rendition as well as a reuben.
Part of the sandwich’s appeal lies in the “healthy halo” that surrounds it (see “What’s Hot In Healthy Sandwiches,” page 26). And part of that healthy halo is fueled by the bread.
“I think people are starting to get more educated on what they put in their bodies,” particularly as it relates to fiber and whole grains, says Chad Thompson, head chef and senior director of research and development for New World Restaurant Group, which is based in Lakewood, Colo. and comprises Einstein Bros. Bagels and Noah’s Bagels as well as Manhattan Bagel, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery and New World Coffee.
“We got through that low-carb phase, and now it’s okay to have carbs — but it has to be whole wheat,” he adds. “Anything with grains and wheat moves. We have an eight-grain bread that sells really well.”
Just when everyone’s learned how to pronounce “ciabatta,” Thompson says it may be on its way out.
“We’re getting past that rustic style,” he says. “Consumers like crusty bread, but it still has to be nice and soft and tender to the mouth.”
Einstein Bros. recently redeveloped its challah roll to be more like a bun, with toppings like sesame seeds that you’d normally see on a bagel. Those rolls now are “a major carrier for the Einstein chicken sandwiches, the Noah chicken sandwiches and now the new Noah’s salmon sandwiches,” Thompson notes. “We tested it in 2006, and we just finished launching it into Einstein’s as recently as last month.”
Several fast-casual chains cite flatbreads as the No. 1 trend.
“Consumers are all over flatbreads right now,” not only because it’s perceived as both healthier and more upscale, but also because “you can taste all the ingredients so much better on a flatbread than you can on a traditional Italian loaf bread,” says Zach Calkins, director of culinary development for Denver-based Quiznos.
“We launched our flatbread salads just over a year ago,” he adds, “and it has slowly become a storm this past year. Everybody else is jumping on this flatbread bandwagon.”
Flatbreads have done much to boost Quiznos’ salad sales; the company’s flatbread chopped salads include the new raspberry chipotle chicken topped with bacon, Cheddar, tomatoes, red onion and raspberry chipotle dressing, and served with four large wedges of toasted Italian flatbread. Other new varieties include the black-and-bleu, with black angus steak, bleu cheese crumbles, tomatoes, red onion, and balsamic vinaigrette.
“Flatbreads seem to be getting huge amounts of attention,” agrees Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef for Dunkin’ Brands, Canton, Mass. “Flatbreads give a lot of potential for interesting flavors, a good texture, perceived healthful benefits, and can be really internationalized.”
Dunkin’ is in the process of testing several flatbread sandwiches in its concept stores, including a turkey bacon and cheddar, and a three-cheese melt with jack, Cheddar and American. If all goes well, those will roll out nationwide in the next year or so.
No matter what varieties of bread they offer, many in the fast-casual market use frozen dough or par-baked products that’s delivered to the stores daily and baked on-site. That method allows the stores to avoid the mess and cost of whipping up the dough itself on-site, but still provides a bakery ambience and freshly-baked-bread smell. Exceptions are Quiznos, which uses bread baked outside the store, and Spicy Pickle, which makes its own dough from scratch in the store daily.
“It’s a very big undertaking on our part,” Geman says, “because every part of the country has a different altitude and different water. Our culinary officer goes to every opening and works with what he’s got there until he’s got the recipe down for the particular location.”
Whether that process will change as the chain expands remains to be seen.
From Wonderful to Weird
While fast-casual restaurants must contend with pressure to deliver more and exciting flavor profiles, they also must take care not to — how shall we say — freak out the customers.
For example, if Quiznos’ Calkins — who has a fine-dining background — had his druthers, he’d “branch way out there and maybe do some more wacky flavors.”
But you always have to take customers’ comfort levels into consideration, he says. For example, Calkins has learned that “I can make the best buffalo chicken sauce in the world,” but if the chicken on that sandwich isn’t fried, forget it. “We would even put chicken flavor in the bread,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”
That doesn’t mean that diners eschew any and all forays into the unfamiliar, just that chefs have to take the appeal of familiar ingredients into account. For example, Calkins says, if he tried using the relatively exotic ancho fig in a sandwich bread, after going through consumer testing, it would probably turn into “maybe a red chile bread or a red chile Cheddar bread instead of that ancho fig bread, because it got brought back into the mainstream flavors.”
Cousins’ Weissman agrees that “people are starting to look for things that are different but yet have a sense of sameness to them.” His chain’s jalapeño-Cheddar bread has been a hit, he says, because customers are already familiar with its ingredients, even if they’re not familiar with encountering jalapeños in bread. In development at the moment is a tomato-basil bread, “something that may be a little out of the ordinary,” so that “when you put in the normal ham or turkey, it becomes a little more than just a plain sandwich,” he adds. The new tomato-basil combination should arrive in Cousins stores this fall.
One once-exotic flavor trend, spiciness, has become so mainstream that it’s split into specific spiciness profiles, from the smoky heat of a chipotle to the bite of ginger or wasabi.
Southwestern spices are a little passé, Thompson says. Instead, “we’ve used a chili-garlic kind of a sauce in our new spicy chicken sandwich that’s rolled out,” he notes. “It’s more of an Asian spice. So that would be a good example of taking something that’s tried and true but kind of putting a different twist or angle to it.”
Because in the sandwich wars, that new, exciting twist needs to be part of every quick-serve’s arsenal. As Thompson puts it: “The competition’s pretty fierce out there. You can’t come weak.”
The Atkins Aftermath
Call it Revenge of the Carbohydrates. A few years after the Atkins Diet’s heyday, low-carb options have all but disappeared from most fast-casual restaurants’ menus. Even Subway, which once offered several low-carb items under the Atkins brand, now limits those options to salads and wraps that, says public relations coordinator Les Winograd, are “lower in carbohydrates than many of our sandwiches.”
But here and there, traces of the low-carb craze remain. Here are a handful of holdouts:
Blimpie: Carb Counter Bread
Cousins: Low-Carb Wraps
Dunkin’ Brands: Reduced-Carb Bagel with Cheese
Jimmy John’s: Hunter’s Club Unwich and Gargantuan Unwich, both wrapped in lettuce instead of bread
Panera Bread: “Lower-carb” Italian herb bread and pumpkin seed bread
What’s Hot in Healthy Sandwiches
Nearly 80% of restaurant-goers worry about fat content, notes Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm, and nearly 75% are concerned about calories. That’s an open invitation for sandwich purveyors to play up the traditional “healthy halo” effect of their wares.
For example, Subway just launched a new health promotion: the Fresh Fit meal, which combines the company’s 6-in. low-fat sandwiches with raisins, apples or baked chips and water or low-fat milk (in place of soda). So far, says public relations coordinator Les Winograd, consumer feedback has been positive. The Fresh Fit initiative, he adds, was “developed to fit into the American Heart Association’s approach to healthy lifestyles.”
With an upcoming “Happy and Healthy” campaign scheduled for launch this summer, New World Restaurant Group might be following in Subway’s footsteps. “We’re going to take advantage of lighter eating on the go,” says Chad Thompson, head chef and senior director of research and development.
However, not all fast-casuals are playing up the health angle. “For the most part, when we promote that stuff, it drops right to the bottom of the menu,” says Zach Calkins, director of culinary development for Quiznos.
And just because healthier options are available doesn’t mean consumers will take advantage of them, adds Larry Weissman, Cousins Subs marketing vice president. “You can have these wonderful salads that are good for you, and people say, ‘Can I get bacon on that and extra cheese and a lot of dressing?’” he notes.
Still, he emphasizes, Cousins offers seven sandwiches with fewer than 6 g of fat. “If you don’t put mayo or extra salt or cheese on them, they’re absolutely perfectly fine for you,” Weissman says.