NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A double-dip economic downturn would just be au jus to America's resilient, reinvented, recession-proof sandwich.
Marketing company Packaged Facts set the Center for Culinary Development loose on the sandwich industry and found heaping portions of positivity layered between equal measures of tradition and emerging trends. Despite slumping sales in other sectors, NPD Group found that 12 billion sandwiches were served by American eateries last year -- more than 1 billion more than in 2005. Technomic, meanwhile, found that 81% of U.S. consumers bought a sandwich away from home at least once in the past two months, with 93% of them eating at least one sandwich a week.
That says nothing about the quality of those sandwiches, however, as only 52% were satisfied with the offerings at sub shops and delis and only 44% savored the sandwiches picked up at restaurants. Those numbers among 18-to-20-year-olds are even lower, at 44% and 40% respectively, taking a bite out of business at big sub chains such as Subway and Quiznos. So what's filling the gap? Packaged Facts found seven sandwich trends that are slicing up the modern sandwich marketplace:
"FINE FAST" SANDWICH SHOP
When everyone's a "foodie," sandwich shops need to follow suit. Perhaps the best example of this trend, which incorporates top chefs and top-notch ingredients into tiny spaces, is New York's Momofuku chain, opened by chef David Chang. At the Momofuku Ssam bar, for example, blackened bluefish sandwiches and steamed pork buns are complemented by the restaurant's namesake Ssam, described to great effect by New York magazine as an "Asian burrito." Former Iron Chef Mario Batali adds his own flavor to the "fine fast" concept at his Los Angeles-based Mozza2Go, where the take-out menu includes Panini with straccino and rucola as well as olive oil-braised tuna and egg.
While Packaged Facts points to the Taiwanese bao as a sandwich rather than the dumpling it more closely resembles, the Vietnamese banh mi has taken off in urban centers across America and more closely resembles the sub sandwiches with which Americans are more familiar. Translating to flour biscuit or cake, banh mi is literally the crispy Vietnamese baguette the sandwiches are served on, but is now the name most commonly used for the sandwich itself. Pork, sausage, chicken or ham are the more common fillings, but the surrounding carrots, daikon radish, cucumbers and cilantro are what set it apart from onion-lettuce-and-tomato sub shop standards. Though largely confined to local outlets, the Lee's Sandwiches chain took it mainstream in Western and Southwest states, while its relative simplicity would make it an easy addition for a chain such as
P.F. Chang's Bistro
pan-Asian subsidiary, the Pei Wei Asian Diner.
THE REINVENTED JEWISH DELI
The owner of one Jewish deli in New York City once joked that the average age of his regulars was "deceased." In 2007, there were only 11 kosher Jewish delis left in New York after the 2nd Avenue Deli closed its original location. A youth movement in the deli community has brightened the picture somewhat, though, as Saul's Deli in Berkeley, Calif., swapped out its cans of Dr. Brown's for homemade celery and black cherry sodas and its battleship-sized corned beef sandwiches for smaller servings of grass-fed roast beef on organic bread. Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colo., relative newcomer Jimmy and Drew's 28th Street Delicatessen, opened in 2006, offers a veggie reuben with falafel standing in for corned beef. It's not all great news, however, as the Jewish deli's foray into West Coast food truck culture ended with Los Angeles' Fresser's serving its last pastrami sandwich in May and Orange County's Brooklyn Boy's kosher cart disappearing altogether earlier this year.
GLAMOROUS GRILLED CHEESE
Thank Oregon's Tillamook Dairy, its Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles and the ensuing Grilled Cheese Truck on that city's streets for this push toward artisanal grilled cheese. The dairy started its competition eight years ago, but the seventh installment of the competition begat the brie and gruyere-loving Grilled Cheese Truck, as well as doppelgangers in Portland, Ore., Brooklyn and elsewhere. The grilled cheese craze may already have crested with East Coast chain Friendly's conspiring to put its customer base into cardiac arrest with its Grilled Cheese Burger Melt: A hamburger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches that also contains 1,500 calories and 97 grams of fat. Always down for some low-class limbo,
dropped the bar by adding the 790-calorie Fried Cheese Melt -- four mozzarella sticks fried into a grilled cheese sandwich -- to its menu this summer.
THE GREAT SANDWICH SHOP TAKEOVER
A $5 Footlong and a toasted sandwich assembly are now competing with the ability to pay whatever you can and the sandwich shop equivalents of
. While Subway, Quiznos and Kahala Corp.'s Blimpie fought over $5 offerings and heated bread, fast-casual chains such as
captured a share of the market through diverse offerings and a cozier business plan. Each offers broad menus of sandwiches, soups, salads, coffees, espressos, smoothies and signature touches such as bread bowls and s'mores. This summer, Panera experimented with letting customers pay what they could at locations near its St. Louis headquarters, with favorable results. Is their approach working? Results are mixed, as Cosi stock is up 25% this year but trading below $1 after the chain closed 48 stores last year and 69 in 2008. Meanwhile, Panera's stock price is up nearly 30%, trading just below $90.
PULLED PORK SANDWICH
Barbecue aficionados may scoff at a pulled pork sandwich outside of North Carolina, but chains including
Applebee's, Carlson Companies' TGI Friday's,
Chili's, White Castle,
and even Au Bon Pain and Subway have played around with pulled pork sandwiches on their menus. Though Packaged Facts seems to think this is a case of the market trending toward artisanal comfort food, the pulled pork sandwich, like the roll that holds it, seems to be suffering from oversaturation.
Branding surveys don't tend to recognize a burger unless
cranked it off its fast-food assembly line. Surveys this summer by Zagat and Consumer Reports, however, show the public isn't all that interested in the big boys' cow shins on a shingle. The surveys had West Coast burger mecca In and Out and beefy Washington, D.C.-based chain Five Guys swapping first and second place while their publicly traded competitors sank to the bottom. Why are these chains and favorites such as Fatburger and Shake Shack getting the love while the king and the golden arches are considered guilty pleasures? It's the ingredients, stupid. The taste of fresh tomato and lettuce, the tastebuds' recognition of actual beef and the use of real, fresh-cut potatoes for fries and unorthodox components such as milk and ice cream for shakes make a difference. They tend to cost a whole lot more than the value menu items at bigger chains, but consumers seem willing to sacrifice cash for quality and let McDonald's and Burger King play catch up -- as they have by sandwiching stalwarts such as the Big Mac and Whopper between the beefier Angus and Steakhouse burgers.
--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.