Every Friday at noon, customers line up outside the door of Uptown 21 in Waterloo, Ont., for “Brown Bag Friday” and while they wait, they tweet about their sandwich, which costs less than $10 (with beverage), including tax.
“Lunch had been a tough slog,” explains Nick Benninger, chef/owner of Uptown 21, “and the most popular menu item was a sandwich. So I thought it would be fun to make 100 pastrami sandwiches from scratch and announce to customers to come and get them before they’re sold out.”
The popularity of the brown-bag sandwich provided an unexpected bump in business for the upscale-casual restaurant — sometimes more than 300 customers paying on the honour system (to reduce labour costs) in just over an hour. “The brown-bag sandwich exposed us to a whole new set of customers,” says Benninger.
The story of the sandwich
In the 1760s, myth has it John Montagu, the gambling 4th Earl of Sandwich in south-east England, denied himself food for 24 hours while at his game of crib before he eventually succumbed to eating. When he did, he demanded meat held between chunks of bread so that his wagering wasn’t interrupted. The bread prevented any meaty-greasiness from soiling his cards — and a name for the foodstuff emerged.
Myth aside, sandwiches are compact and workmanlike and priced accordingly. A sandwich at Fidel Gastro’s “Priscilla” food truck in Toronto costs less than $10, while a Givral banh mi in downtown Kitchener, Ont. is $5. Across town, Nostra Cucina’s hefty veal parm is $10 and an open-faced grilled cheese with pears, pumpkin seeds and honey from La Louche in Moncton is $7 (a couple bucks gets you a complete sammie with soup or chips).
Research company Technomic tracks sandwich popularity and publishes its “Canadian Sandwich Consumer Trend Report.” Although away-from-home sandwich purchases revealed a decrease since 2012, the 2014 report found that about 39 per cent of consumers polled said they have purchased a sandwich in the past 60 days.
While Chris Martone, corporate executive chef at Subway Restaurants, agrees that the QSR sandwich sector “has been relatively flat,” the Technomic report shows that away-from-home sandwich purchases are highest among younger generations. The take-away factor reinforces sandwiches as portable convenience food that has done yeoman’s service in the lunchboxes and diners of the nation for generations — and will likely continue to do so.
It’s mobile food to be sure. Matt Basile, creator of Fidel Gastro’s and Toronto restaurant Lisa Marie, sees sandwiches as entrenched in culinary culture but not exactly as trends — it’s more like waves, he says. “It used to be about how many different types of pulled pork sandwiches you had. Then pork belly became more popular and you saw Vietnamese-style sandwiches with combinations of cucumber, carrot and cilantro and figuring out how you could take that to the next level.”
Speaking from a practical perspective, Basile adds that costs can contribute to sandwich popularity, too. “Beef prices are higher so that may make pork and chicken (sandwiches) a more viable option.”
Inventive sandwich creations have ruled the streets via the food-truck phenomenon, but they have also moved into bricks-and-mortar restaurants. The Nash in Calgary has two featured sandwiches on the menu — a chicken panini with boar bacon aioli, gouda and Nash mustard on parmesan bread ($17); and a “dirty” meatloaf with havarti, whole-grain mustard and caramelized onion on ciabatta ($19).
“There’s something soulful about eating or making [a sandwich]. Or even better, both,” says Michael Noble, chef/proprietor of The Nash.
While he remembers “very fondly” sandwiches consisting of white bread, Miracle Whip, lettuce, tomato, ham and cheap cheese, he adds that seismic sandwich shifts occur when cuisine evolves. “The obvious example of that is the now very common Vietnamese bánh mi (a type of meat-filled sandwich on bánh mì bread, found in Vietnamese bakeries). Six or eight years ago, it was a delicacy you had to go to a certain corner of the city to find. Now they’re everywhere.”
Outside the sphere of major metropolitan areas such as Montreal, Toronto and Calgary, smaller centres similarly rock the sandwich. At Bread Baron Sandwiches, inside downtown Kitchener’s farmers’ market, co-owner Mike Lurz, a Stratford Chefs’ School graduate, sees the current sandwich trends as being inspired by seasonal and local ingredients.
“What I call the convenience sandwich, that soggy thing that’s still in people’s consciousness as part of a 1980s deli tray, has been trumped by putting really good ingredients in it,” he says. That means sandwiches that not only capture seasonality and leap cultural borders but ones that also apply culinary knowledge of plated-food concepts to the portable format. “That’s the sandwich,” Lurz says.
By their bread ye shall know them; at least partly. Because of their familiarity, sandwiches are deceptive in their structure. The Nash, and sister restaurant Notable, bake their own bread to control variables like crumb density and the chew in the crust. In the chain realm, bread becomes brand identity, according to Technomic, translating into unique bakery iterations: the brioche at Earls Kitchen + Bar or the pretzel bread at Quiznos. For Toronto’s Aroma Espresso Bar chain, breads — white, multigrain and whole wheat — are baked throughout the day. With gluten-free in demand, they’ve sourced a specialty loaf too.“It’s like a light rye and when it’s toasted you can’t tell the difference really,” says Aroma’s marketing manager Daniel Davidzon. Gluten-free breads are getting better as demand increases, according to Dave Sheluga, director Consumer Insights at Ardent Mills.
“The early breads were rather [like boards] and fragile. Today’s gluten-free breads are softer, [have] larger volume and a more satisfying mouthfeel.”
Another pillar of the sandwich is the condiment. According to Technomic, “jam” concocted from onions, tomatoes, apples or bacon is among the fastest-growing sandwich condiment, with an increase of 87.5 per cent on Canadian menus in the latest year-over-year period. At Bread Baron, Lurz says making their own condiments, like pickled-pepper mayo for example, is important because it allows creativity and control of fat, salt, vinegar and heat levels to get the maximum kick out of this important component.
At the heart of a great sandwich, however, is the filling. Technomic data shows a trend towards eclectic flavours that straddle hemispheres — a growing popularity in Cuban ingredients at the same time that eastern flavours are booming in Canada in the form of kimchi, pickled vegetables, ginger, wasabi and the ubiquitous Sriracha, notes Technomic’s Kristin Menas.
“We are seeing operators roll out wraps and sandwiches that spotlight ingredients found in everything from Thai to Korean cuisines,” says Menas.
International ingredients supercharge flavours. Aroma has a Bulgarian “bureka,” an eastern European savoury pastry stuffed with feta cheese, hard-boiled egg, tahini, tomatoes and pickle. Bread Baron draws inspiration from Thailand, the southern U.S., the Middle East, Mediterranean and other regions but also from a cook’s sandwich imagination, showcasing ingredients such as butternut squash caponata, chipotle honey vinaigrette, or raisin and preserved lemon. Food Network television and social media have nurtured education and cultivated a heightened desire in diners to eat a panoply of the world’s foods. Sandwich differentiation lies in textures, layers of flavours and cultural icons introduced to bread to create a unique product. A large chain like Subway is no different in seeking authentic international flavours, but home-grown is good, too. The company has a lobster sandwich and recently introduced a Montreal smoked-meat sandwich in a bid to share beloved and popular proteins that are national treasures. “We’re always looking at ways to make the sandwiches more flavourful, which can be done by combining, tweaking or sometimes bringing in a new sauce or flavouring,” says Martone.
However, eclectic and exotic should not override the basic comfort of the sandwich. In Calgary, Noble adheres to a classic sandwich interpretation that only gently pushes boundaries. He says that at the heart of creating a great sandwich is giving customers what they want between those pieces of bread. It has to meet customer expectations — “especially at lunch,” Noble says. “We still need to appeal to the sensibility that says, ‘I don’t need to be challenged right now. I want sandwiches I can just embrace, that I can put my arms around and love.’”