By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large
The fast casual sandwich sector has come a long way from restaurants serving the same old turkey club and roast beef sandwich.
Creative concepts have emerged and are offering diners a unique twist on many sandwich favorites, while also serving menu items guests have never seen before.
Although Jersey Mikes and the quick-serve Arby’s are chains on the rise, many other sandwich chains are having difficulty competing with these emerging concepts.
Former sandwich kings, like Subway have been forced to close hundreds of stores this year. The pressure from the fast casual segment, especially with the new array of innovative options for customers to choose from, has had a negative impact on major chains.
These elevated sandwich concepts are disrupting the segment as they continue to gain traction in the market.
Two restaurants uppin’ the ante in this sector are Matt & Marie’s and Mendocino Farms. Both of these concepts have leading ladies as co-founders and we decided to sit down with each off them to see how their concepts are standing out from the rest.
How does your brand offer something different to guests in the sandwich sector?
Marie Capp of Matt & Marie's: Our bread is baked fresh every morning and delivered by our baker, our pickles and condiments are made in-house, and our Italian meats and cheeses are aged and sliced in-house, as well. Each sandwich gets its own charcuterie board of delicately crafted meats and cheeses.
Ellen Chen of Mendocino Farms: When designing our menu, our key filter is "Approachable, yet Adventurous." Many of the big sandwich chains use far lower quality ingredients and stick with the classics, allowing for little competitive differentiation. You get descriptors like "fresh sliced"– is that really better, if it's still processed deli meat?
At the high-end of the sandwich spectrum, a lot of chefs use the same high quality ingredients and scratch cooking techniques that we do, but they make the sandwich so challenging that it feels like a "food dare" for the guest. We try to navigate the middle ground by taking that chef-driven mentality and using the filter of approachability in an attempt to awaken the inner foodie in all of us!
What are your most popular menu items? And why do you think consumers like them so much?
Capp: The Uncle G's Turkey and the Italian Stallion have always been our biggest hits. Lately, THE MEATBALL MADNESS special has taken over. Consumers love our Uncle G's because of the fresh turkey (no gelatin, no fillers, real oven roasted turkey) and killer garlic aioli we make in-house. Paired with arugula and pancetta (bacon but better!) who can beat that?!
New Chef's Pick starting today is the Drake Farm's Celebration Sandwich ! Herbes de Provence-marinated Drake Family Farm’s goat cheese, fig chutney, Creminelli prosciutto, basil pesto, slivered almonds, arugula and lemon on toasted buckwheat - $11.45 (follow the link in our profile to learn more about the farm & our partnership!)
- "Not So Fried" Chicken - guests gravitate toward this sandwich because it's like eating a cold fried chicken sandwich, but without the guilt. Our "krispies" (our Chef's secret recipe made from Parmesan and polenta), mimic the crunchy fried buttermilk batter that's the best part of fried chicken. We fry it separately, so it stays crunchy, and layer it with shaved free range chicken breast, herb aoili for richness, and mustard pickle remoulade and pickled red onions for brightness. A choiceof warm BBQ sauce or creamy mustard pickle remoulade on the side for dipping, brings it all together.
- Kurobuta Pork Belly Banh Mi - this type of sandwich is a well-known and loved Vietnamese classic, but ours has a decidedly indulgent, "cheffy" point of view. Whereas the standard banh mi usually features an inexpensive protein, ours features a decadent, premium braised and caramelized pork belly and our own pickled daikon and carrots along with chili aioli, sweet chili sauce, and the traditional cucumber, fresh jalapeño, and cilantro. We use a panini-grilled artisan ciabatta to pay homage to the crunch of a baguette, which is the more standard banh mi bread.
- Avocado Quinoa Superfood Ensalada - this is a nutrient-packed health powerhouse, but because of all the indulgent flavor and texture, you don't feel like you're being deprived of anything. The base is kale, butter lettuce, and romaine along with a quinoa and millet mix. We top it off with a house-made “superfood krunchies” (a healthfully addictive blend of crunchy fried quinoa, millet, heirloom red rice, and nutritional yeast), cotija cheese, and a black bean, roasted corn, and jicama succotash. Being healthy never tasted so good!
- Save Drake Farm's Salad - guests love this menu mainstay as much for its backstory as for its sweet and tangy flavor profile. We added it to the menu years ago when we discovered Drake Family Farms, an incredible local artisan goat dairy that was on the brink of going out of business. We couldn't let that happen, so our Chef created this salad purely to feature their amazing cheese. It quickly became--and still is--one of our top selling menu items, and the added revenue stream from our account helped save the farm. Dr. Dan, the veterinarian owner of the farm, is now one of our very closest friends and even named two of his goats "Mendo" and "Cino" after us.
What trends are you seeing in the sandwich sector?
Capp: Consumers want fresh, fresh, fresh. And, are looking to see cool, innovative combinations. Take our Ducati Dealer– Vietnamese bahn mi with hot Italian sausage, cilantro and pepperoncini aioli!
- Chen: older ethnic Asian interpretations. In the '90s it was general Asian, then Japanese, then in the last couple years Korean, and now it's Filipino, Malaysian, and Vietnamese flavors coming into spreads, acid sets, and protein marinades.
- Better flour for bread. Tartine bakery in San Francisco and Travis Lett from Gjusta are really the early pioneers in producing clean, unprocessed bread at a level that we have not seen since the Industrial Revolution!
- Interesting and creative proteins, braises, smoked meats, sausages, meatballs--all more exciting than just roasted, carved meat.