It can be a challenge to find something that so many consumers love more than sandwiches. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans eat 300 million sandwiches a day, or roughly one per person, according to US Foods — a number that tracks higher if the definition of “sandwich” includes a burger. But are they popular enough to keep proteins top of mind for consumers at lunchtime?

“Sandwiches remain the most popular lunch menu item,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst, The NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y. “Burgers, chicken sandwiches, cold-cut combo, turkey and ham sandwiches rank among the top five sandwiches ordered from restaurants at lunch,” according to The NPD Group/CREST foodservice market research.

These sandwiches are classics and historically are ranked among the top luncheon items ordered at restaurants, she says.

“In the past few years, chicken sandwiches have increased in popularity, although not surpassing burgers, because there is a perception of chicken being a healthier option than other meats — and chicken sandwiches are appearing on more menus,” says Riggs.

What other kinds of meats are laying claim to lunch choices today, specifically sandwiches?

“Salumi interestingly grew pretty significantly (42.5 percent) over two years at restaurants, but your other listings did not: chicken as an ingredient fell 7.4 percent and beef fell 7.6 percent,” according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data, says Lizzy Freier, managing editor, menu analysis, Technomic, based in Chicago.

Premium beef is also showing up on more sandwich menus, says Jana Mann, senior director for Chicago-based Datassential. 

“Short ribs and brisket were originally center of plate items, but now are specialty sandwich proteins,” says Mann. “From French dips to sliders to grilled cheese, short ribs are versatile, pairing well with caramelized onions, horseradish aioli, beer cheese, as well as Asian flavors.”

Sandwiches can be traditional, but even more popular today is taking aspects of a traditional sandwich and replacing it with unique, creative proteins, she says.  “A banh mi, typically including pate, may now feature chicken meatballs, pork tenderloin or lemongrass steak,” Mann says.

No matter what, convenience trumps all other needs at lunch for time-strapped diners.

“With convenience met, consumers are increasingly looking for leaner meat options; hence, the increasing popularity of chicken, which is perceived as being a leaner meat,” says Riggs.

Health is certainly increasingly top-of-mind for consumers, particularly with high-protein meals — just not necessarily protein from meats.

“Consumers seem to be finding their proteins from different sources other than meats for lunch,” notes Freier. “This may be with grains like quinoa, beans, soy products, eggs, nuts and seeds.”

Additives in food are a growing concern among consumers, particularly Millennials. They are also interested in clean label items like organic foods that are explicitly labeled as preservative-, hormone-, antibiotic- and GMO-free.

“Transparency is imperative for foodservice in general, but this also applies to lunch meats,” says Freier. “So operators and suppliers increasingly need to make commitments for their poultry and other meats to meet rising demand for natural and naturally raised proteins.”

The other white meat

Last year, protein was slightly down on menus, but pork is increasing in popularity.

“One growth vehicle for sandwiches includes the protein pork,” says Mann. “The top list of fastest growing sandwich proteins includes offerings like pork belly, pork shoulder and sopressata.”

According to Datassential’s 2016 Menu Trends report, four of the top five sandwich proteins in terms of menu penetration were pork items.

“Restaurants like Burger King and Subway are offering pulled pork on their LTO [limited time offer] menus, and less traditional categories such as charcuterie, salami and capicola are increasing in popularity with consumers,” says Patrick Fleming, director of market intelligence and innovation at the National Pork Board, in Clive, Iowa.

Ham has long been a lunchtime favorite, because it is low fat and convenient, Fleming says.

“A recent report from the Nielsen Perishables Group tells us that ham continues to drive deli bulk category dollar growth, and that salami is resurging in dollar and volume growth,” says Fleming.

Pulled pork is another flavorful and convenient choice for lunch, he says.

“Bacon is a welcome addition to almost any sandwich, and salami adds a unique flavor profile,” says Fleming.

Pork can also be used as a condiment, such as a bacon topping for chicken sandwiches or in BLTs, or it can be featured as a special touch for sandwiches such as Italian paninis that use sopressata.

The pork shoulder is used in bahn mi, Cuban and barbecue sandwiches, notes Mann.

When selecting a sandwich, consumers seek new authentic flavors that are popular in other regions of the world and chefs look to other countries for creative sandwich additions.

“The three fastest growing sandwich varieties include banh mi, torta and croque madame, with Cuban not far behind,” says Mann.

According to the Datassential report, banh mi, a Vietnamese pork-based sandwich, has seen a 700 percent growth in penetration over the last few years, Fleming says.

“Pork is the most consumed meat in the world, so as consumers look to broaden their culinary horizons, it makes sense that these new flavors of pork are growing in popularity,” says Fleming.

Lunch on the go

Consumers always look for convenience for lunch.

“As more people shift to eating smaller, snack-sized portions throughout the day, meals like lunch are becoming a little less substantial,” says Jonathan Whalley, education coordinator, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. “Of course, the lunchtime rush is still a factor, but shoppers tend to look for fresh and healthy items packaged in a way that allows them to eat it on the go.”

Deli meat can play a role in on-the-go snacking, as well. “Meat snacks have become an emerging trend as consumers look for protein-rich options that are convenient, healthy and flavorful,” says Keith Hill, director, brand management, Land O’Frost, based in Lansing, Ill.

Sandwiches have always been the go-to favorite for keeping kids full and focused throughout the school day.

“But today lunch meats are becoming more innovative to incorporate trendy flavors and spices,” Hill says. “So consumers can experiment with different flavors and add as many or as little ingredients as they want to dress it up.”

Similar to restaurant sandwiches, deli meat trends at retail indicate an appetite for new flavors, high-quality ingredients and responsibly raised and produced items, notes Whalley.

“Today’s consumers want products that make it easier for them to shop and eat smart, so proteins that are lower in fat, antibiotic-free or all natural are really leading the way in terms of popularity,” Hill says.

Deli meats offer a great opportunity for engagement and education, too. “Team members can share stories about products and offer samples to give shoppers new flavor experiences,” Whalley says. “Pairing meats with specialty cheeses or artisan breads from the in-store bakery can provide busy shoppers with tasty and convenient ideas for sandwiches for the week and beyond.”

Whether consumers are brown bagging it or eating out, they want flavorful — and healthy — options.

“Healthier choices with variety are still top priorities,” Hill says. “Consumers continue to look for proteins that pack a healthy punch without sacrificing flavor.”  NP

Millennials: Changing in-store delis

It’s safe to say that Millennials probably don’t share the same perspective on lunch as their older counterparts. But they may actually be ideal shoppers for grocery delis to target.

According to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s What’s in Store 2016 trends report, 42 percent of Millennials shop the prepared foods department, as compared to 33 percent of Baby Boomers and 21 percent of Gen-Xers.

They look for quick grab-and-go products; in-store chef’s perspective on recipe ideas; local, healthy and fresh prepared foods; transparency; and authenticity, says the report.

In addition, they are more focused on food sources and manufacturing practices as part of an overall health lifestyle, instead of just diets.

In-store delis can connect with younger consumers by featuring smaller meals and snacking options; clean labels and organic, natural and locally sourced products; ethnic-inspired dishes; digital subscription services and social media; prepared meal solutions; and popular flavors like spicy, Sriracha, mango habanero and chipotle.