By: Korsha Wilson, Foodable Contributor
Even though the U.S. fast-casual and quick-serve segments continue to explode with different choices in terms of cuisine and format, consumers are still reaching for the approachable and familiar sandwich for many of their meals.
The sandwich segment is growing at a fast pace, and U.S. consumers are visiting and interacting with top sandwich chains more than ever before, making it one of the fastest growing segments in the country. “The sandwich category is getting very competitive, not that it hasn’t been in recent years,“ says Foodable CEO Paul Barron. “Now we are seeing QSR+ make a very hard move into the space where they have not been evident in the past four quarters.”
Brands like Arby’s, Firehouse Subs, Subway, McAlister’s Deli, and more are growing the sandwich market exponentially thanks to interactions with social consumers. According to Foodable Labs data, U.S. consumers have social interactions with sandwich segment leaders 2.32 times every month and interact with the top three brands frequently on social media.
Sandwich quick-serves are dipping into the fast-casual market thanks to their connection with millennial consumers. “We continue to see brands like Wendy's, Arby’s, and Chick-fil-A make major strides in pulling back lost transactions from some of the fast-casual leaders in the past. When you look at the top brands in the sandwich sector today, it leads with all fast-casual brands,” says Barron. The data shows that the top three brands in the sandwich segment — Firehouse Subs, McAlister’s and Arby’s — are able to differentiate themselves from the competition thanks to some key factors.
Millennials love having the option to customize their meals. Just look at the success of fast-casual brands like Chipotle and you can see that diners want the ability to have their meal, their way. The top-performing social sandwich brands also offer a menu of sandwiches that appeal to different dayparts.
At McAlister’s Deli, which is second in overall social consumer interactions, customers can have their sandwich exactly how they like. Diners can choose from a menu of grilled or cold sandwiches, or create their own in addition to adding appetizers or side dishes to their meal. “Sandwiches offer a lot of variety, tons of flavor, and I can customize it exactly how I like it,” says McAlister’s Deli President Carin Stutz. The category also lends itself well to customers in many different dayparts since it can be combined with other menu items to make a larger meal.
Sandwiches can also be enjoyed on a restaurant’s premises or on the go, which offers another layer of customization. Arby’s has used social media to brand themselves as a “fast crafted” restaurant, meaning customers can craft the sandwich that they like and take it to go. “We offer comparable quality and service as fast casual with the speed and convenience of a QSR,” says Josh Martin, director of digital and social media for Arby’s Restaurant Group. “Our guests love the ability to get such high-quality, craveable sandwiches in such a fast, convenient manner to accommodate busy lifestyles."
Reaching Millennials Where They Are
Social interactions are one of the key ways that brands within the sandwich segment are distinguishing themselves from the competition. According to Foodable Labs, the Top 10 sandwich brands on social media account for 7.2 million conversations and have crafted unique voices on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Arby’s in particular has found success in commenting on popular pop culture events like the Grammy Awards and The Daily Show. These two programs have nothing to do with sandwiches, but they are programs that their millennial customers are most likely to watch. “Our guests have noticed when we’re willing to engage in ways that are fun, self-aware, and imperfect,” says Martin. During the 2014 Grammy’s, the Arby’s social media team struck gold with a funny tweet about the similarities between pop star Pharrell’s hat and the Arby’s logo. "We actively listen and monitor social media and pop culture for chances to jump into relevant conversations to engage with our guests and fans.” Adding their voice to the conversation makes sure they stay top-of-mind for millennial consumers.
For Firehouse Subs, which has the highest number of social consumer visits per month, social media is a great way to extend the same hospitality that customers can find in their restaurants. “The people we interact with on social media are no different than those we interact with in the restaurant,” says Melissa Simpson, digital content director for Firehouse Subs. “We want it to be personal, we want to show appreciation if they had a great experience, and we want to help them if they have a question or issue.” Simpson also attributes the brand’s foundation — a shop started by two first-responders — as the basis for how the company approaches social media and interacts with customers. “The first responder background of our company lends itself not only to a great appreciation for good food and camaraderie, but also a commitment to service. We just extend those traits into the social media space.”
McAlister’s Deli uses social media to keep customers updated about new menu items and promotions. When the company started offering Chicago-style sausage pasta and sandwich menu items, they used social media to create a promotion for the dishes. “We launched a social sweepstakes giving away the ultimate date night, Chicago-style,” says Stutz. “We flew our winner and a guest to Chicago for a one night trip, reserved a room at the iconic Drake Hotel and gave them $500 spending money for the night of a lifetime.” McAlister’s Deli has also used social media to identify frequent customers and buy them a meal.
Future of the Trend
Melissa Simpson of Firehouse Subs doesn’t see the trend of millennials loving sandwich brands going away anytime soon. “There's a sandwich for every occasion, whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late-night snack,” she says. ”The fact that sandwiches are so craveable due to endless ingredient options makes them much more a staple and much less a trend.” She cites sandwiches like the grilled cheese and the peanut butter and jelly as perfect examples of how Americans will continuously reach for the sandwich as a meal or snack.
For Stutz, the future of sandwich restaurant brands is all about how consumers feel about the brand that they interact with. For that reason, she sees social interactions as key to continuing the segment’s growth. “It really makes consumers feel good about the brand when they are acknowledged,” she says.