By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
How does a turkey sandwich become more than just an ordinary turkey sandwich? When it is paired with cheddar cheese, sweet cranberry mustard sauce, spinach, tomato and red onion and served on nine-grain wheat bread.
Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a company that forecasts food trends, explains that celebrating each season with LTOs is a good way to communicate freshness and on-trend creativity.
“Using seasonal ingredients is also cheaper than bringing in non-seasonal ingredients,” Badaracco said.
For example, she pointed out, during the cooler seasons, root vegetables such as rainbow carrots and golden beets can be shaved and added to sandwiches for crunch and appealing appearance. Broccoli and cauliflower can also be shaved and served as a slaw or pickled to give more interesting flavor.
“Customers like seasonal ingredients and flavors because it makes them feel hipper, more in the know about the food they’re eating,” Badaracco said.
But some seasonal offerings become so popular that consumers don’t want them ever taken off the menu. That’s what happened with the Sonoma Chicken sandwich at NOCO Express stores in western New York, said Linda Hulings, the company’s commissary manager. The sandwich, marketed under NOCO’s proprietary Nickel City brand, is made with chopped chicken, cranberries, pecans and poppyseeds on grilled flatbread.
“It was supposed to be a summer specialty sandwich, but just took off,” Hulings said. “When we tried to remove it from the menu, our stores got a lot of phone calls; one woman called me personally.”
Midland, Texas-based Kent Kwik Convenience Stores had the same experience with the Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad sold under the company’s Kwik Eats foodservice program, according to Stormy Williams, director of operations, foodservice division.
“It has become one of our best sellers and a signature item for our stores,” Williams said.
Today’s consumers are also looking for bolder flavors, Badaracco said. Ingredients that impart heat, such as jerk seasonings and chili peppers, can wake up the most jaded tastebuds.
“It’s not enough anymore to use the generic work ‘chilies,’ consumers are more educated and want to know what specific kind of chili you’re using,” Badaracco said. “For example, they want to know if you’re using jalapeños or chipotle peppers.”
NOCO likes to heat things up with LTOs such as barbecued pulled pork and roast beef with horseradish cheddar and horseradish sauce.
“We do a lot of trend research, especially on Millennials,” Hulings said.
Kent Kwik, which has 14 in-store delis that deliver just-made sandwiches to 31 of its 41 stores in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, offers condiment packets to customers who want to spike their sandwiches with some extra flavor. Among the most popular are the jalapeño ketchup and jalapeño relish, Williams said. Customers can also add other fresh ingredients such as lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles to their grab-and-go sandwiches.
Badaracco pointed out that pickled, fermented and sour are also trending flavors. That could translate to vinaigrette dressings, pickled vegetables and kimchi on sandwiches for customers with more adventurous palates.
NOCO Express includes among its “specialty sandwiches” a smoked ham and Swiss cheese on a pretzel roll with a side of honey mustard and a Tuna Supreme with a hint of lemon.
Hulings reported that sales of NOCO’s specialty sandwiches have really taken off over the last five years. Depending on the size and location of the c-stores, three to five varieties of specialty sandwiches are available every day.
Vegetarian sandwich options can also provide a change of pace even for meat eaters if the flavors are well crafted. Badaracco recommended amping up their appeal with global flavor influences such as African, Indian or Middle Eastern.
“Just make sure the ingredients and flavors are authentic to the country of origin,” Badaracco said. “A growing number of consumers are familiar with global flavors and will know if you are being true to their sources.”
The same goes for regional sandwich varieties and flavor profiles. An example is a western New York favorite roast beef on “weck” (i.e. a kummelweck roll topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds) that is featured on NOCO’s Nickel City store deli and catering menus.
Many consumers are also looking for sandwiches that meet their particular dietary needs and preferences. NOCO is introducing sandwiches made with gluten-free bread in some of its stores with an eye on rolling them out chainwide. For customers who want to control their portions, the stores offer sandwiches on mini rolls made in a local bakery.
Customers who want to eat lighter yet still enjoy the hearty flavors of a turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing triple decker on seeded rye can order half a sandwich.
As part of its line of five freshly-made breakfast sandwiches introduced in late September, Broomall, Pa.-based Swiss Farms convenience stores included a “lean option” of egg white, spinach and cheese on a multigrain English muffin.
“It is low in calories and saturated fats, but full of flavor,” said Justin Vignola, Swiss Farms’ director of fresh food/new product development.
Breakfast sandwiches on the whole are a growing part of the foodservice business at Swiss Farms. The company has just switched from using a local purveyor to producing them in one its stores that has been outfitted with a full kitchen. The store supplies all 13 Swiss Farms drive-throughs throughout Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Chester Counties.
“We brought sandwich production in-house because we knew we could supply a better product and at a lower price point that would improve our margin,” Vignola explained. “We have also been able to expand our selection of breakfast sandwiches.”
The company is dedicated to buying local whenever possible. The pork roll, bacon and sausage used in the new breakfast sandwiches come from nearby sources.
Eighty percent of the ingredients in NOCO’s Nickel City sandwiches are sourced locally, Hulings said. NOCO has 28 Nickel City delis in 36 stores located in western New York.