Let’s talk turkey.
The deli favorite has long been a standard of the limited-service sandwich category. Whether the turkey is smoked, roasted, or prepared some other way, its use seems unlimited, thanks to all kinds of sauces, toppings, and garnishes.
“The nice thing about turkey is it’s almost like using a blank canvas,” says Peggy Albertson, public relations manager for the National Turkey Federation, a Washington, D.C.–based advocate for the turkey industry.
“It really allows quick-service operators to be as creative and innovative as possible,” she adds. Restaurants can use turkey in a traditional sandwich or they can be adventurous, “such as making it Mediterranean with hummus or Southwestern with avocado and salsa.”
In addition, turkey’s healthy halo—it’s relatively low in fat and high in protein—attracts consumers who are looking to embrace better-for-you ingredients.
“Restaurants see turkey as a way to fill the demand for a nutrition-rich protein that is versatile,” Albertson says.
Many eateries “load a lot of flavors on turkey to make very creative offerings,” says Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst for market research firm Mintel. “People consider it a neutral protein that you can do so much with.”
Turkey sandwiches are the fifth-most popular poultry dish in the limited-service restaurant universe, according to Mintel. The first four are chicken items. However, turkey is the most-chosen fowl at fast-casual restaurants, Mintel reports. That’s a result of a vast array of turkey sandwiches at most bakery-cafés and deli locations, a “world where cold cuts are king,” Hayden says.
“If you are going to menu sandwiches, you probably are going to be menuing turkey,” says Maeve Webster, director at Datassential, which tracks menu trends and conducts other restaurant market research. “You can do so much with it.”
Still, Mintel notes that the number of turkey menu items hasn’t grown in the past few years, while Datassential reports there has been a decline in turkey sandwiches on quick-serve menus since 2008.
But this is not because turkey and sandwiches are losing their appeal. Many other proteins have shown even bigger menu declines.
“A lot of operators are trying to simplify their operations, whether in the back or the front of the house, to cut costs,” Webster explains. Menus are being simplified and focused.
And as customization grows as a trend, operators don’t need as many turkey sandwich options because diners increasingly want to choose the items on their sandwiches.
The most popular toppings that people choose with their turkey sandwiches, according to Datassential, are very traditional: cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Then come the other club sandwich items, including bacon and mayonnaise.
While turkey is absent at most of the big burger and chicken chains, it is a key protein at the nation’s biggest restaurant chain in terms of units: Subway.
“Turkey has been one of our top-selling sandwiches for at least the past 20 years,” even though it was not on the chain’s original menu, notes Les Winograd, a spokesman for the Milford, Connecticut–based chain. “All Subway sandwiches are made to order according to each customer’s specifications, so it’s easy to use turkey as a building block for a unique and creative sandwich.” Seven of Subway’s 21 menu sandwiches include turkey.
Turkey is a particularly “popular choice for our customers looking for healthier options,” Winograd adds.
Two sandwiches, the turkey breast and the turkey breast and Black Forest ham (on 6-inch nine-grain wheat bread with several low-calorie toppings), are among the chain’s better-for-you Fresh Fit selections. That pair and a limited-time offering of turkey with avocado and spinach qualified with several other menu items for the American Heart Association’s Health Check designation as being heart healthy.
Another Subway LTO available in some markets, the Albuquerque Turkey, has avocado, green chile, bacon, melted cheese, and a choice of toppings and condiments.
Most sub shop operators feature turkey offerings, typically with various classic toppings, although some are more ambitious. Roly Poly offers a choice of smoked or roasted turkey with ingredients like cucumbers, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and artichoke hearts.
A pair of sister quick-service chains, CKE Restaurants’ Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, have gone in a different direction: They serve turkey burgers.
Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carpinteria, California–based CKE, has pointed out that while females typically gravitate toward turkey because of its health benefits, the target group for its turkey burgers is young men.
“Turkey burgers appeal to those who want less red meat and maybe are looking for something that may be better for them,” he said in a 2011 interview with QSR. “But it also appeals to people across the board, for health reasons, dietary reasons, and on principle.”
Both Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s offer basic turkey burgers on buns. Carl’s Jr. also has teriyaki, guacamole, and green chile turkey burgers, while Hardee’s has barbecue-ranch and mushroom-and-Swiss-cheese versions.
Bakery-cafés use turkey in a large number of sandwiches. They typically serve oven-roasted or smoked bird in a variety of slice widths, on an array of artisan breads and with typical and nontraditional sauces, toppings, and garnishes.
Turkey has been the top sandwich protein at Schlotzsky’s Deli for years. It is lightly smoked, seared, and slightly browned by a purveyor to company specifications
“We slice it every day and slice it thin,” says company president Kelly Roddy. “The pieces are large so they stack high on the sandwich and look nice.”
Turkey’s healthy image is one reason for its popularity, he states, and the company has gone further by reducing this protein’s sodium level.
Based in Austin, Texas, Schlotzsky’s features a large portfolio of turkey sandwiches, although only four sandwiches are on the menu at any one time. “The possibilities are probably not endless, but we’re testing the limits, that’s for sure,” Roddy says.
The chain of more than 350 units has its own version of an Albuquerque Turkey Sandwich. This one has three cheeses, fire-roasted vegetables, chipotle mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, and a signature dressing on toasted jalapeño cheese bread.
“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.