Sandwich Slowdown: Can These Concepts Compete With the Better-For-You Brands?

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

It looks like consumers are reaching less for the approachable and familiar sandwich. Brands with a focus on this beloved lunch item are having trouble competing with the health halo brands.

According to recent Foodable Labs’ data, the top 10 sandwich restaurant chains experienced the most significant slowdown in the last five years. Specifically, these 10 chains saw a decrease of 4.9% in social occasions. 

This was also the case for the entire sandwich group we are tracking. According to our Labs’ data, 310 multi-unit sandwich concepts experienced a 5.3% drop in Social Restaurant Visits (SRVs.) 

Like we mentioned, former sandwich-lovin’ consumers are instead gravitating to better-for-you concepts. 61.2% of customers that have formerly eaten at the top 10 sandwich chains are now visiting health halo concepts 35% more.

With that being said, there are still concepts performing slightly above in the past six months. We decided to take a closer look at how these chains are implementing healthier menus, consumer trends, and on-demand delivery. 

No. 1 Jersey’s Mikes

Our Turkey Breast just got even better! Still Oven Roasted and 99% Fat Free, and NOW Raised without Antibiotics!

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This fast casual has experience massive growth within the last five years. The chain had about 700 stores in the U.S. at the end of 2013, but now has more than 1,500 stores opened or in development. 

The concept appeals to consumers with its nostalgic vibe with a deli slicer armed at the ready to manually slice the meat for each customer’s sandwich. In terms of healthy options, the chain serves a selection of wraps described as “tasty, lighter meals full of fresh vegetables and protein!” The wildly popular Turkey Breast and Provolone sandwich features protein that was “raised without antibiotics.”

In January, Jersey's Mikes rolled out a new online promotion to encourage customers to use the company’s mobile app or website to order ahead. The brand offered a high-value limited time offer of 50% off their first online order. Current online customers were also offered a 25% code during the promotional period. 

No. 2 McAlister's Deli

This fast casual is incorporating the healthy eating trend by recently introducing the NEW 9-Grain bread, but the brand offers a menu with much more than sandwiches. There are eight salads on the menu, along with an array of wraps.

Deli may be in its name but this fast casual concept doesn’t only focus on their sandwiches. One of the brand’s differentiators is its specialty beverage program. McAlister’s sweet tea is wildly popular and is a major focus of their marketing campaigns. A current featured beverage is the “Pure Cane Sugar Lemonade,” which “contains sugar from sugar cane and beet.”

FOCUS Brands, which operates McAlister’s Deli, announced that all of its brands will only be serving menu items with cage free eggs by 2026. 

“In addition to industry trends and the growing consumer preference for cage free eggs in other channels such as grocery, today we are casting our vote with consumers and will work toward meeting these new supply standards.” said Rich Kamph, Senior Vice President of FOCUS Brands Global Supply Chain in a press release. 

No. 3 Jason's Deli

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This fast casual concept has a heavy focus on healthy with language like “all good things start with wholesome ingredients” and “from organic field greens to 100% antibiotic-free chicken, our menu is bursting with fresh, nutrient-filled goodness. No artificial trans fats, MSG or high-fructose corn syrup. Only the best and the tastiest for you.”

Jason’s Deli prides itself on being one of the first restaurant groups to remove all artificial trans fats from their food and the chain has also eliminated processed MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, dyes, artificial colors, and artificial flavors.

It’s safe to say the brand is making a push to not only compete with the better-for-you brands, but also to be recognized in this category. The chain also caters to eaters with dietary restrictions with an extensive “Gluten-Sensitive Menu” and a “Meatless Eats” section on its menu. The restaurant also has an expansive salad bar. 

The chain also offers online delivery where there is a convenient feature to send an email invitation to a group of people that the user wants to include in the order. 

No. 4 Jimmy John’s

The fast casual Jimmy John’s, known for its “freaky fast” delivery, is also making a push to appeal to the health-conscious consumer. The brand boasts that the sandwiches are “All Natural. The Way it Should Be.” 

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“We serve from-scratch food made with excellent ingredients. At Jimmy John's our food is simple; it’s clean, and it’s fresh! We use locally purchased produce, which is brought in fresh and hand sliced daily. Our tuna salad is made from scratch by hand. Our real provolone cheese, oven-roasted turkey, choice top round roast beef, real wood-smoked ham, dry cured genoa salami, and spicy capicola, are also brought in fresh and sliced by hand daily – in every single Jimmy John's location,” according to the Jimmy John’s website. “You care about where your food comes from, and we do too! We demand that of our suppliers. They go to great lengths to make it happen. Our stores are locally owned and operated by people who care.”

Besides focusing on having “freaky fresh” food, Jimmy John’s spends a lot of marketing dollars promoting its “freaky fast” delivery and online ordering platform.

No. 5 Penn Station East Coast Subs

This fast casual is on the rise and has 310 stores in 15 states so far. Although the brand doesn’t seem to focus on healthy menu items, the chain does emphasize its quality ingredients. 

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"While we can make a great cold sandwich as well, guests love our hot food, and they love to watch as we grill, bake and fry their food to order. We use nationally branded products and high quality meats and cheeses to make the best sandwiches for our customers," said Craig Dunaway, president of Penn Station East Coast Subs.

The chain does offer a few “Lighter Options,” including the Grilled Artichoke, the Chicken or Tuna Salad, and the Grilled Vegetarian.

So has the brand jumped on the on-demand delivery and mobile app bandwagon? The sandwich chain has a rewards app and many of the stores have partnered with third-party delivery services like GrubHub, DoorDash, and Postmates. 

"Technology like mobile apps and online ordering is huge in the fast casual industry right now. We launched our mobile app and loyalty program last year, and we’re adding online ordering later this summer. We’re also seeing more interest in great-tasting, made-to-order food served in a welcoming environment. Restaurants have to serve excellent food to succeed," said Dunaway.

Honorable Mentions

Coming in at No. 6 is Potbelly Sandwich Shop. This sandwich concept has 400+ stores and offers healthy alternatives with six different salads and “Skinnys” sandwiches all under 400 calories. It also offers online ordering for delivery and pick-up. 

Another honorable mention is the emerging concept Mendocino Farms, a sandwich-focused chain with seven LA locations. This fast casual is gaining traction in a particularly competitive market. So what makes this brand stand out from the rest? 

“When designing our menu, our key filter is "approachably 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,” but is that really better, if it's still processed deli meat?” said Ellen Chen, co-Founders of Mendocino Farms. While, 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!”