Menu Innovations | October 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Carry On

Thin is in for various bread items at sandwich restaurants.

Bread isn’t just the staff of life. It’s the food—in a wide variety of forms and styles—that helps drive the limited-service restaurant industry.

Whether they’re traditional breads, buns, tortillas, bagels, pitas, or flatbreads, these carriers are filling the sandwich needs of a wide variety of consumers.

The list of carriers at quick-service restaurants has grown over the past decade. Operators are using various baking styles, ingredients, tastes, and textures—along with assorted sizes and shapes—to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

“It’s very difficult these days to come up with brand new developments,” says Wade Hanson, director of research and consulting for Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a restaurant market research and consulting firm. “What can be done has been done.”

Despite that, he says, there are plenty of bread trends that quick-serve chefs and menu developers are following, including creating artisan varieties, using whole and multiple grains, rolling out healthier products, and offering breads derived from other cultures.

“All the main categories of artisan breads right now are really hot, and there are many people looking at how they can incorporate whole grains,” says Jon Davis, senior vice president of culinary research and innovation at Los Angeles–based La Brea Bakery.

Both of these trends address consumers’ desire for high-quality ingredients and better-for-you items. But in Davis’ view, the biggest part of the health trend is the issue of portion size, which helps control sandwiches’ overall sodium and calorie levels.

“If you look at the bread carrier, it’s the largest part of a sandwich,” Davis says. “So instead of 3 ounces, maybe we’re looking at 2½ ounces.”

At US Foods Inc., “we continue to see and develop healthier whole-grain and variety-grain rolls,” says Mark Wallace, director of category management, bakery, for the Rosemont, Illinois–based foodservice distributor.

This year, the company launched a nine-grain sprouted bun and bread that “delivers on a number of levels,” he says.

At La Brea, where par-baking techniques help the company distribute artisan breads to several restaurants, one of the biggest sellers is a whole-grain loaf. “There are various degrees of whole grains you can achieve,” Davis explains. “Some customers want dense multigrains; others want less. Various degrees of whole grains yield different textures and qualities.”

Consumers have talked for years about ordering better-for-you foods when visiting restaurants, but generally opt for indulgent options. In the past two years, however, “the consumer’s wallet is supporting these healthier items,” says Technomic’s Hanson.

The products don’t have to be completely healthy, but they benefit by having a health characteristic in their descriptor, like high fiber, whole wheat, or low sodium.

“The better-for-you carriers have had success” at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, Hanson says. “People say they want to feel better about what they are buying. As a result, fit, light, and better-for-you offerings are differentiators.”

Of course, for operators, the carrier has to work with what’s inside it.

“When you’re eating a sandwich, you don’t want it to fight with you,” says Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage for Dallas-based Corner Bakery Café. “You want to make sure the bread stands up with the other ingredients.”

Flatbreads are one type of carrier that many restaurants have added to draw consumers who are counting calories. Flatbreads come in varying thickness and cultural heritages, from Spanish-based tortillas often used for wraps to Italian focaccia. “[Quick serves] have proven how well a flatbread can do in all dayparts,” Wallace notes. “They can’t be any easier to prepare. That’s one reason they have been important for centuries.”

Flatbread consists of flour, water, and salt, and the dough is flattened. Some versions are made with yeast.

Quiznos made flatbread a key part of its revamped “Better than Ever” menu and branding effort launched this spring. Among the many new items are five panini-style grilled flatbread sandwiches, such as the Basil Pesto Chicken. All of the flatbread sandwiches are less than 500 calories. As with other items, guests can also make their own selections of what’s in their flatbread sandwiches.

“We wanted to innovate and add some really interesting flavors and variety,” says Susan Lintonsmith, chief marketing officer for the Denver-based chain. The grilled flatbread is a little thicker and not quite as sweet as the one for Quiznos’ former Sammies line, which was dropped. “This is … a more adult taste and more pliable,” so it holds together better during the toasting process, Lintonsmith says.

Quiznos also added an Italian herb tortilla as the carrier for wraps; a garlic focaccia roll (to the existing lineup of white, wheat, and rosemary Parmesan); and five sub-500-calorie, slider-type sandwiches on a soft toasted roll.

Portion control is one reason Togo’s developed its own slider line, Mini Classics, which is available, just like the bread in most sandwich shops, in white and whole wheat.

Renae Scott, vice president of branding and marketing for the San Jose, California–based, 250-unit sandwich chain, says the sliders, which are about half the size of the bread for a regular sandwich but round in shape, were launched three years ago and “are doing really well.”

With a $3 price point, “it offers something for people with smaller appetites, smaller budgets, or looking to reduce calories,” she explains. “Initially we had some concerns about [a customer] trade-down to these, but we didn’t see that.”

Just like sliders, flatbreads are part of a bread trend that many restaurants are adopting.

“Thinner or skinnier is in,” explains Corner Bakery’s Scicchitano.

Like many bakery-cafés, Corner Bakery offers a wide array of sandwich carriers that are mentioned prominently on the menuboard, including ciabatta ficelle, sourdough, poblano cheese, two types of rye breads, the multigrain Harvest bread, and Mom’s White Bread.

The Harvest bread is an example of how artisan bread can be used as a skinny alternative. It is sliced very thinly and used to make a grilled panini. While sourdough is the most popular bread for paninis, adding the Harvest variety “has been a home run,” Scicchitano says.

The “thin is in” craze also has been adopted by Einstein Bros. Bagels. “Whatever bread trends are on the street, whether they’re whole grains or ancient grains, we put it into our bagels,” says Chad Thompson, chef for the 300-unit chain.

Just as bakery-cafés are using thin breads, Einstein Bros. and some others are slimming down bagels to create bagel thins as a skinnier carrier.

“Our customers still have the bagels they want, but with less calories and carbs,” the chef explains. “We have white and wheat all of the time, and sometimes others. We started them about a year and a half ago and they are doing very well.”

Einstein Bros. offers a half-dozen thin bagel sandwiches, all with fewer than 350 calories and 15 grams of fat. Even though a “bagel and schmear is our bread and butter in the morning, the thins are doing well then,” he notes.

Like many other carriers, bagels came from a particular ethnic heritage: Judaism. Einstein Bros. also has a Jewish egg bread, challah, as a roll, as well as Italian ciabatta rolls for paninis and tortillas for wraps.

These ethnic-based carriers have long become mainstream for Americans, as have Mediterranean pita breads and French croissants. Tortillas have been the second-most popular type of bread in the U.S. for a decade, according to one industry study.

Many Americans discovered flour and corn tortillas at Mexican restaurants. These days, all types of limited-service restaurants are using tortillas, including some that have various flavors and ingredients that provide a healthy halo, like spinach.

As with skinny breads, thin bagels, and sliders, some restaurants are using taco-sized tortillas to make mini-sized wraps.

“You can also take an 8-inch tortilla and cut it in half, like mini sushi rolls,” US Foods’ Wallace says. “It sounds like something for fine dining, but just think of how easy it would be to take a snack-sized wrap and serve it different ways.”

Another type of Latino carrier that is becoming popular in the U.S. is the telera, which is a type of savory bread that originated from French baguettes, though is round and softer.

La Brea Bakery’s Davis notes that telera is often used for tortas, a Mexican sandwich that is often pressed like a panini.

Corner Bakery is looking at a telera roll, perhaps with the addition of sesame seeds, for a possible new Asian-flavor sandwich. “We would be putting together two different [cultural] tastes” if the carrier eventually is developed, Scicchitano says.

This type of fusion roll is another trend starting to catch on, Wallace says. US Foods’ Chef Line offers a croissant bun that’s a combination of a buttery croissant with the denseness of a Kaiser roll.

Another ethnic product, the pretzel roll, with its slightly salty flavor, is also making a comeback. Corner Bakery is among the chains using pretzel bread.

One carrier being researched and tested by several quick serves is gluten-free bread. Experts say there is a small but growing demand for gluten free, but it is often difficult to accomplish fully.

Subway is testing gluten-free rolls in a number of stores, and Einstein Bros. is evaluating a 99 percent gluten-free bagel that is packaged separately. However, the company doesn’t want to claim it will be completely flour free.

Milio’s Sandwiches, a Madison, Wisconsin–based chain with stores in the upper Midwest, has found another way to go gluten-free: a non-bread carrier.

“We have our French sub roll, a wheat sub roll, and three flavors of tortilla wraps, and we also do lettuce wraps,” says Gerard Helminski, the chain’s director of franchise operations. About a year ago, Milio’s started using a large iceberg lettuce leaf as a wrap. “People seem to like the product more than I thought they would,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced that diversifying the carrier is a good idea. Five years ago, Penn Station East Coast Subs, which has more than 220 units in 13 states, added wraps as a sister carrier to the chain’s proprietary white sub roll. The wraps didn’t last three years.

“We tried to offer it as a lighter alternative, and the sandwiches tasted great on it,” says company president Craig Dunaway. But it didn’t add much to sales.

“There might be a niche for people looking for lighter fare, but customers said they liked our bread better,” Dunaway says. With the carbs and calories fairly comparable and the extra effort in operations required by wraps, they became expendable.

“We have one bread, and we have four sizes for that bread, and that is best for us,” he says. “The wraps were cannibalizing sales. We don’t need to be all things to all people.”