Where’s the meat?

Food Management article featuring Schlotzsky’s “Viva l’Italia” menu promotion and highlights The Caprese ciabatta specialty sandwich.

While Americans routinely have favored sandwiches stuffed with their favorite proteins, an increasing number of consumers are expanding their culinary horizons by opting for meatless alternatives.

As a result, more foodservice operators and chefs are menuing innovative sandwich selections that omit the meat, poultry or fish in favor of vegetables, dairy products and even legumes like black beans.

“We’re seeing more nonmeat sandwiches on menus,” says Arlene Spiegel of the Arlene Spiegel & Associates restaurant consulting company in New York. “It’s become very mainstream. Most traditional restaurants have a mushroom burger or veggie sandwich or some other alternative.”

And demand for such menu items appears to be on the rise. According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group, about 4 percent, or about 9 million Americans, consider themselves to be vegetarian. However, nearly half of adults in the country say they eat at least one vegetarian meal per week.

Experts say there are several reasons for restaurateurs to offer nonmeat sandwiches alternatives. Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a design and development firm for multiunit retail in Columbus, Ohio, notes that for most chains, lunch is the primary daypart. “You want to be careful about the veto vote when workers go out to lunch together,” he says. “And [offering nonmeat options] helps with that.”

It’s also an uncomplicated way to offer more menu choices to customers, he continues. “It’s really easy to incorporate veggie sandwiches on the menu. Restaurateurs have most of the SKUs in-house already. And if they need to make things more interesting, they can easily order a few atypical vegetables — or even include tofu, which is a good substitute for protein.”

Health concerns among consumers also are helping to drive increased interest in meatless sandwich options. “From the consumer side, vegetables are being perceived as being much healthier,” Spiegel says. “With the growing consumer awareness of local and seasonal and organic, vegetables have that health halo. They can hit on all trends.”

Meanwhile, the menuing of nonmeat sandwiches also is helping chefs and restaurateurs to keep their food costs in line. As meat, poultry and fish prices continue to rise, chefs are increasingly turning to more moderately priced alternatives, like vegetables.

The increased reliance on more neutral-tasting vegetables as starring ingredients also is spurring a new wave of creativity among chefs. The growing consumer demand for spicier, more full-flavored preparations is propelling chefs and menumakers to explore interesting and complementary ingredients, like Tabasco sauce, in an effort to add a new layer of taste to recipes and make them stand out in the marketplace. Because consumers are demanding more of these items, “Chefs are getting much more creative with preparations that can make vegetables seem that much more appealing,” Spiegel says.

The menuing of nonmeat selections also helps to position a concept in the highly competitive sandwich arena. Schlotzsky’s chief marketing officer Mark Mears says the Austin, Texas-based chain is in the process of transitioning over from a quick-service sandwich concept to a fast-casual bakery-café brand by “offering a more adventurous sandwich experience.”

Among other things, the 350-plus-unit chain has debuted a spring menu promotion themed “Viva l’Italia,” which features three new ciabatta specialty sandwiches including a vegetarian option dubbed “The Caprese.” The selection consists of shredded mozzarella cheese, roasted red tomatoes, mayonnaise, greens, balsamic onions, basil pesto and a balsamic glaze. Mears says the LTO sandwich, which will be available through May 30 for $7.99, is exceeding expectation.

Viva l’Italia promotion includes four baked pasta dishes, a pizza and chopped salad as well.

Schlotzsky’s also is reworking its Fresh Veggie sandwich to make it “more on-trend for potential rollout,” Mears says. The existing Fresh Veggie sandwich features cheddar cheese, black olives, red onions, lettuce, tomato and cucumber, served with a spicy ranch dressing on Schlotzsky’s traditional made-from-scratch, oven-baked sourdough buns. A new iteration could be rolled out this summer pending successful test results.

He says while Schlotzsky’s current guests are mainly baby boomers and gen-x’ers, the Veggie Sandwich and Caprese appeal to millennials and gen-z’ers — a target audience the chain is looking to cultivate.

Mears says these days chains need to cater to customers who are vegetarians or situationally vegetarian. “Restaurants shouldn’t need to go crazy, but they have to have enough options so people can find what they love,” he says.

Famous Toastery, a breakfast, brunch and lunch specialist based in Huntersville, N.C., offers a number of nonmeat sandwiches that appeal to the chain’s predominantly female demographic, according to chief executive Robert Maynard. One of the brand’s most popular vegetarian sandwiches is its grilled portobello mushroom with balsamic reduction, Jack cheese and sautéed onions on a Kaiser roll served with a side of pasta salad for $9.49. “It’s a huge hit — especially for people who are vegetarians,” Maynard says.

Famous Toastery also offers a black bean burger wrap with avocado and salsa as well as a veggie wrap that includes grilled vegetables like peppers, eggplant, yellow and green squash, and onions. Maynard says the six-unit chain also has plans to add a tofu wrap as well as other meatless alternatives served on flatbread.

Nonmeat selections are selling well at Famous Toastery, Maynard says, noting that the concept sells three or four times as many vegetarian sandwiches today than it did five years ago. “People want something else besides chicken and beef,” he says. “If you want to compete in this market, you have to have more options and not the ‘same old, same old.’”

James Park, vice president of marketing and R&D for Dallas-based Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, opines that it’s important for operators to offer nonmeat alternatives these days. A top-selling nonmeat sandwich for 340-unit Which Wich features a southwestern-flavored vegan black bean patty, which includes lettuce, tomato, avocado and other vegetables. Initially, the chain had purchased a black bean patty from a supplier, but the growing popularity of the sandwich prompted Which Wich to produce its own proprietary product, Park says.

Other nonmeat sandwiches featured by the brand include hummus, tomato and avocado, and an artichoke selection called the Caprese.

Which Wich also is testing a soy-based meat substitute called the Beast Burger, which can replicate hamburger in vegan sandwiches, according to Park. “A big portion of our business is vegetarian and vegan,” he says. “The category is expanding — it’s a lifestyle not a trend.”

“We’re seeing a change in people’s eating habits,” Park says. “Nonmeat sandwiches have become a staple on the menu. We’re seeing continued growth in that category.”


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