Menu Innovations | October 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Fair Fowl

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Turkey sandwiches are the fifth-most popular poultry dish in limited service.
Turkey is the most-chosen poultry item at fast-casual restaurants. Schlotzsky’s
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“Turkey is a great product,” says David Groll, corporate executive chef for McAlister’s Deli, the Ridgeland, Mississippi–based chain of some 300 units in 23 states. “It has a great taste, it’s easy to slice, guests are familiar with it, and it has a healthy halo.”

McAlister’s uses Butterball hickory-smoked turkey breast in its sandwiches for a distinctive flavor.

“Sometimes the build of the sandwich is so intricate, you can lose a lot of the flavor,” Groll notes. With lettuce, tomato, bread, cheese, sauces, and other ingredients, “all those layers can limit the turkey’s taste.”

The turkey at McAlister’s is sliced at each restaurant when the sandwich is made.

The top condiment is a Southern favorite: honey mustard, which has been a signature item for 21 years. Guests can choose, however, from a long list of ingredients to build their sandwich, including orange-cranberry sauce and corn relish.

Among the most popular turkey sandwich builds are the Turkey Melt with Applewood-smoked bacon, Cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, and spicy brown mustard on a wheat hoagie, and the California Reuben with house-made coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and thousand island dressing on toasted rye bread.

One of the newer sandwiches is a Cobb Club served on ciabatta with bacon, Gorgonzola cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and a Parmesan peppercorn sauce.

Honey mustard is also used in the turkey sandwich at Fresh To Order, an Atlanta-based, eight-store chain. The House Turkey Club panini includes two cheeses, Applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, and tomato on ciabatta or whole-wheat flatbread.

Each store seasons and roasts its own turkey breast daily “so that the turkey tastes real and fresh,” says Jesse Gideon, chief operating officer and executive chef. “It makes a huge difference in the taste” of the sandwich, which is the chain’s third-best seller.

While turkey has a mild taste, it has a little richer flavor than chicken, so it can be paired easily with sweet or savory ingredients in a sandwich. As a result, “we are looking at ways to cross-utilize the turkey, perhaps in some new sandwiches.”

Turkey would work well in a Reuben sandwich, tandoori style, blackened, or pepper-crusted, Gideon says. One idea he’s considering is one a few other restaurants have tried: a Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, complete with savory dressing and tart cranberry sauce.

That’s a trend “that is emerging in the industry,” Mintel’s Hayden says. “It hits upon our craving for comfort food.”

Among the restaurants that have a Turkey Day offering is D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches, a New England chain with 160 units.

The Thanksgiving Toasted Sandwich has thin slices of turkey breast topped with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mayo on a sub roll, toasted and served with a side of hot gravy.

“We use natural turkey breast and slice it in the restaurant,” says Andre Fuehr, senior director of research and development for Papa Gino’s, D’Angelo’s parent company. The pre-baked turkey’s flavor “really comes through.”

The turkey is real, so it shreds when it goes through the deli slicer. “You’ve got to catch and lay down every slice,” he states. “It’s sliced a little thicker so you get a better taste.”

The Dedham, Massachusetts–based chain uses Bell’s brand stuffing, which is produced in nearby East Weymouth, Massachusetts.

“The Thanksgiving Toasted Sandwich is our most popular recipe item,” Fuehr notes.

Chicago’s four-unit Hannah’s Bretzel has its own take on a Thanksgiving sandwich.

Dubbed the Thanksgiving 365, the item includes smoked organic turkey breast from a Pennsylvania farm, along with local brie, romaine hearts, and house-made cranberry chutney on a whole grain baguette. The sandwich, one of 15 on Hannah’s set menu, received its name from a suggestion by a customer who confused the offering with another turkey sandwich.

“The person said, ‘Why don’t we call it Thanksgiving because that’s what it reminds us of,’” recalls founder Florian Pfahler. “Turkey and cranberry make a wonderful combination.”

The organic turkey is an ingredient in a trio of Hannah’s sandwiches.

“It has a lovely flavor, and it’s not watery at all, like cheaper turkey,” Pfahler says. “It costs an arm and a leg, $2–$3 more per pound, but customers are ready to pay that premium.”

Although smoked and roasted are the most popular styles for cooking restaurant turkey, one operator in Fayetteville, North Carolina, does it differently: fried.

The simply named Fried Turkey Sandwich Shop takes three-pound turkey breasts from a producer 25 miles away, covers the bird meat with a dry rub, fries it, and serves the sliced meat on toasted bread.

“I wanted to do whole fried turkeys at first, but they had too much dark meat and bones,” says owner Basil Hasapis. “With a turkey breast, you can control the waste and portions more. And you can keep the food fresher.”

The two-unit operation also serves burgers and other sandwiches, but the bulk of sales derive from about a dozen varieties of sliced, fried turkey sandwiches, including club, melt, and barbecue versions.

It, too, has a Thanksgiving-style offering, the Fried Turkey Day Sandwich with stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce on Texas toast.

“People love it,” Hasapis says.