Classic sandwiches offer foolproof foundations for contemporary updates that customers can't resist.
This article first appeared in the 15 April 2008 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
Just about anything can be put between two slices of bread and be labeled a sandwich, but will it sell? Stacking the deck with classic builds that customers love is one way to be sure. From triple-decker clubs to retro-chic grilled cheese, much-loved recipes are being revisited with a fresh eye to delivering flavor and fun.
That's how Director of Culinary Development Scott Keats at Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp.'s business-services division transforms tuna salad into a trendy treat. White albacore tuna tossed with artichokes, kalamata olives, tomatoes, fresh herbs, olive oil and red-wine vinegar is tucked into 3-inch ciabatta rolls, capitalizing on the red-hot mini-sandwich craze.
Other operators follow the same simple strategy: Start with tried-and-true formulas and slip in a few surprises. For Executive Chef Antonio Goncalves at Trinity Brewhouse and Restaurant in Providence, R.I., transforming a triple-decker turkey club is as easy as upgrading three core ingredients. He infuses mayonnaise with chopped chives, substitutes spinach for iceberg lettuce and replaces white toast with artisan panini-style bread.
Mike Soper, consulting chef at five-unit Southern-comfort-food concept King Street Blues in Alexandria, Va., takes a regional approach in his Cowboy Reuben. Buttery Texas toast provides a sturdy vehicle for ribbons of brisket piled with coleslaw, pepper Jack cheese and tomato-ranch dressing.
"Variations on sandwiches that already have good names give customers something they can relate to, but also something new and different," Soper says.
"That's my focus," says Aramark's Keats. "My challenge is, how do I take ingredients our consumers are used to and put in twists that change the value perception, like going from a ham-and-cheese sandwich to smoked ham and Cheddar with roasted-red-pepper-and-olive tapenade."
Fine-dining restaurants, too, utilize on-hand ingredients for reimagined sandwiches. At modern-American restaurant Proof in Washington, D.C., the same wagyu beef served sashimi-style at dinner elevates a Philly-cheesesteak-inspired sandwich at lunch.
- Executive Chef-Partner Haidar Karoum's Steak & Cheese piles the seared, thin-sliced wagyu into fresh-baked hoagie rolls with jalapeÁ±o mayonnaise, provolone cheese, sautéed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and grilled peppers and onions.
"It's that concept of trying to up the ante of the sandwich," he says. "We wanted to do things that were very approachable but give them a different twist or use really high-quality ingredients to make it as good as we can."
Inventive adaptations of beef-based sandwiches are garnering attention across foodservice venues. Customers can choose steak or chicken for the Philly Fajita Sandwich at South Philly Steaks & Fries, a Morristown, N.J.-based quick-service chain. In addition to being topped with the standard peppers and onions, the meat is laden with chipotle Monterey Jack cheese, tomatoes and chipotle-citrus dressing.
At Austin, Texas-based Schlotzsky's, roast-beef sandwiches enjoy notably higher sales when the chain promotes recipes that feature Angus beef. Current selections include a take on the French Dip, with beef blanketed in melted mozzarella and piled on toasted sourdough bread, served with au jus for dipping.
"The Angus-beef tag definitely carries some weight behind it," says Jim Villemaire, Schlotzsky's director of research and development.
Reuben sandwiches offer another readily adaptable formula. Chef-owner Amy Tornquist's version at Watts Grocery in Durham, N.C., calls for smoked pastrami on sourdough bread with provolone cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, while the Southwest Reuben reportedly in test at Milford, Conn.-based Subway features turkey, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Southwest sauce on wheat bread.
BLT, Take Two
Chef-owner Lou Lambert of Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in Austin and Lamberts in Fort Worth, Texas, says menu items with familiar reference points, such as his Salmon BLT, appeal strongly to diners.
"The name really does help drive that sale, because we can all conjure up in our minds what a BLT tastes like," he says.
Lamberts' sandwich is a light, elegant adaptation. Sides of salmon are cured for six hours with salt and brown sugar in a manner similar to that used to produce gravlax, using coriander, fennel and black pepper instead of dill. The salmon is then cold-smoked over oak for one to two hours. Because of the relatively short curing and smoking times, the fish gains flavor but remains raw.
To serve, two slices are seared in a hot cast-iron pan so that they're crispy on the outside but flaky and tender inside. Peppery watercress and pickled red onions balance the rich, smoky fish, which is finished with a layer of heirloom tomatoes and served on grilled brioche.
Bacon, lettuce and tomato take a different role at recently opened Central 37, a modern-American restaurant in Boston. Executive Chef René Michelena casts the trio as supporting players for lobster in a fresh approach to the traditional club.
"Everyone else [here] does lobster rolls," he says.
Three hefty slices of poached lobster tail are tossed in house-made lemon aÁ¯oli with pickled mango for a slightly sour bite that counters the rich lobster and applewood-smoked bacon. Bibb lettuce and tomato complete the combination.
Easy Being Cheesy
Credit nostalgia, versatility or plain old simplicity, but grilled-cheese sandwiches retooled for adult palates are in high demand.
San Diego-based buffet chain Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes offers Grilled Cheese Focaccia with a three-cheese blend, while at Chedd's Gourmet Grilled Cheese in Denver and Littleton, Colo., a spicy sandwich of habanero- Jack cheese with turkey, banana peppers, jalapeÁ±o, onion and mayonnaise earns best-seller status.
Other classic sandwiches that boast melted cheese as a main ingredient are getting more play on menus as well. At H20 Seafood Grill in Smithtown, N.Y., Executive Chef Scott Szekretar's crab croque monsieur treats diners to jumbo lump crab added in between layers of Virginia ham and Gruyère cheese. The egg-battered sandwich is pan-fried and topped with hollandaise sauce.
Executive Chef Blaine Staniford revisits the American version of the bistro favorite at Scene Restaurant & Lounge in Dallas. His Monte Cristo piles Black Forest ham, smoked turkey and aged Swiss cheese on a brioche bun. House-made fig jam accompanies the battered, fried sandwich.
At casual Italian-American restaurant Little Dom's in Los Angeles, Chef-owner Brandon Boudet's Sicilian Tuna Melt is a top seller at lunch. Capers, shallots and lemon juice join chunks of imported tuna dressed lightly in olive oil on whole-wheat focaccia with arugula, roasted tomatoes and fontina cheese. The kitschy name helps boost sales of the baked, pressed sandwich, Boudet says.
"I didn't want it to be too serious," he says. "I originally served it at night, and it can be hard to sell sandwiches then, so to make it more interesting and geared toward the bar, I decided to make it fun and call it a tuna melt."
Now That's Italian!
The best build for Italian hoagies and subs is a hotly debated topic among sandwich lovers, and operators have their own ideas, too.
- Prosciutto di Parma, Genoa salami and sharp provolone are the foundation for the Premium Italian at Bella Luna Pizza Kitchen in Conshohocken, Pa. Shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions and dry Italian herbs round out the sandwich; bread halves are splashed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Atlanta-based fast-casual chain Atlanta Bread Co. offers the Italian Vegetarian, with roasted red peppers, fresh basil, mushrooms, tomatoes and provolone cheese. Italian-style dipping sauce comes on the side.
- The Italian sandwich served at Amato's 31 quick-service locations has set the standard in Portland, Maine, since 1902. Fresh-baked bread from the company's bakery is loaded with ham, white American cheese, tomatoes, green bell peppers, diced onions, kalamata olives and, for a final flavor layer, extra-sour pickles.
Chic Chicken Salad
Chopped chicken, celery and mayonnaise are just the starting points for these contemporary takes on the lunchtime staple.
- Rising Roll Gourmet, multiple locations: Chicken salad topped with blue-cheese dressing, smoked bacon and Granny Smith apples;
- Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.: Chicken salad with pesto mayonnaise, toasted cashews and mesclun greens on toasted croissant;
- Maggiano's Little Italy, multiple locations: Herbed chicken salad with celery, fennel and pine nuts on brioche bun with arugula, tomatoes and crispy onion strings;
- Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold, Md.: Curried chicken salad with walnuts, apples, broccoli, raisins, lettuce and tomato in a whole-grain wrap.
Sandwiches Graduate on Campus
Rather than simply update familiar sandwiches, Washington State Dining Services decided to create a completely new sandwich. With its unusual shape (produced by a specially designed baking pan), The Silo (r.) literally can stand up to almost any filling the Pullman, Wash., campus' dining department decides to use.
Sandwiches also get creative touches in many college and university dining operations. Among them:
- Adobe Lodge at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, Calif.: Italian Portobello (grilled portobello mushrooms, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato and pesto aÁ¯oli on focaccia)
- The Faculty Club, University of Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greek Vegetarian Wrap (grilled vegetable hummus, sliced cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, pepperoncini, kalamata olives, feta cheese and tzatziki sauce on house-made wheat flatbread)
- Neumann College (Sodexo), Aston, Pa.: Roasted Vegetable Panini (roasted eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and red bell peppers topped with provolone cheese and herb vinaigrette)
- Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.: Grilled Portobello Mushroom Sandwich on a Focaccia Roll
- Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Club (smoked turkey, Brie, bacon and tomato on sourdough); Roasted Turkey, Arugula and Herbed Goat Cheese with Garlic AÁ¯oli on Ciabatta
- Rhode Island College, Providence, R.I.: Chicken Caesar (grilled chicken strips, romaine lettuce, shredded Parmesan, croutons and Caesar dressing)
- Scottsdale Community College, Scottsdale, Ariz.: Sliced turkey breast, Gruyère cheese and tomato chutney on pumpernickel
- University Club, University of Southern California, Los Angeles: Tuna Melt (roasted albacore tuna with Swiss cheese on corn rye)
- Upstairs @ The Commons, Duke University, Durham, N.C.: Lemon-Marinated Chicken Breast with Grilled Portobello Mushroom and Fontina Cheese on Ciabatta; Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Sandwich on Baguette