By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
‘Bread, meat, cheese, condiments’ sounds simple, but the top companies in the sandwich sector are taking the theory to the next level.
We all remember the sandwiches that we took to school when we were children — simple, quickly made meals that filled the stomach but didn’t necessarily have a lot of style. The sandwiches of the 21st century have come a long way, and they have the quick-serve restaurant industry to thank.
These new sandwiches — subs, hoagies, grinders or whatever else you’d like to call them — feature artisan breads, fresh meats and other gourmet ingredients, and people are flocking to sandwich restaurants like never before.
Quiznos Sub, based in Denver, is one of the giants of the sandwich sector, with more than 4,500 restaurants in the United States and more than 5,000 worldwide. Known for its bold flavors, it has been one of the leaders in the toasted sandwich and sandwich/salad innovations. Zach Calkins, director of culinary development, says that the company is one of the sector’s trend-setting brands.
“The biggest trend I see in the sandwich sector is our competitors trying to duplicate what we at Quiznos launch as a new sandwich or salad,” he adds. “What it comes down to is that the consumer dictates what the next trend is, [but] we can educate them as we go on trying new things that they didn’t think a QSR sandwich chain could deliver.”
While Subway and Quiznos tend to be the dominant names in the sector, there have been plenty of opportunities for smaller chains to find their niche and develop a strong customer base. Such is the case of Firehouse Restaurant Group Inc., located in Jacksonville, Fla. Its sandwich chain, Firehouse Subs, has 261 locations in the Southeast part of the country, located as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia. The company was founded by Chris and Robin Sorensen, two entrepreneurs who went from working as firefighters to starting a sandwich business. Everything from the decorations on the restaurant walls to the names of the sub sandwiches evokes the firefighting theme.
Don Fox, chief operating officer of Firehouse Subs, notes that the restaurants’ theme is one of its defining characteristics. “There is no other place like it,” he points out.
While a theme may get people into a restaurant, Firehouse has worked hard to develop a unique method of preparation that keeps customers returning for more. Fox notes that the sandwich category is the second-largest growing segment in the industry, and the “hot” sub concept is particularly popular.
“Firehouse Subs has been on the cutting edge of providing customer with the best hot subs on the market,” he says. The chain steams the meat and cheese while toasting the bread separately. It also puts four ounces of meat on its medium subs and a half-pound of meat on the large specialty subs.
One of the latest companies to enter the sandwich market is Dagwood’s Sandwich Shoppes LLC, a partnership between Dean Young, the second-generation creator of the “Blondie” comic strip, and Lamar Berry, a 30-year veteran of the QSR industry. The company is headquartered in New Orleans and Clearwater, Fla. The first stores have opened in Florida, and hundreds more are being planned. “Blondie” has a worldwide following, and the chain hopes the success of the comic carries over to the sandwich sector.
“In the foodservice industry, Dagwood’s is ideally positioned,” Berry said when the company was formed. “The sandwich category is growing 143 percent faster than the entire restaurant category. Baby boomers — which we think of as the Sandwich Generation — are looking for a change, and we believe they’re going to love what Dagwood’s has to offer.”
There are still many places where a sandwich is still two pieces of bread, cold lunchmeat, cheese and condiments. But sandwiches are becoming increasingly complex and could be served warm or cold. Several different types of bread are available, to say nothing of the variety of meats that are used. Even condiments like mustard and mayo are competing with honey mustard, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing and more.
The signature item on Dagwood’s new menu is “The Dagwood,” a mammoth tribute to Dagwood Bumstead’s sandwich-making abilities. It features three slices of bread, hard salami, pepperoni, cappicola, mortadella, deli ham, cotto salami, cheddar and provolone cheese, red onion, lettuce, tomato, roasted red peppers, mustard, mayo and an Italian olive salad. Elsewhere on the menu are chicken curry salad sandwiches, hot pressed Cuban sandwiches, po’ boys and barbecue pork.
Quiznos, for its part, has been steadily releasing new sandwich offerings that add variety to its menu.
“The biggest items have been the introduction of Prime Rib and Brisket at a larger-than-normal portion,” says Calkins. “Those two high-quality items really raised the bar on the QSR/quick-casual industry.”
Both of those sandwiches feature a double portion of meat, with the Brisket including cheddar cheese and a sweet-and-smoky barbecue sauce, and the Prime Rib including sautéed onions and cheese. Peppercorn sauce is also available on the Prime Rib. Other popular items include the Cabo Chicken and Chicken Milano sandwiches, which include exotic ingredients like chipotle chiles and sun-dried tomato pesto. Calkins says that Quiznos’ consumers have come to expect those types of innovations from the restaurant.
“[We’re] always raising the bar on quality ingredients,” he says, adding that the Prime Rib and Peppercorn has become a signature item on the menu.
Firehouse actually reduced its menu two years ago in order to focus on its core, hot specialty subs, Fox says. “As we enter 2007, however, and some of our markets reach greater maturity, we will be for the first time entering into the area of limited-time offers in order to bring additional variety to our customers.”
The chain will also begin offering a wheat sub roll. The company’s most popular item is the Hook & Ladder, featuring smoked turkey breast and Virginia honey ham smothered with Monterey Jack cheese. Like many of the company’s subs, it is served “fully involved,” or in non-firefighter’s terms, loaded with mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion and a dill pickle spear on the side.
As the sandwich sector has grown, the types of meats that are popular have also changed. Calkins notes that Quiznos has seen prime rib and chicken breasts both become increasingly popular. For Firehouse Subs, turkey is still the leading meat, but Fox points out the popularity of chicken across all sectors in the food industry.
“Chicken has not been a centerpiece on our menu, and we are looking for ways that we may be able to feature it in the future,” he says.