The quick-service industry isn’t quite what it used to be. Gone are the days when a simple roll or slices of white bread sufficed as carriers for a burger or sandwich.
These days, with innovation required in an increasingly competitive field, sandwich carriers ranging from doughnuts and lettuce to ramen noodles and fried chicken are combining creativity with novelty to develop tasty twists on tradition.
“Everyone wants unique offerings, and people need variety on their menu,” says Sonja Kehr, a corporate chef for General Mills Convenience & Foodservice. A lot of the drive behind using non-bread carriers comes from a need to do things quicker, Kehr says. Unless the restaurant is using prepared items, baking, especially yeast baking, takes time.
There’s also the perception that bread alternatives, which are often gluten free, smaller, and thinner than a bread or bun, are better for you. The consumer may see a tortilla wrap or lettuce wrap as the healthier choice.
“It takes me back to the Atkins craze,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group’s foodservice division. “Gluten free is growing; 25 percent of consumers report they’re eating gluten free not necessarily out of dietary need, but to eat healthy.”
Because of the health halo surrounding gluten-free and low-carbohydrate foods, “we have a lot more options if we don’t want bread,” Riggs adds. “It gives quick serves a new opportunity to offer a new product that meets the needs of consumers. It’s getting creative.”
The wrap, one of the first creative attempts at a bread alternative for sandwiches, was widely introduced in the ’90s and continues to be a popular stronghold on menus today. Jersey Mike’s Subs, the New Jersey–based franchise with more than 1,300 locations open and under construction nationwide, introduced the wrap to its menu in the early 2000s, during the height of what Mike Manzo, chief operating officer, calls the “wrap craze.”
Customers were looking for low-carb options, so Jersey Mike’s added tortilla wraps using Mission Foods tortillas in several flavors, including sundried tomato, spinach, and plain. About one-third of the brand’s redesigned menu at the time was the new wrap offerings. “It diversified the menu and gave customers more choices for lower-carb and lower-calorie [options],” Manzo says.
There are five specialty wraps on the menu today, and the option to make any Jersey Mike’s sub a wrap for the same price. The salad-inspired Chicken Caesar and Buffalo Chicken wraps are popular specialty wraps, along with the Turkey Wrap, which is made with 99 percent fat-free turkey, lettuce, tomato, and honey mustard sauce. Wraps make up between 5 and 10 percent of Jersey Mike’s sales.
With the wrap’s widespread success across the industry over the last 20 years, operators are now looking to more unusual ingredients as bread alternatives. Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes, for example, has offered a lettuce-wrapped burger, the Iceburger, since the brand’s early days.
“It’s a healthier option for those who want a gluten substitute,” says Natalie Anderson, senior brand manager for the Plano, Texas–based better-burger concept that was founded in 2007 and has more than 50 open restaurants. Any burger on the menu can be customized into an Iceburger. Guests choose among a black bean veggie burger, turkey burger, or beef patty wrapped in three to four pieces of iceberg lettuce.
“At any given time, you can look around the restaurant and see people eating Iceburgers. We’ve seen very high success with it,” Anderson says.
About 20 percent of Mooyah’s sales are Iceburgers, she says, adding that a big part of the lettuce wrap’s success is its quality and freshness.
“We use very high-quality lettuce. It has a subtle flavor, but it lets the other flavors in the burger shine,” she says. All of Mooyah’s produce, including the iceberg lettuce, arrives twice a day. “Lettuce wilts quickly—we won’t serve old lettuce,” Anderson says.
Ethnic menus often include a variety of non-bread carriers, each offering a different and often new experience. The Venezuelan arepa is the signature dish at Pica Pica, the San Francisco–based fast casual with a second restaurant in Napa, California. Arepas are grilled, handmade corn pockets that are crisp outside and moist inside and filled with slow-cooked savory meats and vegetables. They’re handheld and served with plantain chips, taro chips, or Yuca fries.
“My favorite and our best seller is the Beef Pabellon,” says Adriana López Vermut, Pica Pica’s owner. Filled with stewed beef, a black bean spread, sweet plantains, and queso fresco, “it’s the combination of the texture and taste—with the crunch of the arepa, it’s definitely unique,” Vermut says.
The Pulled Pork Pernil, made with slow-cooked pork, sliced tomatoes, avocado, Pica’Pun (Pica Pica’s signature hot sauce), and garlic aioli, and the Vegetariana, a take on the Shredded Beef Pabellon but made with grilled tofu, are also popular.
Vermut says the arepa’s authenticity is very attractive to people. Curiosity brings them in, but it’s the flavors, which go beyond the familiar Latin flavors of Mexico and El Salvador, that keep them coming back. Arepas, which are made with corn, are also gluten free.
Pica Pica also serves cachapas, which are sweet corn crepes traditionally eaten only with cheese. At the request of her customers, Vermut added fillings and folded the crepe, resulting in a handheld or fork-and-knife dish. “It’s super popular, and really messy,” she says.
Plantains are the carrier of choice in the Boricua Sandwich at Belly Shack, a Chicago-based fast casual that is part of the Cornerstone Restaurant Group. Belly Shack’s menu is a unique fusion of chef Bill Kim’s Korean heritage and his wife’s Puerto Rican childhood influences, and it was Kim’s wife, Yvonne, who introduced him to a version of the Boricua on their first date.
“I was fascinated by the texture of the plantain,” Kim says. “When you first bite into a fried plantain, you get the crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside sensation, similar to biting into a perfectly toasted slice of bread. Also, the plantain is a great gluten-free alternative for those who enjoy eating sandwiches.”