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Retail Foodservice

The Greatest American Gyro: Supermarkets Fight for Sandwich Supremacy

Retailers' foodservice programs look to fresh, healthful ingredients, ethnic flavors, variety to drive sales
Photograph courtesy of Fresh Thyme Farmer's Market

Competition is fierce in the foodservice sandwich space as grocers compete with quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, convenience stores and others for a greater dollar share of this frequently purchased dietary staple.

“Two in five of the sandwiches consumers eat are sourced away from home, presenting opportunity to increase sales,” according to the 2018 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report from Technomic, WGB’s Chicago-based sister data company, which further points out that 42% of consumers who eat sandwiches purchase one from foodservice at least once a week.

Among sandwich consumers who eat sandwiches at least once a week, 60% order from a quick-service restaurant, 42% from a fast-casual establishment and 18% from a grocery store, according to the Technomic report.

This crowded marketplace of rising sandwich saturation is challenging purveyors to take a closer look at what consumers want in order to deliver in the deli.

“Uniqueness and relative affordability will become even more critical to menuing sandwiches that stand out,” Technomic says. “Further, operators must innovate with an eye on shifting consumer demands like that of health and sustainability to ensure options will resonate.”

Fresh Thyme Farmer's Market

Photograph courtesy of Fresh Thyme Farmer's Market

Sandwiches That Satisfy 

At Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market, a Downers Grove, Ill.-based chain of natural food stores, an on-trend sandwich program delivers freshness, quality, variety, convenience and more. The grocer features grab-and-go sandwiches, signature sandwiches and a signature sandwich bar, where guests can build their own creations.

“Our grab-and-go sandwich program is where our guests can pick up ready-to-eat sandwiches in popular varieties, including peanut butter and jelly, tuna and chicken salad, along with a few fan favorites, like our Boar’s Head oven-roasted turkey with Havarti, Boar’s Head London broil roast beef with cheddar and a Boar’s Head ham and Swiss,” says Annette Gray, Fresh Thyme director of foodservice.

Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market grab-and-go program offers “exciting vegetarian options as well,” Gray says.

Generation Grab and Go 

A grab-and-go selection is particularly important to urbanite and millennial consumers, according to Technomic, pointing to the success of the international ready-made-sandwich shop Pret a Manger, which grew sales by 19% in 2017. While Pret a Manger appeals to the on-the-go lifestyle of its younger, urban clientele, Technomic says grab-and-go operators will need to convey freshness to remain relevant. For example, Pret a Manager donates all unsold sandwiches each day, so customers know everything is freshly made the same day they buy.

Fresh Thyme recently partnered with Boar’s Head to relaunch its grab-and-go sandwich offerings. “It’s a great place for people to stop in and get lunch quickly, but still have confidence that they are buying something with quality ingredients that will taste great,” Gray says.

While Gray estimates that Fresh Thyme sandwich sales are approximately 50% made-to-order and 50% grab-and-go, she also sees the same customer shopping different sandwich formats throughout the week. “We have enough variety built in that it allows us to attract someone twice per week, or even more,” she says.

Signature Sandwiches Sell 

Technomic’s Sandwich Consumer Trend Report further found that consumers—particularly younger ones—are seeking greater variety from sandwiches at foodservice. The report found that 40% of millennials “strongly agree” that chains all offer very similar sandwiches.

At Fresh Thyme, “the signature sandwiches are a destination for our guests,” says Gray. “These sandwiches are a bit more elaborate in style and are made to order. Most of them are available hot or cold.”

To ensure its signature sandwich program is delivering what its shoppers crave most, Fresh Thyme is reviewing the program and plans to relaunch it in all stores by this summer. The grocer is also committed to introducing more seasonal items to its signature sandwich menu. “We see tremendous opportunities to expand on the variety we offer,” says Gray.

With this in mind, Fresh Thyme taps its team of chefs to submit ideas for a signature sandwich of the month. “These are folks who are on the cusp of food trends and apply their knowledge to help us offer trendy, delicious options,” Gray says. What’s more, Fresh Thyme adds variety to the sandwich mix with its made-to-order option at its Signature Sandwich Bar, where guests can build the sandwich of their choice.

“I believe our guests are accustomed to the made-to-order sandwich station,” Gray says. “It gives them the ‘made especially for me’ comfort. And of course, we tailor our offerings around customer feedback, so we know we’re putting out food they want to eat.”

Healthier on Hand 

While traditional sandwich attributes such as freshness, value and convenience speak to older consumers, Technomic says 18- to 34-year-olds consider sustainability, special diet ingredients and healthfulness important when ordering sandwiches.

“About half of 18- to 34-year-olds say health is very important when deciding where to order a sandwich for breakfast, lunch or dinner,” the Technomic report finds.

Offering healthful choices is also top of mind at Fresh Thyme. “We pay attention to better-for-you sandwich options, using antibiotic-free deli meats and lower-sodium cheeses for example. We also offer multiple vegetarian sandwich options,” says Gray, who predicts that “sandwiches that cater to a specific lifestyle need,” gluten-free breads and lettuce wraps in lieu of bread are all poised to become more popular.

Protein Proliferation and Ethnic Eats 

“Fueled by trends around health, innovation and regional American or ethnic influences, a variety of proteins are trending up on sandwich menus,” according to Technomic.

Sandwich menus that offer a variety of protein sources—from ethnic meats, including chorizo, Genoa salami and capicola, to plant-based proteins and imitation meats—are highly sought-after by today’s consumer.

“I believe that we have so much left to explore when it comes to globally inspired or ethnic sandwiches from other parts of the world,” Gray says. “The vast variety of breads from all corners of the world alone, readily available today, is changing the way we eat, make and shop for sandwiches.”

Technomic agrees: “Ethnic specialty breads, such as roti, naan and Cuban bread, will resonate, as these options help capitalize on demand for ethnic fare.”

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