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.”
The original Boricua is made with marinated tofu, miso sauce, mushrooms, and brown rice, and is served on fried plantains. Two other versions, with lemongrass chicken and Korean barbecue beef, “combine and take the flavors of Asian and the Caribbean to the next level,” Kim says. “My wife likes to say it’s like our marriage, the perfect balance of yin and yang.”
In many cases, novelty is what gives bread alternatives traction. The Ramen Burger, a hamburger made with two compressed ramen noodle disks instead of a bun, is a Japanese-American mash-up that received widespread media attention earlier this year. Created and trademarked by Keizo Shimamoto, self-proclaimed ramen entrepreneur, the Ramen Burger debuted last August at Brooklyn’s Saturday Smorgasborg food market. It sold out in just a few hours and has done so many times since.
“It was absolutely insane,” Shimamoto says.
Fresh ramen noodles are parboiled al dente, formed into disks and cooked on a griddle with sesame oil. The result is chewy instead of crunchy. A quarter-pound beef chuck patty is cooked on the griddle with a shoyu ramen sauce, which is a type of Japanese soy sauce. Arugula and scallions add contrast and crunch to the salt of the sauce and the heat of the beef.
The noodle bun concept exists in Japan, but with grilled chashu pork. Shimamoto is Japanese-American and wanted a beef patty because it’s American, bringing the two cultures together. Though he’s experimenting with different versions of the burger, “nothing has really stuck like the original. Everybody always orders the original. It’s like eating a bowl of shoyu ramen in your hands,” he says.
Shimamoto sells Ramen burgers at the Ramen Co. in New York City’s Financial District, but will soon open the first Ramen Burger Shop. The Southern California native has introduced the burger to the West Coast as well, selling out pop-up shops consistently. A brick-and-mortar shop is in the works for downtown Los Angeles this summer.
When Dunkin’ Donuts first launched the Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich in April 2013, “guests’ reactions to the sandwich ranged from, ‘Oh my God, why?’ to ‘Oh my God, why not?’” says Jeff Miller, executive chef and president of culinary innovation for Dunkin’ Brands.
Unlikely as the pairing seems, the glazed doughnut, bacon, and pepper-fried egg give guests an item that is “familiar with a twist,” Miller says, something that resonates with people.
“The combination of sweet and savory flavors is something many people really enjoy, and many of our guests have told us that they have been doing something similar for years,” he says. “We’ve seen our customers buy doughnuts in the summertime to bring to the family cookout and put burgers on them. Even the test kitchen personnel at Dunkin’ Donuts make sandwiches for themselves on doughnuts, he adds.
New York’s Burger Bistro sandwiches any of its burgers between two glazed doughnut halves. Chef and co-owner Vincent Dardanello started serving the Donut Burger a couple years ago.
“It’s absolutely delicious—the salty and sweet, the texture of the doughnut and the patty,” Dardanello says.
The success has been so positive that Burger Bistro offers special Donut Burgers every Wednesday. “It builds the hype when you don’t offer it all the time. People call every day looking for it,” Dardanello says. Depending on the location, he can sell almost 40 in one night. “It’s just an ‘I gotta have it’ kind of thing,” he says.
Doughnuts aren’t the only breakfast food that has found traction as a sandwich carrier; waffles have also become a popular ingredient holder across the quick-service restaurant industry. Taco Bell, for example, made waves earlier this year when it rolled out the Waffle Taco as part of its new national breakfast menu, piling eggs, syrup, and either sausage or bacon into a waffle shell.
Bruxie takes the idea of a waffle as a sandwich carrier a step further. The California-based fast-casual startup with eight units offers an extensive menu comprised of sandwiches and burgers that replace the bread with Belgian waffles. Menu items include the Bruxie Burger, with Angus beef, Tillamook Cheddar, tomatoes, pickles, mayo, and lettuce, and the Albacore Tuna Melt, with Albacore tuna, Tillamook Cheddar, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes.
Similar to Taco Bell’s Waffle Taco, KFC’s Double Down rode a wave of publicity to major success. “Introduced in April 2010, it’s likely the most talked-about product in KFC history,” says Rick Maynard, KFC spokesman. The sandwich—two white-meat chicken fillets with cheese, bacon, and the Colonel’s sauce between them—was created with the insight that “many chicken sandwiches left people unfulfilled because they weren’t meaty enough. The Double Down features so much chicken, there’s no room for the bun,” Maynard says.
Not only is the bun-less Double Down unique, it’s also a limited-time offer, which has helped make it what Maynard calls an “online sensation.” The KFC website features videos of fans inspired by the sandwich to create songs, dances, and even a Double Down tattoo.