Freshness, Quality Key to Attracting Foodservice Customers

italian-sandwich_13499368Whether you are operating a proprietary program or using a third-party supplier, cardboard sandwiches and pizza just don’t cut it with today’s consumer. Dr. Nancy Caldarola, of NACS CAFÉ, offers tips and trends in this  important foodservice segment.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

The entry price for a low-grade sandwich might be attractive to some retailers, but the cardboard bread with some sort of chicken mix piled on top is a real turn-off to customers and a detriment to your entire foodservice program, said Caldarola. Even worse, it’s a reflection on the entire industry’s commitment to foodservice.

“A cheaply made, bad sandwich kills us all,” she noted. “It plays right into stereotypes that we are working really hard to shed.” Caldarola was a featured speaker at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show last month about how some convenience stores are becoming serious competitors in the local foodservice scene, and, in some communities, a preferred place for meals and snacks any time of the day.

While made-to-order (MTO) naturally sends the clearest message of freshness, prepackaged sandwiches can also convey quality if retailers use top-grade ingredients.
“If you’re going to go for roast beef, get the best roast beef you can find at the appropriate price point; same goes for turkey and all other ingredients,” Caldarola said. “Customers expect to get something that tastes good whether they’re paying $2.99 or $5.99 for a sandwich. If you skimp on quality, the project is doomed to be a disappointment for customers and a failure for you.”

From Good to Great
By executing the classics, such as turkey and Swiss, ham and cheese, house-made chicken salad and even bologna and peanut butter and jelly (both kid favorites), with close attention to quality at his eight Zarco 66 stores in Kansas, owner Scott Zaremba has built a grab-and-go sandwich category that accounts for half of his total foodservice sales. Every day, he displays about 15 sandwich SKUs, including wedges and pinwheels, in a three-tiered, octagonal, open air cooler.

While the basics can make or break a program, there is a lot of room for creativity in sandwich making. In many cases, just changing up the bread can make a familiar sandwich something new, interesting and more convenience-friendly.

“A good bread base that holds up is key to any good grab-and-go sandwich, especially one that is meant to hold up while being consumed in the car,” Caldarola explained. She pointed to whole grain, ciabatta and focaccia as some hearty substitutes for plain white.

Already well-known for its Fresh To Go sandwich selections, 7-Eleven took another step in its bid to compete with quick-service restaurants and other foodservice venues in March when the company introduced two new premium sandwiches made with prime deli meats, fresh produce, specially blended spreads and premium breads. The suggested retail price for each is $4.29 and the entire line of 7-Eleven’s Fresh To Go sandwiches is certified to be made in local FDA-inspected kitchens and delivered fresh daily to participating stores.

The Steakhouse Roast Beef sandwich, for example, promotes upscale ingredients, such as a blue cheese crumble, baby spinach and tomatoes on marble rye bread. The Bistro Deluxe sandwich has black forest ham, Genoa salami and Swiss cheese with lettuce and Dijon mustard on Asiago bread. Both sandwiches are targeting  on-the-go customers that would shop at brands like Panera Bread.

“Eating on the go or buying food to eat later are trends that are here to stay, but people are less willing to give up quality for convenience, nor should they,” said Kelly Buckley, 7-Eleven vice president of fresh food innovation. “At 7-Eleven, we have broadened our menu appeal for customers who want a premium, deli shop-quality sandwich. The Steakhouse Roast Beef and Bistro Deluxe sandwiches follow current food trends for top-quality ingredients with an unexpected flavor twist.”

Be Unique
Caldarola advised c-store retailers to look beyond the standard ingredient combinations for new ideas to keep the sandwich category fresh and exciting. One source she particularly likes is the Kraft Foodservice Website (, which offers numerous trends, ideas and recipes. According to the site, chefs have named 2013 the year of the pretzel, Caldarola said, so pretzel buns are a natural choice.

Instead of regular iceberg lettuce, try arugula to give the sandwich a whole new dimension, she suggested. Substitute avocado spread for mayonnaise or add avocado slices for flavor and textural interest. Nuts and grapes added to chicken salad can elevate a sandwich to a whole new level. And one really easy way to upgrade a sandwich is to offer a selection of gourmet mustards and mayonnaises.

Invest in a Panini press (a sturdy one meant for commercial rather than home use) to give sandwiches European flair, she said. The sandwiches can be made ahead of time and pressed to order. “The cheese melts, the flavors meld and it becomes a whole other animal; it’s a wonderful product,” she explained.

To make any program profitable, all sandwiches must be consistent in terms of amounts of fillings and condiments. Each piece of ham, roast beef, turkey and cheese, even amounts of tuna and chicken salad, must be measured out.

If everybody is left to do their own thing, she said, production inconsistencies will cost the operator money. Perhaps even worse is the goodwill that could be lost if one time a customer gets two pieces of cheese on his sandwich and only one the next time.

Be aware of demographic preferences. In some areas of the country, customers expect American cheese to be white, while in other places they expect it to be yellow, Caldarola said. “That may seem like a little thing, but it’s part of knowing your customers and giving exceptional service.”

Target Repeat Business
Caldarola also pointed out that something as simple as how a sandwich is assembled can make the difference between a good or bad customer experience. Since there is nothing as unappetizing as a soggy sandwich, the lettuce and the tomato should not be touching the bread. Instead, she explained, these ingredients should be placed between the meat and the cheese to avoid liquids leaching into the bread.

While figuring out recipe costs, retailers should be sure to add in packaging, she said. Caldarola prefers cellophane wraps or bags sealed with an attractive label to plastic or Styrofoam clam shells. “It just looks classier,” she noted.

For its new premium sandwiches, 7-Eleven has designed a new clear plastic package with a contemporary graphic design. The company worked with a color consultant to develop a color pallet that would appeal to millennial customers. “The packaging serves as the stage for the food and needs to convey freshness, quality and the 7-Eleven brand image,” Buckley said.

Merchandising grab-and-go sandwiches must be more than an afterthought, noted Caldarola. Displays should be colorful and include go-withs, such as cut-up and whole fruit, salads and maybe desserts. Removable metal baskets can be used to easily switch out breakfast, lunch and dinner sandwiches and sides as dayparts come and go. Zarco 66 stocks pasta, salads and parfaits alongside its sandwich grab-and-go displays, and gains added impulse purchases.



  1. Stephanie Rodgers says:

    Solid color flags can be a god way to attract customers as well. Visual aspects are extremely important.

    • Stephanie, great idea to bring in the buyers! Colorful pennants can also be a great labeling device during sports season – football, baseball, playoff, etc. Now, if we can keep our food offerings equally colorful and fresh, we’ll grab their stomachs too!

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