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.
How many sandwiches do people order on average?
Most people will order two. What I say is come in and have one for a snack or get two for a meal. But I’ve put three away easily.
We sell potato chips, too, and now in the new shop we’re going to have milkshakes. Some of the stuff we tried selling in the restaurant—we tried salads at one point, and we’ve toyed around with different fruits and stuff like that—but at the end of the day most people got a sandwich and a bag of chips.
Do you feel you should help change customers’ dining habits or just give them what they know they want?
I think we can help them become a little more adventurous and take them out of their comfort zone, but I think they can help us change our habits. And I think that’s what we did with this concept. At the end of the day, we’re cooking for them; we’re not cooking for ourselves. The more and more I realized what they wanted, I kind of realized I wanted the same thing. Because when I go out to a sandwich shop, I know what I want. I’ve grown up eating certain things on sandwiches.
The Cold Fried Chicken, for instance. The reason why it tastes good to me is that it’s breaded in corn flakes. When corn flakes are cold, it creates a good texture on the outside of the chicken. Ranch dressing is something I love; you take the spice of ranch and you mix that with cream cheese and you have a ranch cheese, then you put some hot sauce and pickles and lettuce on it. It’s not that weird. I think the difference between this is we’re not thinking of things to just be adventurous or to have crazy flavor profiles. I think we’re just being more thoughtful with the things that we do.
God bless you for liking ranch dressing.
Oh man. I could open up a ranch dressing restaurant.
Is that counter to what chefs are supposed to say?
No. I’m a person who loves food. I used to worry about what would people think. At the end of the day, I like what I like, and I’m not ashamed of that.
Did you find any pushback like that with the Carl’s Jr. ad?
No. Of course, I read some of the comments. And I knew going into that I would get a little bit of backlash for it. But at the end of the day, Carl’s Jr. is an iconic brand, and I grew up eating that stuff when I was a kid—on special occasions. For me it was more about being associated with an iconic brand.
Do you see Sack as being more takeout or dine-in?
The first store is like 686 square feet. There weren’t any chairs the first couple months we were open, and then one day I bought stools for like $12 a piece and just threw them in there. But there’s only eight stools in the entire store. It more or less became a food truck that didn’t move.
The next store is similar. I think there are about eight seats inside that store, too. A lot of the people that are here in the city are usually grabbing a bag of food to go somewhere, whether it’s back to the office or out in the street to eat.
I can’t say I would never have dine-in, but a sack lunch was something that my mom would send me to school with, and I kind of think that’s what the concept is: You come in, and we’re going to package it for you in a lunch sack; we’re going to write your name on it and send you out the door, just like our parents did for us when we went to school.
Since it’s such a small, efficient model, will nontraditional be critical to growth?
I don’t know if it’s critical, but it definitely helps, and I love that idea. My thing about the airport is that it’s a restaurant we have in Los Angeles, but it’s an international market. We’re in China, we’re in Germany, we’re in every country that flies through Tom Bradley [terminal at LAX], because those people are coming through that terminal. I think it’s cool to get into that, because you can be in so many different markets without having to be in so many different markets.
A lot of chefs might attach their brand to a fast casual but not be involved. How much do you see yourself being involved at Sack?
I can tell you where every single piece of equipment is in there, I can tell you that I was scrubbing the floors in there the other day, I can tell you that I’m up there in the store every single day. There is that reality, if we ever make it to, like, store 20. At the same time, how many full-time jobs can I add to my roster? Maybe that’s why it’s taken us five years, because I am a bit of a micromanager and I think it took five years for us to really establish what we are and who we are, and honestly, it’s like letting go a little bit. It’s tough. But at the same time, it’s essential, because I think I’ve taken it as far as I can take it without getting help from other people.
[pq] “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.”
[pq] “I think the difference between this is we’re not thinking of things to just be adventurous or to have crazy flavor profiles.”