Trends come and go, but sandwiches remain popular with customers. Sandwiches, even in their craziest incarnations, offer a familiar platform for diners. Their enduring popularity is testament to how deeply rooted they are in American culture. According to Technomic, sandwiches are:
- The cornerstone of lunch and dinner menus at both limited service and full-service restaurants.
- Offered more than any other entrée for each meal.
- Taking this category to the next level of sophistication via eclectic ingredients and toppings (from specialty condiments to unexpected components that add bold flavor and craveable new textures).
There’s clearly the potential for operators to increase sandwich sales if they can hit the sweet spot with on-trend flavor combinations in a competitive marketplace. The most successful sandwiches will capture imagination and palate by being both flavorful and unique. The real secret of the sandwich is innovation.
Restaurant Sandwich Menu Trends: Add International Flair
Globally inspired sandwiches are on the rise as far-flung ingredients become embedded in our flavor consciousness. And, since Americans are generally not hung up on complete authenticity, chefs can incorporate ethnic flavor cues in completely original ways. Because many of these creations are so simple, there are lots of opportunities here to add ingredients and increase the layers of flavor and texture.
Itself a fusion of French and Vietnamese culinary influences, this very popular sandwich shows up in wildly different combinations based loosely on the original—a mix of fresh and pickled veggies and herbs, a smear of mayonnaise, and some sort of meat. It sounds simple, but the flavors are complex, with hot and cold contrasts that harmonize as a sandwich. The cooking itself isn’t complicated; it’s more of an assembly of ingredients, but it does require a willingness to try something new and some thought about the combinations.
This Latin sandwich has gone completely mainstream. Prepared with chicken tinga meat, pork carnitas, and/or beef carne asada, its appeal is in its combination of flavorful fillings and toppings. Cemita, a close relative of the torta, is by design a large, overstuffed creation. Roasted meat, usually pork, is topped with smashed avocado and generous portions of shredded cheese and served on a sesame-seed bun.
A beef or pork burger, simply topped with spicy ketchup and fried julienned potatoes. (Canned matchstick potatoes surely could suffice, but, for a top-flight burger, consider making your own using a mandoline and frying them up fresh.)
Sandwiches call on delicious new cuts
The trend to lesser-known cuts of meat has spilled over into the realm of sandwiches. Here are some examples that show how delicious these cost effective options can be.
I’ve absolutely gone crazy over this new preparation method. This is whole-slab bacon, cured and smoked, that’s brined overnight in sugar, salt, water, and apple juice with a splash of cider vinegar. The brining process helps to retain moisture, and the slab bacon is then braised in the oven until spoon-tender, then shredded by hand or with a fork. This meat is succulent and indulgent, with rich flavor, and is a really exceptional menu opportunity.
Top sirloin, sliced and simmered in marinara sauce, piled onto crusty Italian bread and topped with melted mozzarella. This could draw in customers with the smell alone.
Pulled, braised turkey
Another hot-sandwich option that’s so much more delicious and interesting than a plain cold-cut sandwich. The braising liquid is reduced and thickened with a roux or cornstarch and mixed back into the shredded dark meat. When people taste this, they’ll remember it.
Restaurant Sandwich Trends: Veg Out
Of course, plenty of vegetarian options can hold their own with meat when it comes to a great sandwich—one that’s not just for vegetarians. These complex sandwiches are every bit as indulgent as their meaty counterparts. Fresh tomatoes, served slightly warm after a quick dance across the grill to caramelize their exterior, are fantastic on sandwiches with nothing more than a splash of olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Fried green tomatoes, that Southern staple, are now available year-round, and demand for them has increased nationwide. Eggplant, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and summer squash work well either grilled or breaded and fried. I love avocado sliced and lightly mashed or quickly grilled; it’s really a dynamite component for a sandwich.
And vegetarian sandwiches can benefit from what I’ve dubbed “flavor finishers”—ingredients that add layers of flavor and can tie the whole sandwich together. For example:
- Arugula is really my ultimate secret ingredient. With its peppery flavor and soft bite, it complements and rounds out sandwiches, and so many other dishes, too.
- Greek yogurt adds a pleasant creaminess and splash of acid.
- Hummus, which is both a texture and flavor enhancer, can be blended with any number of flavorings.
Up-and-Coming Restaurant Sandwich Trend Variations
Great sandwiches don’t need to follow a blueprint. Menu variations on the “two slices of bread” sandwich routine.
Chinese steamed buns
These have the potential for broad appeal, but are still relatively new enough to create market differentiation. Commercially produced raw-dough products are available, as are frozen steamed buns, which makes assembling these sandwiches a snap. The classic filling is seared pork belly with fresh pickled vegetables and herbs, but steamed buns also work with a wide variety of ingredients.
This open-faced sandwich offers a unique fusion of sandwich and salad. Flatbread or split buns are crisped in the oven and topped with a warm protein, such as braised beef, pork cutlets, or grilled fish. Pile on lightly dressed salad greens and fresh or grilled veggies and finish with a sunny-side-up egg.
In concept, there is nothing inherently unique about sandwiches. Their true appeal lies in the assembly: The makings of a great sandwich are created layer by layer.