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“Thinner or skinnier is in,” explains Corner Bakery’s Scicchitano.
Like many bakery-cafés, Corner Bakery offers a wide array of sandwich carriers that are mentioned prominently on the menuboard, including ciabatta ficelle, sourdough, poblano cheese, two types of rye breads, the multigrain Harvest bread, and Mom’s White Bread.
The Harvest bread is an example of how artisan bread can be used as a skinny alternative. It is sliced very thinly and used to make a grilled panini. While sourdough is the most popular bread for paninis, adding the Harvest variety “has been a home run,” Scicchitano says.
The “thin is in” craze also has been adopted by Einstein Bros. Bagels. “Whatever bread trends are on the street, whether they’re whole grains or ancient grains, we put it into our bagels,” says Chad Thompson, chef for the 300-unit chain.
Just as bakery-cafés are using thin breads, Einstein Bros. and some others are slimming down bagels to create bagel thins as a skinnier carrier.
“Our customers still have the bagels they want, but with less calories and carbs,” the chef explains. “We have white and wheat all of the time, and sometimes others. We started them about a year and a half ago and they are doing very well.”
Einstein Bros. offers a half-dozen thin bagel sandwiches, all with fewer than 350 calories and 15 grams of fat. Even though a “bagel and schmear is our bread and butter in the morning, the thins are doing well then,” he notes.
Like many other carriers, bagels came from a particular ethnic heritage: Judaism. Einstein Bros. also has a Jewish egg bread, challah, as a roll, as well as Italian ciabatta rolls for paninis and tortillas for wraps.
These ethnic-based carriers have long become mainstream for Americans, as have Mediterranean pita breads and French croissants. Tortillas have been the second-most popular type of bread in the U.S. for a decade, according to one industry study.
Many Americans discovered flour and corn tortillas at Mexican restaurants. These days, all types of limited-service restaurants are using tortillas, including some that have various flavors and ingredients that provide a healthy halo, like spinach.
As with skinny breads, thin bagels, and sliders, some restaurants are using taco-sized tortillas to make mini-sized wraps.
“You can also take an 8-inch tortilla and cut it in half, like mini sushi rolls,” US Foods’ Wallace says. “It sounds like something for fine dining, but just think of how easy it would be to take a snack-sized wrap and serve it different ways.”
Another type of Latino carrier that is becoming popular in the U.S. is the telera, which is a type of savory bread that originated from French baguettes, though is round and softer.
La Brea Bakery’s Davis notes that telera is often used for tortas, a Mexican sandwich that is often pressed like a panini.
Corner Bakery is looking at a telera roll, perhaps with the addition of sesame seeds, for a possible new Asian-flavor sandwich. “We would be putting together two different [cultural] tastes” if the carrier eventually is developed, Scicchitano says.
This type of fusion roll is another trend starting to catch on, Wallace says. US Foods’ Chef Line offers a croissant bun that’s a combination of a buttery croissant with the denseness of a Kaiser roll.
Another ethnic product, the pretzel roll, with its slightly salty flavor, is also making a comeback. Corner Bakery is among the chains using pretzel bread.
One carrier being researched and tested by several quick serves is gluten-free bread. Experts say there is a small but growing demand for gluten free, but it is often difficult to accomplish fully.
Subway is testing gluten-free rolls in a number of stores, and Einstein Bros. is evaluating a 99 percent gluten-free bagel that is packaged separately. However, the company doesn’t want to claim it will be completely flour free.
Milio’s Sandwiches, a Madison, Wisconsin–based chain with stores in the upper Midwest, has found another way to go gluten-free: a non-bread carrier.
“We have our French sub roll, a wheat sub roll, and three flavors of tortilla wraps, and we also do lettuce wraps,” says Gerard Helminski, the chain’s director of franchise operations. About a year ago, Milio’s started using a large iceberg lettuce leaf as a wrap. “People seem to like the product more than I thought they would,” he says.
Not everyone is convinced that diversifying the carrier is a good idea. Five years ago, Penn Station East Coast Subs, which has more than 220 units in 13 states, added wraps as a sister carrier to the chain’s proprietary white sub roll. The wraps didn’t last three years.
“We tried to offer it as a lighter alternative, and the sandwiches tasted great on it,” says company president Craig Dunaway. But it didn’t add much to sales.
“There might be a niche for people looking for lighter fare, but customers said they liked our bread better,” Dunaway says. With the carbs and calories fairly comparable and the extra effort in operations required by wraps, they became expendable.
“We have one bread, and we have four sizes for that bread, and that is best for us,” he says. “The wraps were cannibalizing sales. We don’t need to be all things to all people.”