Outside The Lunchbox

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Soup, salads and sandwiches stay stylish

Without a doubt, today’s urban office-tied diners have more lunchtime choices than their brown-bag forebears; but despite the myriad options, the noon-hour trinity of soup, salad and sandwiches remains the undisputed go-to choice. However, while the overarching labels haven’t changed, customers aren’t waiting in lunch lines for the standard sammies of old. Can you find chicken-noodle soup, a tuna-salad sandwich or Caesar salads on offer? Of course. But you’ll also find a heck of a lot more.

 

Sexier Sandwiches // Perhaps it hasn’t gasped its terminal breath, but ham and Swiss on white bread with a slap of mustard seems to be going the way of the dodo. Instead, the lunch staple has morphed into a chic, gourmet version of itself. At Hungry Heart Cafe in St. John’s, N.L., it’s an elegant open-faced rendition: Black Forest ham, fresh tomatoes, herbes de Provence, artisan cheese and mamma’s homemade relish on sundried tomato bread ($11.95). The same basics at the Ontario-based Artisano, a chain of three bakery restaurants, transform into prosciutto, grilled portobello mushrooms and Provolone, with fresh tomatoes, red onion, lettuce and basil on focaccia, topped with red pepper pesto mayonnaise ($9.29). On the other coast, visit one of Vancouver’s 11 Bread Garden restaurants, as well as ferry kiosks or 70 Chevron Town Pantry locations, and you’ll find maple-aged ham and aged Cheddar with tomatoes, lettuce and apple cider mustard on ciabatta ($6.25).

Research numbers from the NPD Group Inc. indicate nearly a quarter of the one-billion sandwiches served annually are still of the stand-by deli meat variety, but gourmet options, along with some healthier, lighter choices represent growth areas. In fact, Linda Strachan, restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group, says despite being polar opposites, gourmet meats and veggie options are leading the charge.  “Some of the less common types of sandwiches are gaining in popularity, including vegetarian options, meatball sandwiches and BLTs,” she says.

Two trends appear to be meeting head on here: the healthy appeal of vegetarian food and the return of the carnivore (as evidenced by the growth of barbecue hotspots). For the former, ingredients such as avocado, roasted vegetables including eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, asparagus and even cauliflower are served in everything from crusty rolls and sliced baguette to focaccia and tortilla wraps. Artisano’s signature vegetarian panini, made with grilled peppers, eggplant, zucchini, portobello mushrooms, Provolone cheese, arugula, red onions, topped with a basil pesto and garlic-Parmiggiano sauce and served on a house-made onion focaccia ($8.95) is one of its most popular sandwiches.

On the other hand, big hunks of meat, hot off the grill and dripping in barbecue sauce — we’re talking Southern-style pulled pork, Vietnamese barbecue pork, Cuban-style barbecue chicken with ham — are particularly popular. At Hungry Heart, pulled pork comes with chipotle aioli, grilled pineapple, grilled sweet peppers and organic seasonal greens on a choice of breads or in a wrap ($6.95).

The fillings are becoming more innovative, but it’s not only restaurateurs who are being creative. While most spots offer guests a choice of predictable fillings, at Freshii, the rapidly growing, 20-unit international chain based in Toronto, customers can decide exactly what ingredients they want in their sandwich from a list of dozens. “They can be as healthy or as decadent as they want to be,” explains Claudio Ferreira, Freshii’s director of Branding & Marketing. “It’s all about choice and some of the choices make you shake your head.”

According to NPD Group’s Strachan, diversifying the sandwich menu is wise. “Canadians are looking for more interesting options; ingredients like hot peppers, olives, salsa, steak sauce and honey mustard are becoming more popular in sandwiches.” Indeed, these days, no sandwich is safe from incursions of pesto, chutney or a zesty sauce. At Tim Hortons, honey mustard adds zing to its ham and cheese, while Subway Restaurants offers sauces, such as Southwest chipotle and sweet onion, to jazz up a plain sub. The biggest surprise might be at McDonald’s. Apart from the ‘secret’ Big Mac sauce and the condiment power couple of ketchup and mustard, last March the behemoth launched a new line of McMini chicken sandwiches topped with pesto or spicy Thai sauce.

Despite widespread growth, one segment of the sandwich category is shrinking in physical product size, if not in sales. Maybe it began with sliders, those tiny perfect copies of the traditional burger, or with the recognition that grazing has replaced three meals a day, but the mini sandwich, snack wraps and its kin, are populating menus across the country.

Staying on trend, both Tim Hortons and McDonald’s offer chicken snack wraps for under $2, with a variety of sauces to tempt the between-meals snack-hungry palate. Interestingly, the snack wrap has been axed from McDonald’s U.S. menus, but according to Louis Payette, McDonald’s Canada national media relations manager, Canadians are more reticent of supersized treats, and the snack category here has doubled since last year.

NPD Group numbers substantiate that. “Wraps are enjoying double-digit gains, reaching more than 120-million servings annually,” says Strachan. “They have a lot going for them: smaller portion sizes and accessible prices that appeal to consumers who may be watching what they spend.”

 

It’s a Toss-up // The salad is also evolving. Greens are getting younger — baby sprouts are in — and vinegars are getting older, as restaurateurs pay their respects to the aged. Mesclun (or baby greens) and baby spinach have been around for a number of years but arugula (also called rocket) and mache (also called rapunzel or lamb’s lettuce) as well as fresh herbs, along with those sprouts, are now being tossed into the bowl. Whether it’s a main dish or a side, the salad is dressing for success.

According to the NPD Group, commercial restaurants sell nearly 650-million salads annually, three quarters of which are side salads. But salad servings have declined by four per cent in the past year, with full-service restaurants taking the full hit.

At the same time, there appears to be growth in this category in quick-service restaurants. These days, QSR salads aren’t the boring iceberg lettuce and gluey dressing concoctions of old, with McDonald’s Southwestern and Thai salads in Canada a prime example of salad’s new spark. Bursting with flavours and a mix of ingredients, both have proven popular in Canada, especially with female customers, says Payette.

The trend continues out West, where B.C.-based White Spot’s signature salad of mixed greens is adorned with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, sundried cranberries and a zesty Amorosa tomato, basil and red onion salsa, served with honey-sherry dressing. Guests can add chicken or salmon to make it a main course, a popular move with dieters who want a healthy option, but crave flavour.

In Toronto, Freshii is absolutely banking on the continued growth of QSR salads. Its menu offers customers the opportunity to create their own salads by ticking off the ingredients they want and the dressings they prefer. The model for success is undeniable, with openings scheduled in the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Middle East that will push the company from 20 to 60 units by year’s end.

“The point with salads is they have to be wholesome, but they also have to taste good,” says Mike Simeone, co-owner of Artisano, who only puts items on the menu after they’ve been approved by he and brother Joe. “We have four killer salads on the menu we just can’t take off.” One of its most popular salads is baby spinach and fresh arugula tossed with Asiago cheese, grilled peppers, zucchini, red onions, caramelized pecans and Mandarin oranges in a sweet-onion vinaigrette.

 

Souper Ideas // Nearly 300-million bowls of soup are served annually, with 60 per cent sold in full-service restaurants, down six per cent from the previous year. “Watching their spending at full-service restaurants, consumers have been inclined to cut back on extras like soup, side salads and desserts,” says NPD’s Strachan. Nevertheless, bucking the trend, Ravi’s Soups, in Toronto’s Entertainment District, has opened a second location. Trained at the eclectic Toronto bistro Mildred Pierce (now Mildred’s Temple Kitchen), owner Ravi Kanagarajah creates unique flavours from scratch, even making his own stock. Curried apricot and red lentil soup is a rich purée of vegetables with fresh coriander and lime crème fraîche as a topper ($7) and one of his most popular creations is corn chowder with fresh blue crab and Thai basil topped with crispy shallots ($9).  Not to be outdone by the seasonally focused crowd, cold soup options for the summer include chilled melon with kaffir lime, Thai chillies and lime crème fraîche, or carrot, ginger and cucumber gazpacho.

Catching the attention of customers with a list of exotic ingredients seems to be the secret to selling pot after pot of soup. “We don’t do anything traditional,” says Hungry Heart chef/owner, Kathy Jaeger whose creamy curried coconut and sweet potato soup ($5.50) blends the comfortable with a hint of the exotic. “Our customers have come to trust that what we do is going to be good.”

Even Artisano’s daily list of six soups, which features staples like chicken noodle, Italian wedding, minestrone or potato bacon, also includes at least one adventurous offering, such as ‘Rockin’ Moroccan,’ a lemony lentil, chicken soup with chickpeas and cumin. “Soup has to taste good to sell. We’d put ours up against any white tablecloth soup,” says Simeone. “If you want to sell soup, you have to have choice.”

Freshii’s Ferreira agrees. “We empower our customers to choose exactly what they want in their soup.” The starting broth can be as simple as chicken broth or as flavourful as spicy lemongrass; there’s even a gluten-free vegetable broth. Customers can add as much as they want from a list of 75 ingredients, and we flash boil it for a unique soup,” he explains, adding, “Bring your own bowl and you save 10 per cent”

However, when it comes to soup, the reality, according to NPD’s Strachan, is there’s plenty of competition from retail prepared soups (many of which are quite unique), so foodservice has to offer something special. Promotions like Artisano’s half and half — soup and sandwich or soup and salad — are one way to push soup sales, and heartier soups like chilli might encourage those wanting less than a meal but more than a snack.

Ultimately, regardless which segment you’re talking about,  it’s all about flavour. “If it’s good, they’ll buy it,” says Simeone.

 

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