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Holding Patterns – US Food Trends

23 May 2007
Holding Patterns – US Food Trends

Nothing else stacks up to sandwiches' ease in adapting to consumers' varied eating habits.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2007 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Fine-dining restaurants often predict the direction of industry menu trends, but for a fool-proof guide to the everyday cravings of mainstream consumers, look no further than sandwiches.

Their inherent ability to evolve with American palates and preferences has cemented sandwiches' status as the top-selling food item for more than two decades, creating a $121 billion market that accounts for a quarter of total U.S. foodservice sales, according to Rockville, Md.-based market researcher Packaged Facts. The deceptively simple assemblages can accommodate customers' every request: whole-grain, organic and trans-fat-free choices; local, natural ingredients; or simply an affordable, portable meal.

"Here in downtown San Francisco, you can have a fancy lunch, but if you want something different, fast and not too expensive, sandwiches are the right formula," says Chef-owner Gerald Hirigoyen of tapas restaurant Bocadillos, where the midday menu sells miniature versions of the restaurant's namesake sandwiches in pairs for $7.50, with choices including Catalan sausage with arugula and shaved manchego cheese or aged Serrano ham on tomato-rubbed bread.

Even high-end chefs are riding the coat-tails of sandwiches' success, following the lead of Tom Colicchio's eight-unit, 'wichcraft concept based in New York City. Among them are Anthony Walker and Kevin Morrison, the former chefs of upscale Barolo Grill in Denver who co-founded the fast-growing Spicy Pickle chain, and East Coast Grill's Chris Schlesinger, who recently partnered with Chef Jim Economides to open All Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge, Mass.

"People love sandwiches; they'll always eat sandwiches. Why not introduce a concept that pays homage to the sandwich?" says Economides, whose eclectic menu ranges from regional favorites such as The Big EZ Greazy Muffaletta to quirky concoctions such as the Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown, a mound of grilled meatloaf, Monterey Jack cheese, red-onion jam and hot sauce on locally baked sourdough.

Menu Builders

The key to crafting a lineup that resonates with diners, says Chef-partner Sisha Ortuzar at 'wichcraft, is approaching the offerings not as sandwiches but rather as combinations of flavors and ingredients people want to eat. French onion soup, for example, inspired a grilled Gruyère sandwich on rye bread with caramelized onions, while Sicilian tuna on baguette shines against a backdrop of shaved fennel, niÁ§oise olives and preserved lemon.

"We always thought the whole lettuce, tomato and mayo thing was such a cop-out," Ortuzar says. "We look at sandwiches more like meals, where every component is there for a reason."

At Boston's Nebo, co-owners Carla and Christine Pallotta took a regional approach, building an Italian-themed lineup of 19 sandwiches around the locally sourced ingredients and dishes they grew up with. Chicken cutlet Milanese, meatballs in fresh tomato sauce and lightly fried eggplant are among familiar featured recipes, and nearly every element-from fig jam to seasoned breadcrumbs to spicy Italian sausage-is prepared in house.

One crowd-pleaser is the porchetta sandwich with honey-apple confit, crispy onion strings and arugula on fresh-baked ciabatta. The roasted pork-the menu's only major ingredient not also utilized at dinner-takes four hours to prepare; it is seasoned with peppercorns, rosemary and fresh herbs, then rolled and tied for slow roasting.

At Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe, originally a bread bakery, it makes sense to match sandwiches to the chain's specialty breads, says Ric Scicchitano, vice president of food and beverage. The Southwestern notes of roast beef with cilantro-lime mayonnaise are a good foil for poblano cheese bread, while tender sliced chicken and pesto mayonnaise provide welcome contrast to crisp baguettes.

"Specialty sandwiches were where we cut our teeth; now panini sales are just as strong. Our No. 1 and No. 2 sellers are hot sandwiches," he says.

Hot, Hot, Hot!

Corner Bakery's experience makes a clear statement about customers' growing tastes for hot and crisp. Operators are responding en masse; one quarter of those surveyed purchased panini presses in 2006, while 22% more plan to do so this year, according to the 2007 Industry Forecast Operator Report from Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, an R&I sister publication. Various types of ovens help, too, including wood-burning, conveyor and combination microwave-convection ovens.

New York NY Fresh Deli, a 30-unit quick-service chain based in Mesa, Ariz., dedicates not one but three pieces of equipment to heating various components. For regular hot sandwiches, bread is run through a conveyor oven, while meat and cheese heats up in a pressure steamer. Panini choices including the Cuban (roast pork, ham, provolone cheese and pickles) are pressed thin in panini grills.

Laurel Health System's (Wellsboro, Pa.) Foodservice Manager Bob Maidel recently added a panini grill to keep his customers from straying. "They see panini at places like Panera Bread, and they want to see them here as well," he says.

Maidel sources artisan breads from his regular vendor but also creates a version using pre-baked pizza dough. One half of the circular dough is layered with fillings, topped with the other half, cut in wedges and pressed to order.

Keep Up With the Joneses

In a sandwich category crowded with choices, every menu needs a hook. Fast-casual eatery Sellers Markets' two units in San Francisco touts local, organic and sustainable products for its dozen-plus sandwiches. Recipes, centered mainly around proteins grilled or roasted in house, include free-range pulled rotisserie chicken with smoked mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, caramelized red onions and cabbage slaw on toasted artisan ciabatta, and all-natural turkey with triple-crème Brie, tomato and arugula on baguette.

Pork loin, top-round beef and whole turkeys cooked in house differentiate three-month-old sandwich shop Earl's from its "cold cuts on bread" competitors in Arlington, Va., says Co-owner Stephen Dugan. Turkey-seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic salt-takes longer to cook, so it's prepared in the afternoon for the next day's service; pork and beef are roasted each morning. Cooked rare to medium rare, roast beef is sliced to order, while turkey and pork are sliced ahead and reheated in warm turkey broth.

"People have responded very strongly to the freshly roasted turkey and beef especially," Dugan says. "I wouldn't be surprised if the trend moved in that direction."

Reckers, a 24-hour artisan sandwich concept, replaced the old deli-style menu at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. Fresh dough, made on campus, is baked in a wood-fired oven and split to form a pocket for fillings such as lemon-rosemary tuna steak and flat-iron steak (grilled and chilled ahead of service) and balsamic chicken, a purchased value-added product.

Students customize the hot sandwiches with house-made toppings such as Capresi (diced tomato, mozzarella cheese, onion and basil in balsamic vinaigrette) and spreads including Pesto Ricotta or Snappy Corn and Cheddar, says Mike Davy, manager of continuous improvement for Notre Dame Food Services.

5 Ideas That Stack Up

Need help creating a blockbuster sandwich menu? Follow the advice of those who've been there and done that.

  1. Keep Menus Fresh - And In Check
    At All Star Sandwich Bars in Cambridge, Mass., co-owners Chris Schlesinger and Jim Economides trimmed down their original line-up of 30 sandwiches soon after opening. Now they menu six everyday varieties and create daily specials in six categories: cheese, vegetarian, barbecue, or turkey, "funky" and "extra funky."
  2. Be Flexible
    At first, New York City-based ‘wichcraft' insisted on serving sandwiches only, but frequent customers wanted more choices. Today all sandwiches also are available as salads that present the same components served over baby lettuce.
  3. Capitalize On Convenience
    Hot sandwiches are assembled ahead of service and grilled to order during busy lunch rushes at Bocadillos in San Francisco and Aramark Corp. accounts. Deli meats, custom-prepared by a vendor, arrive sliced and ready to go at Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe stores.
  4. Stay Customer-focused Make sure breads are user-friendly. Extra-crusty bread tastes great, says Ric Scicchitano at Corner Bakery, but diners don't want carriers that scratch the tops of their mouths and squeeze ingredients out the back when they take a bite.
  5. Take Care Of Takeout
    Because ingredients such as pulled turkey and grilled mushrooms can slip from sandwiches, to-go orders at Earl's in Arlington, Va., are packed into disposable paper trays with wax-paper liners, then wrapped in heavy brown paper.
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