Sandwiches are breaking through on fast casual menus, and for good reason.

Sponsored by Smithfield Culinary.

Driven by the combined momentum of the global cuisine, comfort foods, and convenience trends, consumer demand for handheld foods is at an all-time high. Increasingly, fast-casual restaurant diners in particular are asking for familiar favorites such as sandwiches as well as newer takes like banh mi.

“There’s a sensory experience involved in handheld foods that you don’t get with a fork and knife,” says Frank Dominguez, corporate chef at Smithfield Culinary. “Handhelds really are for everyone, but fast-casual diners are the sweet-spot for operators to target.”

The most popular handheld foods include the usual suspects—burgers, subs, burritos, and tacos—but many chefs and operators have found success menuing items that incorporate more ethnic ingredients. South American foods like pupusas and Asian-inspired kati rolls are increasingly popular among consumers of all demographics, and they also provide a unique platform on which chefs can deliver flavors by adding protein, sauces, and veggies.

According to Dominguez, there is a misconception among some operators that handheld foods must be portable. This is not always true, however.

“Ribs, for example, are definitely not a portable food,” he says. “Eating handheld foods is more about the sensory experience that comes from actually touching what you eat. That’s what customers are looking for.”

In addition to attracting customers, many casual restaurant operators are looking at handheld foods as a lucrative trend because it also helps to address the challenges of staff and labor shortages. Chefs want to menu delicious meals that are also easily prepared and repeatable by staff members who may be short-handed or newly trained.

Fortunately, there are a lot of great foodservice products that help chefs and operators to streamline their kitchen processes. For example, Curly’s pulled beef, chicken, and pork products can be incorporated into a variety of consumer-favorite dishes—from a classic barbecue sandwich, sloppy joe, or meat pie to a pulled chicken street taco or breakfast burrito.

“Incorporating handheld foods into your menu program is a great way to keep your menu on trend, attract customers, and also increase efficiency in your kitchen,” Dominguez says. “Handhelds should be the next big thing on every fast-casual operator’s list.”

By Erin McPherson.

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