Sandwich Shop E&S: Sophisticated Sandwich Prep

As the sandwich concept continues to grow in popularity and variety, operators require foodservice equipment to support prep and holding tasks specific to their menus.

One could logically surmise that the consumer carb-conscious craze of a few years ago would have taken a bite out of sandwich shop sales. In reality, though, this segment continues to perform well, according to Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based research company.

The segment's stability is partly attributable to the fact that many players have adapted menu offerings to meet consumer demands. “It really has become a soup, sandwich and salads business,” Paul says.

In addition, operators are setting their sights on other day parts to extend their reach. While breakfast is the section where they have had the most success, others are trying to figure out ways to cash in on dinner.

More importantly, though, the segment remains stable due to continued consumer emphasis on perceived fresh food. And thanks to savvy marketing efforts among some of the segment's bigger players, many consumers tend to view made-to-order sandwiches assembled in front of them as being fresh. “Whether this is actually true, does not matter,” Paul adds.

Contrary to the carb-conscious ways of a few years ago, many consumers now gauge an operator's “freshness” based on their bread. “You can't have one kind of bread anymore,” Paul says. “As consumers have learned, there are lots of good breads out there and they are not just eating Wonder anymore. So, they expect that kind of variety when they go out to eat.”

And one way sandwich shops are meeting customer expectations for freshness and improved breads is through bake-offs. Loosely put, this means by taking a dough product and proofing it and baking it on-premise. “As consumers, when we see an oven, we assume the bread is baked fresh,” Paul adds. “It adds value and flavor and really has helped them merchandise their product.”

For approximately 15 years now, Cousins Subs has been baking fresh bread in its stores. Of course, it was not always that way. When the Menomenee Falls, Wis.-based chain first started, it baked its bread at a central kitchen and delivered loaves daily to the individual stores. As the chain grew and evolved, that practice became less and less practical.

Cousins now contracts with a larger bakery, which uses a proprietary recipe to prepare the dough for its Italian and wheat breads. The bakery then forms the dough into individual loaves and freezes them before delivering them to the Cousins' stores. The extra ingredients necessary to make the chain's Asiago cheese and garlic herb breads are added at the store level, using the dough for the Italian bread as a base.

Cousins equips each store, which averages about 1,600-square-feet, with a stackable oven and proofer. At the close of business each day, a member of the store's staff will remove a certain amount of dough from the freezer and place it in the cooler where it thaws overnight. At approximately 7 a.m. the next day, the process of baking the daily bread begins when someone stretches the dough and places it on the baking pans, which are lined with cornmeal. After proofing the dough, it is placed in the oven for baking and around 9 a.m. the first loaves are ready. On average, each baking cycle produces 42 loaves of bread and the typical store will bake five times in a morning. While it takes up to two hours for the first cycle to finish, once the process is up and running fresh bread is ready approximately every 20 minutes, adds Maria Piotter, vice president of franchising for Cousins Subs.

The staff will repeat this process until the lunch rush begins, at which time they focus their efforts on serving customers. Toward the end of the lunch rush, staff may try to spark additional sales by baking a few batches of chocolate chip cookies. “There is nothing like the smell of chocolate chip cookies,” Piotter says.

Once the lunch rush is over, the staff will assess the amount of bread they need to get through the remainder of the business day and will resume baking.

Of course, baking is far from an exact science and a number of factors can affect product quality, such as humidity, water quality and the like. So to help ensure consistency from one store to the next, Cousins equips each unit with a tool to help calculate humidity and overall air quality, as well as a template that helps measure whether the dough in the proofer is ready to move to the oven.

In addition, Cousins requires someone from each franchised unit to attend a full-day baking seminar in its corporate kitchen to ensure quality and consistency. “This really becomes a source of pride for the franchisees,” Piotter says.

While the notion of on-premise baking may seem intimidating initially, there's not that much to it. “The process seems overwhelming at first but it can be done,” Piotter says. “It is a matter of being organized and planning ahead.”

The keys to managing the on-premise baking process successfully is developing a routine and allowing plenty of room to work, Piotter says. When allocating space for the oven and proofer, be sure to place them out of a high-traffic area. “It makes for an easier process and more efficient operation,” she adds. In many instances, this means the bread is baked out of the customers' line of sight, but that should not be a deterrent.

“You still have the aroma of the bread and we inform customers we bake bread on-premise through our signage,” Piotter says.

From a maintenance perspective, the biggest concern is the proofer's pan misters. If they are hooked up to a hard water line, the operator will need to check them regularly to ensure they are working properly. Occasionally, operators will need to verify temperature and humidity levels are correct in the oven and proofers, too. Otherwise, Cousins staffers use a shop vac to clean crumbs and cornmeal from the bottom of the proofers and ovens.

In addition to creating a more desirable atmosphere for customers, the other main benefit of baking on-premise is a financial one. “We are able to control costs because you bake what you use,” Piotter says.

Key E&S for Sandwich Production

Prep tables Range tops Conventional ovens Convection ovens Conveyor ovens Flat-top griddles Tabletop griddles Grills Salamanders Blade slicers High-volume pendulum slicers Blade slicers Tomato slicers Lettuce shredders Refrigerated sandwich tables Conveyor sandwich line Conveyor sandwich wrap machine Tumble marinater Blast chiller Walk-in cooler Wire shelving Undercounter coolers Vacuum-sealing machine Cellophane Plastic bags Paper wrap Plastic serving baskets Serrated knives Color-coded cutting boards

Another concept helping feed consumers' hunger for fresh ingredients is New York City's ‘wichcraft. This store is the brainchild of Tom Colicchio, notable chef and co-owner of Craft Restaurant and Gramercy Tavern, who brought together classically trained Chef Sisha Ortuzar and Jeffrey Zurofsky in 2003 to help create a distinctive, upscale sandwich concept. The result, “‘wichcraft,” features innovative sandwich combinations that were an immediate hit with New York City customers. At ‘wichcraft, the roast beef sandwich with grilled red onions, radish slaw and black pepper aioli on ciabatta is slow-roasted Niman Ranch beef, and other meats used in ‘wichcraft sandwiches such as roasted turkey, chicken and slow-roasted pork are antibiotic- and hormone-free. The grilled cheese sandwich, a perennial lunchtime favorite, receives a gourmet twist at ‘wichcraft, where cheese sandwich lovers may choose from grilled Gruyère and caramelized onions on rye or grilled cheddar with smoked ham and quince on pumpernickel. Whenever possible, the company buys ingredients from small producers and the green market, with breads provided by local artisanal bakeries.

Currently, ‘wichcraft operations include walk-up and delivery service from three stores, with support and catering prep provided by a central production kitchen attached to one of the ‘wichcraft stores located in The Terminal Building in the rapidly developing, far-west-side Chelsea area in Manhattan.

‘wichcraft's efficient 6,000-square-foot production kitchen is similar in layout and equipment configuration to any well-designed restaurant kitchen, but with a couple of variations specific to its sandwich prep support capabilities. The kitchen hot line consists of an eight-burner range top with conventional ovens beneath, a gas grill and two double-stacked convection ovens. The center of the kitchen area is dominated by a custom 20-foot by four-foot, stainless island prep table that includes a built-in double compartment sink and six undercounter refrigerators on each side, as well as convenient storage for bowls, pans and equipment items such as a heavy-duty immersion blender used for prep of soups, sauces and condiments. Adjacent to the prep table is another stainless worktable area, holding an electric tabletop griddle and a machine for vacuum-sealing prepared product. Prepared and portioned produce, specialty condiments and meat products are vacuum-sealed in the appropriate grade of plastic bag, and stored on wire shelving units in the kitchen's walk-in refrigerator, along with soups and salad dressings in plastic containers, prior to delivery as needed to store locations. “More and more foodservice operations are utilizing vacuum sealers for refrigerated storage of pre-prepared products,” Ortuzar comments. “This method currently provides the best way to retain freshness and flavor in prepared foods, and although we do store some product in traditional air-tight plastic receptacles, the vacuum-sealed bags conserve our available storage space in the cooler.” The walk-in cooler is designed for efficient workflow, with one door accessible to the production kitchen and another door providing access for deliveries at a street-side loading dock. As product is needed for store service or catered functions, it is loaded into color-coded plastic bins inside the cooler for transport in refrigerated ‘wichcraft vans.

While soups, salads, ice cream, and cookies and other baked goods are prepared daily in the production kitchen and delivered to locations along with ingredients, the sandwich assembly for ‘wichcraft patrons is done to-order on-site at store locations, requiring a separate and compact battery of efficient prep and storage equipment. In Midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park, ‘wichcraft moved into a group of four pre-existing kiosks in June ‘05, serving their menu of soups and salads, ice cream, coffee and pastries, and sandwiches, each segment served from a designated kiosk. Key equipment items supporting the assembly and final prep in the sandwich kiosk include a five-foot sandwich table with two salamanders mounted on the wall above it, custom stainless cabinetry to hold four panini-type sandwich presses with two sets of refrigerated drawers installed below, and a worktable where staff busily wrap sandwiches in paper and cut them angled, with serrated knives for service. Two slimline reach-in refrigerators store ingredients and bottled beverages and a well-insulated, refrigerated glass-fronted display case holds some cold sandwiches stored on trays with mesh screens to enhance air circulation.

What the operator looks for when making a purchasing decision:

  • While cost is generally an important consideration in equipment purchasing decisions, operators also cite durability and reliability of equipment as the No. 1 quality they look for when considering foodservice equipment purchases.
  • Equipment serviceability is also a major concern for foodservice operations, in terms of technician support, and cost and ready availability of replacement parts. Chef Sisha Ortuzar says that when purchasing out-front equipment for ‘wichcraft locations, some imported equipment was considered for aesthetic reasons, but questions about serviceability overrode the pleasing design qualities in this case.
  • Operators also look at the functionality of a piece of equipment as it relates to the requirements of food production volume, and the footprint needed for installation. “In our operation, we want equipment that I would compare more to a Mini Cooper than a Humvee,” comments Ortuzar.

“We work with our rep from a local dealership to supply our ‘wichcraft equipment packages. Our rep does a lot of research on equipment for us and he understands what the best piece of equipment might be to fit our needs,” Ortuzar says. “We want our equipment to be durable, easily serviceable and to be well-designed and provide functionality within a compact footprint — like a Mini Cooper rather than a Humvee. We have plans to open two more ‘wichcraft stores this year, and up to six next year, so we need equipment that is flexible in size and configuration to fit into the different footprints in any location we may open.”

Rammy's Sub Contractors is the brainchild of Michael Hrametz, known as Rammy, who combined his experiences in construction and foodservice to realize a dream of opening his own sandwich shop offering high-quality oven-baked submarine sandwiches in a unique, casual, construction-themed-store interior design. For example, food shields designed by Hrametz incorporate supports made from 18-inch lug wrenches, sometimes used as clips for special menu items offered, or for letters and comments that the stores have received from customers. The first Rammy's opened in 1998 in Wheeling, Ill., and was strictly a take-out shop, but word-of-mouth soon had crowds snaking out the door and waiting on the curb outside to grab one of the store's subs. After opening three larger shops in the intervening years, Rammy's Sub Contractors is now moving into franchise operations, currently focusing on Illinois, with plans to move into surrounding states.

“We've had to learn some lessons about our equipment choices since we first opened,” Hrametz says. “For example, the first refrigerated sandwich tables that we purchased, a key piece of equipment in our operation, turned out to be unreliable and extremely difficult to clean. We ended up just getting rid of those particular tables since we found tables that proved to be more functional, and better designed for easy cleanup. We tell our franchisees that we've already made our equipment mistakes, and now we know what works and what doesn't.”

A back-of-the-house prep area at newer Rammy's shops, where sub ingredients are prepped daily, includes a walk-in cooler, prep table, tomato slicer and high-speed slicer for meats and cheeses. “Our choice of the slicers we use now at Rammy's has evolved to include a model that incorporates more safety features,” Hrametz comments.

Subs at Rammy's are “constructed” for customers on the store's front-of-the-house prep line. Equipment found in this area includes two refrigerated sandwich tables on two sides of the sandwich prep line with deep drop-in wells to provide the necessary volume capabilities for service. One four-foot table at one end of the line holds sliced meats and cheeses for sub assembly, after which the sub sandwich is placed on a belt for cooking in a five-foot conveyor oven. Then, toppings such as chopped veggies or condiments are added to sandwiches at a five-foot sandwich table and served to customers in plastic baskets. A tabletop steam well unit holds some special hot menu items, such as Italian meatballs. Other equipment found in the front-line service area includes a vertical chip bag holder designed by Hrametz that provides a “first in, first out” service, and a new six-gallon shake machine that automatically switches on to a 175 °F. pasteurization mode at night and then refreezes product for service. “We had a shake machine that had to be cleaned every night, but this model requires cleaning every two weeks, and actually locks you out if you don't clean it at that time. The machine provides our customers with a high-quality ice cream product, and provides us with a labor-saving low-maintenance operation,” says Hrametz.

“The conveyor ovens at Rammy's really need to be durable since they are constantly working, sometimes turning out over 400 sandwiches in a couple of hours,” says Hrametz. “At two of our busiest locations, we have one more back-of-the-house conveyor oven working to handle take-out business, and we have a repair service on-call for service to those ovens, who carry replacement parts, such as oven switches that may occasionally burn out.”

Besides a reputation for high academic standards and a winning football team, The University of Notre Dame has always maintained a tradition of high-quality dining as part of campus life. A decade ago, when faced with modern challenges such as mounting labor costs and labor shortages, an increased demand for greater variety, and the need for special baking capabilities to continue providing high-quality, fresh-baked goods including breads for sandwiches, David Prentkowski, director of dining services at Notre Dame, and his team developed and built a centralized food production facility, located adjacent to warehouse space on the University's South Bend, Ind., campus. Opened in 1997, the 38,000-square-foot facility includes a full bakery, butcher shop, cook-chill production, and different prep stations for deli and produce cutting and slicing, as well as sandwich production and packaging lines. The facility was designed with growth in mind, equipped with high-tech equipment that can provide high-volume flexibility, with many pieces mounted on casters so they can be wheeled into place as needed and moved to a centralized sanitation area for cleaning.

“Initially, plans were for the production facility to provide only grab ‘n go sandwich production for dining halls on campus, but the facility has expanded its sandwich menu support to include more upscale sandwiches for branded satellite retail concepts on campus, such as the café in the performing arts center, along with prep work for sandwiches served at numerous catered functions,” explains John Glon, general manager of the foodservice support facility at Notre Dame. “We've also been licensed to provide sandwiches for Starbucks on campus, as well as sandwich bread prep for Subway, which involves a strict adherence to ingredients and recipes unique to those concepts. Obviously, we need flexibility to provide proper support for all these different sandwich identities found on campus.”

Suppliers should be aware:

  • Honesty is appreciated. “The main thing I want from suppliers when deciding on an equipment purchase is complete honesty about the durability of the equipment,” says John Glon, G.M., Notre Dame Foodservice Support Facility. “For example, high-tech equipment incorporating digital controls may or may not be able to stand up to cold room operation and regular cleaning and sanitizing procedures.”
  • References are appreciated. “We like to know who else may be using a piece of equipment that we are considering for purchase, and it's a plus if we can visit a site and/or speak to people about how equipment is really working for them, “says Glon.
  • Support is greatly appreciated. “We need to know about technicians who can support service for equipment, or if our staff technicians can be trained to provide support. We also need to know exactly how the equipment works, and what other equipment works in conjunction with it. Demo tapes are great,” continues Glon. “Also, support with the installation and start-up of equipment is something we really need from our suppliers.”

Staff perform various ingredient prep and assembly tasks in different cold room areas in the food production facility. Produce slicers and shredders prep produce for sandwiches in one designated cold room. A key piece of equipment found in the designated deli processing area is a highly specialized, computerized high-speed slicer capable of slicing 5,000 pounds of meat in a shift. And, according to Glon, if this item of equipment goes down, the whole production operation could stop. A more standardized slicer is also used in this area for some meats and cheeses. Some other specialized equipment used in the production area to prepare tasty meats for sandwiches includes a smoker and a tumble marinater. The marinater works by providing a vacuum to pull marinade into the meat and can season 200-pound batches in about 20 minutes. After marination, meats are roasted in the hot line area of the production kitchen and then are blast-chilled prior to slicing.

Some prepped sandwich ingredients come together on a conveyor-style sandwich assembly line, used to assemble and then package over 2,000 grab ‘n go sandwiches a day for service in Notre Dame dining facilities. Labeling for sandwiches is provided either by large volume through the packaging machine, or added later by hand for smaller volume sandwiches and salads provided to branded retail outlets. “We were actually able to see both the sandwich assembly conveyor line and the computerized slicer in action at Purdue University before we decided to purchase them for our production facilities,” Glon says, “and this was helpful to us in making our equipment purchasing decision.”

While the production facility assembles and packages many sandwiches for dining services on campus, they also provide vacuum-sealed sliced and prepped sandwich ingredients for assembly on-site at some locations. “The vacuum-sealing machine is instrumental for us in providing ingredients for some satellite dining units. The plastic bags that we use can be opened and closed as needed when stocking the sandwich tables at those locations,” Glon says.