Ham and cheese on white bread used to be the go-to sandwich for grab and go. But now many consumers are expecting options that are unique, upscale and even unusual.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
It’s not often that customers express their approval when a retailer raises prices. But that’s exactly what happened when Englefield Oil’s Duchess Shoppe convenience stores increased the price of some sub sandwiches by $1.09 last year.
The price hike followed a bread-to-condiment overhaul of the in-store deli-made sandwiches, the company’s first such endeavor in 15 years.
“A customer came up to me and said she really appreciated the changes we had made in the sandwiches and that the additional cost was worth every penny,” said Judy Dudte, director of foodservice for the Heath, Ohio-based company, which has 122 locations in Ohio and West Virginia. “And, despite the rise in prices, our deli sales have jumped 20.8% since the introduction of the new sandwiches.”
TAPPING INTO TRENDS
One of the things many customers comment on is the quality of the new sub bun the Duchess team found during its taste tests. That’s not surprising, according to a survey of consumers conducted by Chicago-based research firm Datassential.
In the survey, 42% of consumers said that a “truly great” sandwich requires “truly great” bread. More than half said they would be interested in upscale breads.
According to The Food Channel’s Top 10 Sandwich Trends, white bread is becoming a novelty in restaurants, being replaced by more artisanal varieties, such as pretzel bread, brioche, Hawaiian rolls and Mexican telera, bollilos (for tortas) and cemita rolls. Some restaurants are also offering lettuce pockets for customers trying to cut down on carbs.
Of course, great bread alone is not enough to make a great sandwich. The Duchess Shoppe management team also conducted blind taste tests on deli meats and cheeses to determine the most flavorful and highest quality products regardless of price, Dudte said.
“Almost every meat and cheese was upscaled,” she said.
The turkey is now honey smoked, the salami was switched to Genoa and the ham changed from a traditional water-added product to a whole muscle ham with much more flavor and texture. More flavorful provolone cheese has replaced mozzarella in the sandwiches.
The sizes of each slice of meat and cheese have also been increased as well as the number of slices on each sandwich. For uniformity, the company switched from slicing the meat and cheese in their own delis to purchasing pre-sliced products.
When it comes to meats, the two most popular ones are still turkey and ham. The problem for the retailer is that most sandwiches made with these two proteins are prepared at home rather than purchased in a restaurant or store, said Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential.
TOP NOTCH OPTIONS
“In the not-so-distant past, convenience stores modeled their sandwiches after those consumers made at home, like a slice of ham and cheese on white bread,” she said. “But today’s consumer is more likely to be looking for something different, something he or she can’t easily replicate and that gives the convenience store operator an opportunity to offer sandwiches that are a notch above ones the consumer can make at home.”
Condiments are an easy way to keep up with flavor profile trends and spice up sandwich sales, according to The Food Channel. Finding and creating uniquely flavored and textured spreads, dressings and sauces can be as simple as infusing lime or maple syrup into basic ketchup or making it chunky by adding figs, cranberries, orange peel, candied ginger or nuts.
For a spicy kick, curry, harissa or sriracha can be mixed into mayonnaise. Pesto has gone mainstream and is now a popular, though still viewed as gourmet, sandwich topping. Just adding an herb like thyme to roasted vegetables can make a vegetarian sandwich shine, experts say.
Duchess Shoppe stores display packets of condiments on top of the deli case and on the fresh food bar. During the deli do-over the number of available condiments rose from eight to 23, including four kinds of mustard, sriracha ketchup and barbecue sauce.
To ensure that the sandwiches stay fresh and delicious throughout their five-day shelf life, condiments are offered on the side rather than put on the sandwiches during assembly. Dudte noted that if condiments are put on the sandwiches when they’re made it can reduce the shelf life to three days.
At Duchess Shoppe, customers have plenty of choices. Most of the stores offer 21 varieties of prepackaged sandwiches.
Limited time offers (LTOs) are also featured at least every six months to keep the assortment interesting and test new products. To draw more attention to the sandwiches, Duchess also redesigned the packaging and label.
SATISFYING UPSCALE TASTES
Lakewood, Colo.-based Russell’s Convenience Stores, which has 20 locations in Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco, gets its sandwiches delivered daily by an outside supplier because, being situated in office buildings, the stores don’t have the space or lease agreements to make them in-house. One of the main reasons Russell’s chose this supplier is because it consistently provides sandwiches on the cutting edge of ingredients and flavor profiles, said the chain’s Marketing Manager Vicki Jackson.
“We’ve been offering upscale sandwiches such as brie, apple and turkey and turkey with cheddar and jalapeño for years and the chicken Caesar salad wrap has been a customer favorite for a long time,” Jackson said.
In addition to innovation, the supplier also provides the highest quality meats and cheeses and even bakes its own breads, according to Jackson. Depending on the size of the store, each one carries between 12-20 sandwich varieties at any time. LTOs are introduced once per quarter and are available for a period of two weeks.
Overall, packaged sandwich sales at Russell’s have been growing year over year. Just in the past year, they have grown by 17%, Jackson said.
In 2013, Sendik’s Food Markets, an 11-store grocery chain in the Greater Milwaukee area, launched a new 7,000-square-foot convenience store format and a new brand of Sendik’s Fresh2GO-branded foods, including in-house, deli-made sandwiches.
“We have worked really hard to be a trendsetter in the market,” said Nicholas Bandoch, the company’s communications director. “Our Millennial customers are experimental when it comes to food and we’re always looking for new flavors to excite and delight them.”
Among the most popular of Sendik’s Fresh2GO sandwiches is the “Gobbler,” a combination of turkey and bacon with cranberry mustard on Italian bread. Others include the “Kicked Up Roast Beef” with provolone cheese, horseradish and mayonnaise on Italian bread and the “Silver Spring,” which offers ribbons of vegetables topped with hummus on whole grain bread.
Fresh2GO offers six signature sandwiches. All come in full sizes and three are also available by the half to pair with soup or salad. Four additional sub sandwiches round out the menu. Customers can also get a meal deal that includes a yogurt parfait or a cup of cut fresh fruit or vegetables.
A second Sendik’s Fresh2GO c-store is scheduled to open in the summer of 2016. The company is also “actively searching for additional locations to build the brand,” Bandoch said.