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Hot Off the Grill!

Hot Off the Grill!

In virtually any type of operation, sandwiches grilled, pressed or toasted lure more customers in all dayparts.

Finding good sandwich bread to satisfy the palates of Americans attending the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing wasn't easy. A Mexican brand was readily available, but its flavor profile was too sweet to suit Kimberley Jones' taste. She was a chef on a mission.

As lead chef at USA House, overseeing the kitchen for New York-based Framboise Catering for five weeks encompassing the Games, Jones and her team of students and fellow instructors in the professional catering program at Sullivan University's National Center for Hospitality Studies in Louisville, KY, offered an average 750 meals daily at that venue, and fewer (though larger) meals to athletes and their trainers at the U.S. Olympic Committee High Performance Training Center.

While burgers and hot dogs drove popularity of the all-American grill station at USA House, Jones wanted to offer a daily grilled sandwich to U.S. Olympic sponsors and visiting dignitaries and celebrities.

“We couldn't get garden-variety Americanized white and wheat in Beijing,” Jones says. “But we found a wonderful French bakery where we subcontracted breads.”

That discovery led Jones to conceive of such grilled sandwiches as roast duck, Brie, cucumber and spring onion with caramelized ginger sauce on ciabatta, pressed on an outdoor grill with a foil-lined brick (“We didn't have a panini press, so we invented our own,” Jones says), and a General Tso-style quesadilla sporting Gouda and pecan-crusted chicken, quartered and served with a white-peach and cherry salsa and a scallion garnish.

“We liked to consider ourselves the American oasis in China to get Westernized food, but we often served dishes with a Chinese influence,” Jones says. Not always: Two other popular sandwiches were a grilled turkey club with Swiss, bacon and avocado and a grilled sub featuring mozzarella, tomato, arugula and pesto. (Sourcing cheeses in China was a big challenge, Jones says, but that's a whole other story.)

While burgers outsold grilled sandwiches 2-to-1 at USA House, the 50 sandwiches prepped daily for the grill always sold out. Offering cold sandwiches would have been easier on her staff, Jones says, but she wanted to elevate her menu mix. Grilled sandwiches fit the bill. “By grilling the sandwich, you're adding the elements of warmth and texture, which made it more appealing and comforting to American visitors in a foreign land.”

Beyond Lunch

No longer relegated to lunch, sandwich sales are growing in all dayparts, according to Chicago-based foodservice consultants Technomic, Inc., which reported in May that toasted and grilled sandwiches, in particular, have shown a dramatic increase as entrée options at dinner. Meanwhile, NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, earlier this year revealed findings that foodservice sales of chicken-panini sandwiches alone increased 35 percent in the 12 months ending November 2007.

That trend is borne out by the experience of Valley Café, a mini food court at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, OH, where toasted submarine sandwiches are the top-selling menu items. According to retail manager Amy K. Jones, they provide a healthier alternative to the main cafeteria, and 80 percent of sandwich-buying customers prefer their subs toasted. “I think it provides a sense of having a heartier sandwich when it is served hot,” she says.

Valley Café proofs and bakes its own sub buns daily; the most popular toasted sub is the Italian consisting of lean ham, pepperoni, salami and the customer's choice of cheese, dressing and vegetables.

Other popular toasted subs at Valley Café include chicken teriyaki, meatball marinara and a tuna melt. “Toasted subs are a big attraction,” Jones says. “When we had a power issue and could not use the rapid-cook oven, our business decreased significantly.”

Sandwiches simply “taste better heated and grilled,” says James Baird, director of the Department of Food Services at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, which hosts a branded Crustano's Café counter operation featuring a double panini grill. “You taste a better blend of flavors when you heat the sandwich, and the crunch when you bite into the bread is something you don't get from a plain cold sandwich.”

Top-selling sandwiches, both on panini bread, are the Montana Smokehouse layering turkey, bacon and cheddar, and the Cubano with ham, pork loin and Swiss. “I think they are more popular, even though they are in a higher price range, because of the flavors of the meats combined with the condiments we use on each,” says Baird, adding that 80 percent of the counter's customers prefer their sandwiches grilled.

A grilled sandwich that is pressed rather than griddled can cater to the customer who perceives the press as healthier, says Todd Kalkstein, district manager at Malvern, PA-based Brock & Company, whose more than 85 accounts include the headquarters of the U.S. Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, MD. “You have a grilled cheese on a press versus a grill, and the press will not need the same quantities of grease or fat, so there's some nutritional benefit.”

Adds Kalkstein, good news to smaller operations contemplating whether to offer pressed sandwiches is that a ribbed panini press or flat-top griddle press not only has a small footprint, but is cost-effective. “The press has become a lot more popular in smaller operations that don't have a grill because you just plug in a press,” he says. “The press in our main cafeteria does four sandwiches, and the press in our outlet that doesn't have a grill does eight sandwiches. The one that does four is probably $800, and you can get a flat one and cook eggs on it. It's still a griddle, and you wouldn't need a vent for it.”

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