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Beef + Bread: Restaurant Sandwiches That Sell – US Food Trends

09 April 2009
Beef + Bread: Restaurant Sandwiches That Sell – US Food Trends

The simple formula adds up to satisfying sandwiches that score big on taste, convenience and value; and help operators capture loyal lunch crowds.

This article first appeared in the 1 March 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Few foods make better vehicles for value than well-stacked sandwiches. For prices that almost always clock in at single digits, diners get meals that deliver just about any flavor combination they crave.

No wonder sandwich sales continue to flourish in a stifling economic climate. Last year, the country's top sandwich/bakery-cafe chains posted $25.1 billion in sales, up around 10% from $22.7 billion in 2007, R&I's 2008 Top 400 chain rankings reveal. Sandwiches also benefit from their lock on lunch hour when, according to R&I's 2009 New American Diner Study, consumers are less likely to cut back on dining out than at dinner.

"We can menu as many plated entrées as we want to at lunch, but people just gravitate toward sandwiches," says Executive Chef Paul Lynch of FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in Minneapolis, known for rotisserie-roasted meats nestled inside crusty loaves.

Given that most operators already have a sandwich or two in their repertoire, how can the profit potential of this lunch staple be expanded? One strategy is to extend between-the-bread options beyond turkey clubs and grilled chicken, and beef is rich with possibilities.

"Anything with steak gives customers the perception that they're getting good value, that the product is a little more high-end," says Mark Abbott, Sodexo's director and general manager of foodservice at St. Mary's Health Care System in Athens, Ga. Beef is represented broadly on the hospital's menu in sandwiches such as smoked top sirloin with Brazilian spice rub, open-faced pot roast on Texas toast, and a twist on the French dip that features red wine-sautéed onions and provolone cheese.


Chicago-based Rosebud Restaurants often are lauded for serving one of the Windy City's best burgers, but at most locations, skirt steak stars in the multiunit Italian concept's top-selling sandwich.

Skirt steak sandwich
Skirt steak sandwich
Under the broiler's intense heat, maximum flavor is coaxed from the long, flat muscle cut as its marbled fat, along with a light coating of extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned salt, forms a nicely charred crust. Eight-ounce, cooked-to-order steaks are topped with gorgonzola cheese and caramelized onions and then slipped inside Italian filone rolls that have been toasted with a blend of butter, garlic, parsley and paprika.

- Skirt steak is not on the dinner menu at most Rosebud locations. Corporate Chef Brian Wright brings them in just for the lunch preparations instead of using New York strip steaks already on hand. "When you try to use higher-end cuts of meat, that brings the price up," he says. "Using a good-quality piece of skirt steak is the best of both worlds."

Recipe: Skirt-Steak Sandwich


The wide appeal of Philly-style steak sandwiches-thin-sliced sautéed meat with melted cheese and, often, grilled peppers and onions-makes them a hot property at 6th Avenue Bistro, a six-month-old bakery-cafe from Morrison Healthcare Food Services at St. Cloud Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.

Rather than turning to more-expensive rib-eye steak or commonly used frozen, processed meats, chefs Doug Johnson and Monte Burger opt for flank steak. "It's economical in terms of price, but it's also a really lean cut, so there's not a lot of fat to chew through," Johnson says.

The steaks are seasoned with olive oil and a blend containing paprika, granulated garlic and onion, salt, black pepper and red-pepper flakes, and then seared as orders come in to the display-cooking station. Slices are draped inside split baguettes with sautéed green peppers and onions before being blanketed with provolone and toasted in convection-microwave ovens.


"Sandwiches are a good value offering because they're the most popular thing people are looking for, and lunch is still the biggest opportunity out there for any restaurant, especially QSRs," says Mike Rotondo, vice president of operations at Destin, Fla.-based Tropical Smoothie Café, which introduced a line of Bistro Sandwiches last September.

One benefit of including beef among the additions is that it stands up better to bolder, spicier flavor profiles than mild-tasting chicken and turkey, Rotondo says. Instead of turning to commonly found chipotle or Southwest seasonings to deliver the desired kick, the chain combines wasabi-spiked mustard and Caesar dressing to create a unique punch. See also The East Side: Asian-Accented Beef Dishes.

The beef itself-center-cut, select-grade top round-arrives in Tropical Smoothie Cafés cooked medium-rare so it won't dry out when the sandwich is warmed in the oven. Pepper Jack cheese ratchets up the heat, while romaine lettuce supplies cooling crispness.


The London Broil sandwich at Corbett's Restaurant in Louisville, Ky., is a signature for Chef-owner Dean Corbett and outsells the prime-beef burgers and chicken-salad sandwiches also served at lunch.

Corbett uses sirloin cap-also known as the coulotte-to deliver great steak flavor at a value cost. Because the meat can be tough, it is marinated for 24 hours in soy sauce, rice-wine vinegar, pineapple juice and oranges and then grilled and held rare for service. To order, the steak is sliced paper thin and adorned simply with grilled onions and horseradish-spiked aioli.


Pastrami isn't a local staple in Buffalo, N.Y.-home of regional favorites Buffalo wings and beef on weck- which is one reason Executive Chef Tab Daulton spotlights it at HSBC Arena, a Delaware North Cos. account. "I like to throw different things at my customers and get them to try it," Daulton says. "You'd be amazed at how much actually sticks."

Once considered the domain of delis but now appearing on a variety of menus, pastrami typically comes from trimmed brisket that has been brined-or corned-and cooked. It's then seasoned heavily with spices such as garlic, pepper, cloves, allspice and coriander and smoked. The bold-flavored beef is delivered to HSBC cooked but not sliced.

Daulton's team carves the pastrami and tucks it in hoagie rolls along with Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and wasabi mayonnaise. The sandwiches are pressed in panini grills for a hot, crisp finish. "The wasabi gives that little kick at the end," Daulton says. "It's a sandwich for people who like hot and spicy foods."


One point in favor of prime rib is that it carries a quality connotation second only to filet mignon, says FireLake Grill's Lynch. Slicing the premium cut into sandwiches allows him to present the restaurant's signature protein on the lunch menu at an affordable price.

The locally raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef is coated in wet rub of soy sauce, tomato paste, dry mustard and spices and seasoned with a bold spice blend. For dinner service, it is spit-roasted over smoldering hickory for three-and-a-half hours. Extra roasts are prepared specifically for lunch-cooked medium-rare so they won't dry out when warmed on the grill-and sliced to use the next day.

To differentiate the sandwich from ordinary French dips, Lynch presents it open-faced as a knife-and-fork meal. Grilled country bread brushed with garlic oil and spread with tangy mustard provides the foundation for sliced beef topped with tomatoes, grilled portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions and blue cheese. Servers finish the dish with a flourish, pouring herbed jus over the sandwich tableside.


At St. Mary's Health Care System, 15% to 18% of lunchtime sales stem from sandwiches beyond burgers and grilled chicken. Abbott's open-faced pot-roast sandwich is among the options regularly offered.

Pot roast can refer to nearly any traditionally tough cut of meat braised slowly with vegetables, but the comfort-food classic often recruits economical chuck roast. At St. Mary's Health Care System, the beef is browned on all sides and then cooked in beef stock and red wine with onions, basil and thyme for two-and-a-half hours. Next, carrots and celery are added, and the beef cooks for 30 more minutes.

For service, slices of the tender pot roast are piled atop thick pieces of garlicky Texas toast with a dollop of horseradish cream sauce.


Charbroiled steak sandwich
Charbroiled steak sandwich
Three kinds of prime steaks-filet mignon, rib-eye and New York strip-headline the dinner menu at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, but only the filet does double duty in a sandwich on the upscale chain's bar menu.

"It's the most-popular steak on any steakhouse menu," says Jason Carron, chef-partner of the Boston location and Fleming's regional chef for the Northeast. "It's the most tender cut of beef, and it's a lot easier to chew [than more-marbled cuts]."

Seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper, the 6-ounce tenderloins are broiled to order at a red-hot 1600F. The steaks are butterflied so that they can slip easily into toasted, house-made sourdough baguettes doused with garlic butter and grated Gruyère cheese. Red peppers, onions, mushrooms and banana peppers sautéed in a soy-chile glaze crown the hearty sandwich.


A broad selection of beef cuts presents infinite ideas for sandwiches that sell. Here's a sampling of inspiring recipes, culled from across foodservice segments.

  • Chuck: Hot meatballs in marinara sauce with cheese and choice of vegetables (Subway, multiple locations)
  • Short Loin: Grilled organic bavette steak with carrots, cilantro, pickled daikon and hoisin sauce (Baguette Box, Seattle)
  • Shank/Brisket: Hot pastrami melt with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and chipotle mayonnaise (Pat & Oscar's, multiple locations)
  • Sirloin: Roasted tri-tip sirloin on baguette with balsamic onions (Two, San Francisco)
  • Round: Roast beef with pepper Jack cheese, romaine lettuce and wasabi-Caesar dressing on toasted ciabatta (Tropical Smoothie Café, multiple locations)
  • Short Plate: Skirt-steak sandwich with blue cheese and caramelized onions on a filone roll (Rosebud Restaurants, multiple locations)
  • Rib: Miniature prime-rib sandwiches with fontina fondue and au jus (Tavern at the Park, Chicago)
  • Flank: Philly-style flank steak with red and green peppers and onion on baguette (St. Cloud Hospital, St. Cloud, Minn. (Morrison)

Cost-Saving Cuts

Beef can be a pricey proposition if premium steaks are all that's on the menu. Fortunately for chefs, these three up-and-coming cuts are much more economical-and they work especially well as sandwich fixings.

  • Petite tender: This tender muscle cut comes from the beef shoulder near the top blade. Cook it medium-rare to medium (grilling, roasting or pan-broiling works best) and slice it thinly across the grain.
  • Boneless country-style beef rib: Braising brings out the best in this meaty, juicy chuck cut. Finish it on the grill or in a sauté pan, and then shred or cut the meat in small pieces for piling on sliced bread or rolls.
  • Flat-iron steak: Cook this well-marbled cut-the second-most-tender, next to the tenderloin-just like a strip or a rib-eye steak: on the grill or in a sauté pan.

The Other Red Meats

A trio of multitalented red meats shares beef's versatility in sandwich applications, as illustrated in these lamb-, bison- and venison-based recipes.


  • Braised Lamb and Blue Cheese Sandwich with caramelized onions and arugula on ciabatta (Auntie Em's Kitchen, Los Angeles)
  • Rotisserie Lamb Sandwich with caramelized onion, tomato, feta, arugula and curry dressing on a flax-seed roll (FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, Minneapolis)
  • Traditional Gyro Pita (Mr. Greek, multiple locations)


  • Wild West bison meatloaf flatbread sandwich (O'Naturals, multiple locations)
  • Bison pastrami with caramelized spaghetti squash, Swiss cheese and smoked aioli (Proof on Main, Louisville, Ky,)
  • Bison Burger with cheese (Lockheed Martin Dining Services (Aramark), Eagan, Minn.)


  • Corned Venison Sandwich with celeriac slaw (Public and Double Crown, New York City)
  • Charbroiled Venison Steak Sandwich with sautéed red onion on a French roll (Cold Spring Tavern, Santa Barbara, Calif)
  • Venison Meatloaf Sandwich (Grouse Nest Restaurant at Hocking Hills Resort, South Bloomingville, Ohio)
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