Interviews | February 2016 | By Sam Oches

Q&A: Michael Voltaggio

The acclaimed chef talks about his rebranded sandwich concept and on the growing influence of chefs in the quick-service category.
Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio talks with QSR about new sandwich brand.
image used with permission.

Acclaimed chef Michael Voltaggio is rebranding his quick-service sandwich shop, ink.sack—sister concept to his fine-dining establishment ink.—and opening a third location. Now called Sack Sandwiches, the sandwich brand will soon have a storefront on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip, and the chef has plans to keep growing.

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.

Voltaggio spoke with QSR editor Sam Oches about why he rebranded the restaurant and where he sees flavor innovation fitting in to a sandwich concept.

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

Why did you decide to rebrand ink.sack?

When we first opened, it was an extension of ink. It was next door; we were cooking food over here. Instead of opening ink. for lunch, we opened up ink.sack. Then the concept became more and more independent of the restaurant, and it started to have its own sort of cult following. Everyone was going in there for different reasons than they were going to ink. So, naturally, it became its own independent thing.

Why is now the time for growth?

It’s taken us five years to get to this point, and I didn’t know anything about [quick service]. I’ve always been a fine-dining chef my entire career. And 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. It’s a lot of different things, whether it’s the production of the meats, the way the line is set up, the way the orders are taken—all of these things, I had no idea, down to how to handle money and the business aspect of it. I knew nothing about this. So ink.sack was a crash course in quick service for us.

I’d say it’s a chef-driven concept, but it’s also a guest-driven concept, and that’s the thing I wanted to focus on with the relaunch.

Are you thinking more of a regional presence for Sack, or bigger?

I think everyone’s dream is to take it into different markets, because the reality is I can’t open a fine-dining restaurant in every market across the country, because I wouldn’t have a physical presence there. I think through the sandwiches there is a connection to the vision we had. It wasn’t like somebody came to me and was like, “Hey, here’s a cool QSR concept, you should do it.” 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. Therefore there is a connection to me and my food.

Chefs are flocking to fast casual. How much has this influenced your moves with Sack?

I don’t know if it influenced our decision, because we started five years ago. We started back before chefs were talking about doing it. I just wasn’t in a hurry to do it very fast because I had other restaurant projects I was working on. And the reality is, when we started ink.sack, I was sitting on ink. with a finished restaurant and no permits, and I needed to make money. I started ink.sack to get a paycheck coming in. The opportunity to open this little sandwich shop came about, and I was like, “Guys, we need to do something, because we need to start making money.” The funny thing is, the month after we opened, of course they came along and were like, “Here are your permits, you’re ready to open.” It’s been five years of just hard work.

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. The word of mouth is already out there, so now all we have to do is show up and deliver.

We’ve seen premium sandwich concepts take off. Do you think sandwiches are due for a renaissance?

I do. We live in L.A. and we hear about gluten free so much out here, but we sell hundreds of sandwiches a day. So despite the fact that everybody stopped eating bread, somebody’s eating it.

There’s definitely a need for it. I do think people are now more focused on what’s inside the bread and not as focused on the bread itself, and that’s what I think is unique about Sack. We put 3 ounces of protein on a small 4-inch bun. We’re giving you the food that’s going to fill you up and the food that you want, but at the same time, we’re putting it in a package you’re used to eating it on.

As a chef, what’s your impression of how much you can push flavors in a sandwich?

We struggled with that in the beginning. We did food that was a little bit more adventurous, like we did the chicken liver pate with curried fried chicken skin and stuff like that. People came in and ordered it, but I felt like some people came in and ordered it just to get a picture of it, then they came back and ordered the other things they wanted to eat. What we started focusing on was the food that everyone wanted to eat.

We’re adding some new sandwiches to the menu. A simple turkey and cheese sandwich—we’re calling it the TCB: Turkey, Cheese, and Bread. I have an ink.sack at the airport, and the No. 1 selling sandwich consistently at airports in the country is turkey. Then if you look at room service, everyone orders the club sandwich; that’s why every hotel has a turkey club on it, because everyone knows people are going to be satisfied with a turkey sandwich.

It doesn’t need to be a tasting menu on bread, but we definitely provide opportunities for people to be a little bit more adventurous in the fact that the sandwiches are small. You’re not committing to something that you’re not sure of for $6. If you spend $12 or $13 or $14, you can get two different flavored sandwiches. 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 or whatever. 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.


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