Web Exclusive | February 2016 | By Sam Oches

L.A. Chef Bets Big on Sandwiches

Celebrity chef Michael Voltaggio rebrands his sandwich concept, plans to grow Sack Sandwiches.
Michael Voltaggio's Sack Sandwiches features 4-inch sandwiches like the Banh Mi for $4–$7. image used with permission.

Los Angeles–based chef Michael Voltaggio, who made his name winning the sixth season of “Top Chef” and through his acclaimed fine-dining restaurant ink., is rebranding his quick-service sandwich shop and preparing it for growth.

ink.sack, the sister concept that originally opened five years ago as a way for Voltaggio’s team to make money while awaiting ink.’s permits to clear, will now be called Sack Sandwiches. The third location for the gourmet shop (a second is located at Los Angeles International Airport) will open next week on the Sunset Strip under the new branding.

“The concept became more and more independent of the restaurant, and it started to have its own sort of cult following,” Voltaggio says. “Everyone was going in there for different reasons than they were going to ink. So, naturally, it became its own independent thing.”

(For our full interview with Voltaggio, click here.)

Sack dishes 4-inch gourmet sandwiches, featuring options like the Spicy Tuna with albacore, sriracha mayo, nori, pickles, lettuce, and tomato; the Turkey Melt with Brie, mostarda (an Italian condiment), arugula, and mayo; and the Banh Mi with pork shoulder, bacon, chicharrónes, pickled vegetables, and an onion spread.

Sandwiches range from $4 to $7 each, and sides at Sack include chips for $3.

By serving 4-inch sandwiches, Voltaggio says, customers can experiment with new flavors without being disappointed by their order.

“Let’s say you order one a little more out of your comfort zone and you go for a Banh Mi, and then you order our simple Toasted Cheese Melt,” he says. “Then you’ve got that adventurous thing and you’ve got something comforting. You’re not nervous about the commitment you’re making, because you’re getting two different sandwiches for the price of basically one big sandwich at another gourmet sandwich shop.”

Not only will the rebranded Sack add a few new sandwich and side options, but the concept will also add Straus Creamery milkshakes, Stumptown nitro cold-brew coffee, and a Boylan Soda fountain.

“The concept became more and more independent of the restaurant, and it started to have its own sort of cult following.”

To go along with the new name and logo, Sack will update ink.sack’s branding and design by incorporating pop art references and the yellow, black, and red colors of the flag of Voltaggio’s home state, Maryland. Like ink.sack, the newest Sack Sandwiches location is more takeout-focused than dine-in; there are only a handful of seats, and guests receive their order in a paper sack like a traditional school lunch.

Voltaggio says ink.sack was a “crash course” in quick service for him and his team, as they had to learn what it meant to operate a fast-food restaurant—from taking orders and setting up the line to handling the meats and managing the back of the house.

“I’ve always been a fine-dining chef my entire career,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a different approach to the cooking at all, but I definitely think there’s a different approach to logistically how it all works. I had to learn how to do that over the past five years, just as I’ve had to learn how to be a chef over the past 20 years.”

This year has been a busy one for chefs entering the limited-service restaurant category. In January, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened LocoL in Los Angeles, while Marc Forgione launched Lobster Press in New York, Gerard Craft opened Porano Pasta in St. Louis, and Mike Sheerin introduced Chicago to his PACKED Dumplings.

But Voltaggio says this rush of chefs into the space didn’t influence his decision to rebrand Sack Sandwiches. After all, he’s been in quick service for five years already with ink.sack, and is only now opening his third location.

Still, he says the interest in chef-driven fast casuals will help Sack as it looks to expand.

“When you think of [quick service], fast casual, these different concepts, I think the country just being more aware of food and ingredients and more conscious of what they’re eating and more conscious of who’s cooking it, absolutely I think that’s providing us with more opportunity to grow and succeed a little bit faster than we thought we would,” he says.

While there is no set vision for how many locations he wants to open, Voltaggio says he’s interested in growing Sack Sandwiches, but whether that’s regionally or nationally, he’s not sure. He adds that it’s natural for a chef like him to want to scale something like a quick-serve concept because it’s impossible for him to open locations of his fine-dining restaurant in other cities.

“We birthed this thing from ink., and so I think if we drop this into another state, another city, another market, there is a connection to the original spot, the origin of where it came from,” he says. “Therefore there is a connection to us and me and my food.”

This isn’t the first time Voltaggio has been in the quick-serve restaurant news this month. Earlier in February, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s announced that the chef was the face of their newest ad campaign, replacing the chains’ traditional young women commercial stars to promote the Steakhouse Thickburger. Voltaggio says he grew up eating Hardee’s, and adds that the opportunity to be associated with the brand was an honor.

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