Sandwiches Offer Fresh Twist

Specialty sandwiches provide an ideal platform for enticing customers with trendy new flavors, without exceeding their comfort zones.

By Erin Rigik Del Conte, Senior Editor

Americans love sandwiches, which have long been engrained in the American diet. This also makes them an ideal vehicle for introducing adventure via a familiar food.

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Market research firm Datassential’s “2017 Sandwiches Keynote Report” indicates customers love sandwiches and sandwich components, including the varieties of meats and cheeses that go into them. When customers are asked about the foods they like, “sandwich varieties rate pretty high compared to other types of food,” said Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager at Datassential.

Innovation is exploding on sandwich menus with both global and regionally-focused ingredients currently trending upward. For example, the top 10 varieties growing the fastest on restaurant menus were items like the Bahn Mi sandwich, Torta, Samitas and Schwarma, Rodriguez said. Meanwhile, the Lobster Roll is an example of an East Coast offering that is now popular nationwide.

The Bahn Mi, which is on 2% of restaurant menus, but has the fastest growing menu penetration, often includes a baguette with roast pork, topped with fish sauce, Asian cabbage and vegetables. It likely succeeds because it pairs a familiar roast pork sandwich with a new and interesting flavor profile, allowing for “safe experimentation.”

The idea is to hit the mark with a sandwich item that’s not 100% familiar, but also not completely outside the comfort zone. “This is especially true for a c-store audience, which tends to lean toward more ubiquitous ingredients and less toward the cutting edge,” said Kyle Chamberlain, project manager, Datassential.

That includes sandwich names. For example, Rodriguez suggested a c-store might introduce the Bahn Mi but call it “Saigon Pork Sandwich” to increase a familiarity.
The top five fastest growing flavors and condiments according to Datassential include sriracha, bacon jam—savory jams are huge—spreads made from Greek yogurt, kim chi, kale, daikon (a Japanese radish) and beets.

If the top five flavor trends seem too “out-there” for c-stores, consider that McDonald’s launched its Kale and Sriracha Mac Sauce Burger nation-wide in July, which shows how far some of these trends have come.

Kale is no longer just for the health food crowd. “It’s something that everybody from all walks of life is interested in right now. And the same is now true for sriracha when a couple of years ago that might have been too spicy or too unusual for a lot of folks,” Chamberlain said.

When Datassential asked customers what would motivate them to eat sandwiches more often, one of the top answers was healthier versions of ingredients or healthier sandwich options in general. Customers are also willing to pay more for premium ingredients like kale or antibiotic-free chicken.

A recent article in USA Today reported that Dunkin’ Donuts has seen such a demand for its breakfast sandwiches throughout the day that it is testing deleting non-breakfast sandwiches from the menu in the name of simplicity.

Breakfast sandwiches are indeed in demand. Datassential found that between 2005-2016 the number of U.S. restaurants offering breakfast sandwiches grew 41%. Restaurants are pulling innovation for breakfast sandwiches from other daypart menus.

“The fastest growing proteins are fried chicken, brisket, pork belly, chorizo and prosciutto—things that you might expect on a charcuterie plate,” said Chamberlain. Popular cheeses include Fontina, Asiago, Gruyére and smoked cheeses.

Daypart blending is also trending, where a fried egg might appear on a dinner daypart sandwich and fried chicken might make an appearance on breakfast sandwiches. “So what might be perceived as a breakfast sandwich really can play a different role throughout the day,” said Rodriguez.

NOCO Express, based in Tonawanda, N.Y., offers breakfast sandwiches throughout the day via its cold cases. “The most popular is our Sausage Egg and Cheese on a bagel. We also offer the Sausage Egg and Cheese on a maple flatbread, which is becoming very popular,” said Linda Hulings, who manages the Nickel City Foods line for NOCO Express’ 37 locations.

NOCO Express customers have shown a demand for non-traditional bread items, and NOCO meets that need by offering a sandwich of the month. This August, NOCO offered ham & Swiss cheese on a pretzel roll for $5.49.

“We are influenced by trends and the sales of the sandwich. During the summer, we offer our lighter sandwiches and wraps like our Buffalo Chicken Finger Wrap and Chicken Caesar Wrap. We also offer our complete eight-inch subs and specialty sandwiches, such as Buffalo Chicken Sandwich on a jalapeño roll with freshly-sliced spicy chicken breast, jalapeño Monterey jack cheese and dressed with a spicy aioli, or our Triple Decker Sandwich with freshly sliced ham and turkey, Swiss cheese and coleslaw with Russian dressing all on three slices of seeded rye bread,” Hulings said.

During the fall and winter, NOCO offers heartier sandwiches like a BBQ Pulled Pork and Carved Turkey. This year, it’s adding a Sloppy Joe.

In addition to white and wheat sub rolls, NOCO also offers flatbreads, pretzel breads, brioche rolls, jalapeño rolls, rye bread and wheat breads. Each specialty sandwich is made on different bread. The breads are supplied by local vendors.

NOCO first began offering pre-packaged sandwiches via Nickel City Foods in 2008, beginning at its top 10 locations and expanding to all locations within the year. Today, all sandwiches are made fresh daily, pre-packaged and delivered to the stores in the evening.
Today its Sonoma Chicken Salad Sandwich on Grilled Flatbread is its top selling specialty sandwich, and it’s available year round.

In addition to driving sandwich sales with the sandwich of the month, NOCO also markets the sandwiches with signage at the pumps. “When a customer pulls up to a NOCO Express store, they see the fresh food signs everywhere,” Hulings said.

When VERC Enterprises acquired Plymouth, Mass.-based Mayflower Food & Spirits—now renamed Mayflower Provisions—in December of 2016, it acquired a quarter-century old location that offered a robust foodservice program, including an in-house baker, chef and butcher.

The 7,000-square-foot store contains a 1,000-square-foot deli, 1,000-square-foot butcher shop and 500-square-foot bakery. VERC Enterprises is continuing the food program the store had when it was acquired.

With an in-house bakery, the store bakes its own bread in-store for its sandwiches. “We hope to be bringing (in-house bread baking) out to the rest of the chain at some point,” said Leo Vercollone, president of VERC Enterprises, which operates 27 c-stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “Right now, we’re just continuing to focus on Mayflower.”

Mayflower Provisions gets meat fresh delivered three times a week —such as butcher-style roast beefs, turkeys and hams—which it sells via its butcher shop, but also slices, flavors and cooks in-house for its sandwiches.

Fresh local produce—including cucumbers, melons, lettuce, strawberries and blueberries— is delivered six days a week and sold in the store’s extended produce section—but also used on sandwiches as well.

“We get a lot of our (ingredients) locally sourced. If you’re going to get a sub or a sandwich at Mayflower, we bake the bread, use our own in-house meats—at least for roast beef, turkey and ham—and use fresh locally-produced vegetables and fruits every day,” Vercollone said.

Mayflower Provisions charges 10-20% more for sandwiches compared with other VERC c-stores, which offer pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed sandwiches that arrive at the stores two-three days a week.

Mayflower makes about 30% of its sandwiches in advance for the grab-and-go cold case, and the other 70% are made to order. It also features made-to-order breakfast sandwiches made from scratch in the store until 10 a.m., including an Egg and Cheese bagel; and Egg, Cheese and Ham (or bacon or sausage) on an English muffin.

“The egg is freshly broken. The bacon, sausage and ham are cooked in-house. So our breakfast sandwiches are made with fresh ingredients,” Vercollone said.

As for incorporating new flavors, Chef Tony Andrews, who has been with the store for 13 years, is Jamaican and incorporates Jamaican flavors into many items from homemade chili to a jerk chicken.

Upon acquiring the Mayflower store, VERC completely renovated it, adding all new equipment.

“The second biggest thing is we’ve tried to get is locally-sourced products,” said Vercollone, who added the store is partnering with local farms to provide produce and fruit, as well as eggs and certain meats.

Even though committing to local and from-scratch foods has been time consuming, the difference in quality has been worth the effort.

Consumers today don’t want to see preservatives on ingredient labels. “We’re using few ingredients. We’re keeping it fresh. I don’t know how many convenience stores you know of that have a chef, a butcher and a baker and fresh locally-sourced produce,” Vercollone said. “We want to really learn and get really good at it at Mayflower before we try to bring it to the rest of our chain.”

Kum & Go, which operates more than 400 c-stores in 11 states, offers a variety of sandwiches—both cold and hot—in stores that offer food. Marketplace stores, those opened since February 2016, include an assortment of made-to-order sandwiches, including: Grilled Cheese (ham can be added), Beef Brisket, Italian Chicken Panini and Philly Steak & Cheese.

Anyone running a successful foodservice program knows that excess food often results in spoilage and waste. Kum & Go took a unique approach to this issue and launched a ‘Food Rescue’ program in Colorado Springs in January 2017, which has now rolled out to all 16 Colorado Springs locations.

“Safe, prepared excess food is stored properly in coolers until the partner agency picks it up—typically one-three times per week—and delivers it to a charitable organization who will distribute the food to its clients,” said Kristie Bell, communications director for Kum & Go. Breakfast sandwiches and hot and cold lunch sandwiches are among food items donated by the convenience chain.

According to its Colorado Springs partner, Care and Share, Kum & Go has provided more than 28,000 meals year-to-date to fight hunger in the Colorado Springs community. “We expanded into Des Moines, and (in August) launched our 21st store for the entire program,” Bell added.

Kum & Go’s original goal was to have 25 stores on board by the end of 2017—but it’s now shooting for 45.

“So far, the program has been a huge success for the communities and for our associates, who like to know that the food is going to those in need, instead of being thrown into the trash,” said Bell.