The sandwich sector answered the pandemic bill in more ways than one. Namely, the sector’s combination of portability and familiarity resonated during lockdowns. Also, sandwiches could easily flex catering packages to smaller groups, as Jersey Mike’s showed, and are ideally positioned for the customization unlock of digital ordering.

Yet that doesn’t signal a lack of innovation or an excuse to drift into a sea of sameness. Between Subway (22,190 units year-end 2020), Jimmy John’s (2,705), Jersey Mike’s (1,856), and Firehouse Subs (1,140), among others, the segment is hardly thin. And everyone improved off-premises capabilities in 2020. In one example, Firehouse Subs saw its in-person dining drop from 37 to 15 percent. Digital orders and delivery orders jumped from roughly 6 percent each, respectively, to double that. Dine-in was 52 percent of Firehouse’s mix just 11 years ago.

So how do you stand out? Beyond the frictionless tech benefits, delivery, and other outside-the-four-walls efforts, it starts with what’s actually between the bread.

World Sandwich Champion Jennifer Daskevich took some time to chat with QSR about the segment, and offer up some tips to get ahead.

Firstly, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Jennifer Daskevich. I am founder of Sandwich America—a place for sandwich lovers from all over the globe to share their love of this great and versatile culinary creation. Check it out @sandwichamerica on Instagram. I am the 2013 World Sandwich Champion and won with my Fried Fish Sandwich: Macadamia and Panko crusted tilapia fried in duck fat with a fresh pomegranate pineapple Pico de Gallo, fresh cotija cheese and avocado with a sweet bun toasted with a jalapeno lime compound butter finished with Himalayan pink salt. I wanted Hawaii on a plate, a sandwich to transport you and it worked with the judges.

Give us your take on the sandwich industry today. Do you think the portability and creativity of the category could benefit from some of the current COVID conditions?

The sandwich industry today is bigger and more widespread than ever. There is no meal or flavor profile that cannot be turned into a delicious sandwich. Sandwiches have been on the upswing for the last decade but with the current decline in in house dining due to COVID—sandwiches with their portability and versatility are a natural go to for chefs to create flavorful exciting dishes that can be prepped for take-out but not sacrificing on flavor or sophistication. Sandwiches are one of the most menued items.

Also, the fact it’s familiar and often a comfort food?

Sandwiches are not only convenient but they can take us back—even the most simple sandwiches! When I travel for work, sometimes when I return home all I want is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a cold glass of milk. Every state has it’s go to sandwich from the Cuban in Florida to the Pastrami in New York and the Hot Brown in Kentucky—the list goes on and on.

What are some tips to elevate sandwiches? Where would you suggest getting started?

I simply think about flavors I love and turn those into a sandwich. Like my winning Hawaii example.  You can do that with any flavor profile. To start, simply think about that dish you love. Simple, impactful ingredients can also really make a sandwich memorable. I love spreadable cheese for doing just that … they are an easy ingredient to help create signature flavor profiles. For example, pesto chicken pasta with tomatoes is great with a soft French roll, Boursin Garlic and Herb Cheese, grilled chicken, pesto sauce and tomatoes. It is great at room temperature and can be wrapped up to go!

Talk specifically about using cheese as a moisture blocker for sandwich longevity and how you can build a sandwich for maximum flavor impact and holdability.

I’m always on the lookout for single ingredients that help with the flavor punch of a sandwich and also ingredients that help with the structure of a sandwich. Cheese is a perfect choice for this. My tip is to be sure to put cheese on both the top AND bottom. For example, wet ingredients can make a sandwich soggy. I love a roasted veggie sandwich but the cooked veggies can leak into the bread and make the whole sandwich soggy. By using a flavor punch ingredient such as Boursin on both the bottom and top pieces of bread (with the veggies in between) you have leveraged a single ingredient that both adds amazing flavor and texture, but also solidifies the structure and longevity of the sandwich.

Price’s Pimento Cheese is on my go to list these days. Not only is Pimento cheese a top trend for 2021—it marries great with a variety of ingredients. I recently made a Pimento Cheese BLT. It was—dare I say — life changing. Truly amazing. Toasted bread with the soft creamy pimento cheese spread (on both sides!) and crispy salty bacon with fresh tomatoes. Sans the mayo—add creaminess in a more flavorful way.

What are some examples of creativity you’ve seen in the industry?

Sandwiches are definitely going International!  Flavor profiles from all over the globe are being reinvented in the form of a sandwich. The Bahn Mi is the perfect example—it is being riffed on in a variety of different ways with different proteins and pickled veggies to cover all flavor profiles.

Are there trends operators should be on the lookout for in 2021?

Sandwiches in and of themselves are one of the hottest food and menu trends for 2021.  International flavors and vegetarian options are great ways to utilize sandwiches and introduce consumers to new flavors and make these new flavors more approachable. But build with purpose. It’s not enough to simply pull great ingredients together, you must think about structure and taste impact so every bite delivers.

What’s next for sandwiches? It seems like the category has evolved from being seen as strictly fast-food to a far more refined offering in recent years.

The sky is the limit with sandwiches. A sandwich isn’t just a lunch dish anymore. It is breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, and dessert. Don’t limit your view—realize they can encompass any flavor profile, any meal, any occasion.

Menu Innovations, Sandwiches, Story