Back in the days before convenience was king, before take-out took off, before "grab 'n' go" entered our lexicon, sandwiches were still everywhere around us. From delicatessens to diners, self-serve cafeterias to urban cafes, fast-food drive-thrus to office vending machines, it's always been easy , and satisfying, for the most part -- to snag a sandwich on the run.
The fact is, though, that until relatively recently, sandwiches were, well something less than celebrated. Their role was as utilitarian as the processed meats they so often contained and the small square Ziploc bags we typically stuffed them in.
But take a look at 'em now. Foodservice establishments are working overtime to trick out the old lunchtime standby, with some truly stellar results. According to research firm Technomic Inc., the 13.7 percent rate of growth in the bakery/sandwich segment led all other foodservice subcategories last year. Smart bakery cafes and sandwich chains such as Panera and Atlanta Bread Co. are becoming as ubiquitous as ham and cheese. Focaccia and exotic garlic pesto spreads have entered an American mainstream once dominated by white breads and mundane mayos. There's no such thing as a dull sandwich anymore or at least, there shouldn't be.
"What we're aiming at is good quality food, done creatively, in a casual setting," says Tony Breeze, whose fresh crab cake sandwich is the talk of the town at the Blue Point Provision Co., a seafood restaurant on the campus of the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Cambridge, Md. Anchored by a three to four-oz. cake made with meat from crab caught right outside the restaurant's door, Breeze's creation builds to a crescendo with the addition of local tomatoes, lettuce, a spicy aioli spread and Old Bay seasoning, all perched on a Gouda cheese roll. "We sell hundreds and hundreds of them a week," he reports.
"People are rolling off their boats in shorts and T-shirts, and we've found that offering interesting, high-quality sandwiches at lunch and dinner enables us to turn out a large volume nicely and creatively," continues Breeze.
Other members of the Center for Culinary Development's Chefs' Council say the comfort factor that endears sandwiches to American taste buds, coupled with the increasing popularity of more exotic ethnic flavors, is what allows chefs to tinker around within the familiar sandwich framework. "There's always room for experimentation," notes Steve Goldmann, general manager at Bon Appetit Management Company's foodservice operation at Siebel Systems in San Mateo, Calif.
In any given week, Goldmann is likely to parade a vast range of sandwiches in front of eager Siebel employees. Among the most notable: a Vietnamese barbecue pork sandwich featuring grilled pork in a Vietnamese marinade with a cold carrot-and-cilantro salad, and a Spanish tortilla-style number that combines egg, caramelized onion, potato, roasted red peppers, arugula and parmesan on a baguette. A tandoori eggplant sandwich is also a favorite.
"I think the trick is to know when to keep it simple, and to not get carried away with too many ideas," Goldmann reports. "You have to work with about three to four flavors and textures that all balance each other well."
Simplicity has as much to do with shape and structure as with sandwich contents at San Francisco's storied Cliff House restaurant. General Manager Ralph Burgin says the towering, overflowing, Dagwood Bumstead-style sandwich lacks appeal for his patrons, so the restaurant's swordfish BLT with apple-smoked bacon and roasted garlic mayonnaise is designed for mess-free consumption. "It's not like a big pyramid, where the minute you attack it, it falls apart," he says.
The bottom line: When you bookend fresh, creatively selected ingredients with distinctive, flavorful breads, you emerge with is a sandwich that in many ways is far more than the sum of its parts.
"You can put a sandwich together with whatever ingredients you have," Burgin notes in summarizing the platform's appeal. "They're simple, relatively inexpensive, and easy to eat on the run. That's why they remain popular."