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Battle for Bites: How Subway, McAlister’s Deli, Jersey Mike’s Subs and Other Sandwich Franchises Mix Good Health with High Fat

by Franchise Chatter on June 12, 2016

in Franchise Chatter Guides, Sandwich Franchise

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Subway Sandwich Photo by Fred @ SG

Sandwich Franchises Aim to Get Healthier

Sandwich franchise customers don’t just want to “eat fresh” anymore.

In many cases, they also want to consume healthy ingredients that are free of fat, glutens, antibiotics and other additives. Taste matters, too. Consequently, sandwich shop chains are revamping their menus and changing the way they do business.

But old habits die hard and consumers are fickle. Consequently, some franchises are still serving sandwich fare that might make a heart surgeon cringe – and enjoying considerable success.

Subway at Forefront of Menu “Healthification”

Subway’s famous “eat fresh” slogan put the onus on sandwich and other fast-casual food chains to serve fresh ingredients. Now, the world’s largest sandwich franchise is at the forefront – but not necessarily by choice – of a menu “healthification” that is evolving rapidly throughout the sandwich franchise sector.

Under a nine-year process, Subway will switch to antibiotic-free meats and remove artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives from its menu by 2017. Subway has already revised its bread recipe after FoodBabe.com blogger Vani Hari, who is considered a “food activist,” waged a successful campaign in 2014 to end the chain’s use of the additive azodicarbonamide in its buns.

Hari noted that azodicarbonamide is also used in yoga mats and shoe rubber.

“North Americans deserve to truly eat fresh — not yoga mats,” wrote Hari, who launched an online petition that received more than 50,000 signatures, according to the Huffington Post.

But as the online publication noted, McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, among other chains, have also used azodicarbonamide. Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines on food and health safety for corporations permit its use.

Nevertheless, the damage to Subway’s image was done. Now, ironically, the chain that stood out as the model of healthy sandwich-making is fighting the perception that its food might not be so good for you after all. Subway, has also introduced new menu items, such as a turkey sandwich, to bolster declining sales, but some food industry watchers consider the changes insufficient.

“While Subway remains a top choice for many consumers who love its range and competitive pricing, other consumers have become bored with the offering,” Neil Saunders, CEO of retail consulting firm Conlumino, told Business Insider in May 2016. “This is especially true of younger millennials who prefer a more diverse range of options, including salads and healthier choices.”

Subway’s menu-related troubles have been compounded by the firm’s rapid expansion, which led to market saturation, limiting its ability to open new stores in 2015 without closing others.

The chain’s business was also hurt by the sexual-abuse scandal involving former spokesman Jared Fogle, who was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for having sex with minors and receiving child pornography. Fogle, whose promotional activities included appearing on NFL game TV broadcasts, lost more than 200 pounds while eating the restaurant’s sandwiches and played a key role in the chain’s success, burnishing its image a provider of healthy food.

(Incidentally, Fogle has reportedly put on a considerable amount of weight since he was put behind bars.)

Despite its woes, Subway’s efforts to provide healthy food are scoring high among consumers. Market Force Information research conducted in January 2016, based on a survey of 10,477 respondents across the U.S., shows that Subway ranks first for healthy food, along with Panera Bread, in the sandwich franchise category. Both chains received a score of 67 percent; however, Subway ranked eighth for overall food quality and also lagged in store cleanliness.

New Chicken Sandwich Has No Antibiotics

As part of its long-term plan to use meats without additives, Subway has added a new chicken sandwich that is the chain’s first without antibiotics.

According to Subway, the new rotisserie-style chicken sandwich does not contain any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, either. The chain has also pledged to do away with antibiotics in all of the chicken it serves in the U.S. by December 2016.

According to Fortune magazine, Subway will also transition to turkey raised without antibiotics over the next two to three years, while the pork and beef phase will be completed in 2025. The later arrivals of antibiotic-free pork and beef is due to the fact that swine and cattle take longer to mature, resulting in a longer transition period.

“We are looking at all our menu items and ingredients and looking at how we can make those ingredient lists cleaner so customers can understand what’s in their food,” Lanette Kovachi, Subway’s global dietitian, told reporters in New York City.

Subway also intends to remove all artificial colors and flavors from its entire menu by year-end 2016.

McAlister’s Deli Rates as Favorite Sandwich Shop

According to Market Force Information’s January 2016 quick-service restaurant survey results, McAlister’s Deli (70 percent) is consumers’ favorite sandwich shop while Firehouse Subs (69 percent) ranked second and Jersey Mike’s Subs (67 percent) rounded out the top three.

But no single brand dominated in key areas like quality food, healthy food, fast service, friendly service, and value. For instance, Jason’s Deli ranked first in food quality, winning 72 percent of respondents’ approval, while Firehouse placed second (70 percent) and McAlister’s took third with 69 percent. Meanwhile, Firehouse took top honors for friendly service and cleanliness, but finished no better than second in other areas.

Notably, no pure sandwich shop was chosen No. 1 for value. That honor went to convenience-store chain Wawa, a result which indicates it will put pressure on sandwich shops, according to Market Force International.

In findings that may reflect positively and negatively on menu quality, the Market Force survey showed that 39 percent of customers visited a sandwich chain in the past five days, but only 11 percent brought children on their visit.

Shops Serving Smaller Sandwiches

Bigger is not necessarily better anymore in the sandwich franchising sector.

Some chains have begun offering choices in sandwich size in a bid to demonstrate their dedication to helping customers improve their eating habits.

In January 2016, McAlister’s Deli highlighted its “Lite Choose Two” menu offering, which includes a wide variety of options all under 600 calories. Customers were given the option of choosing from more than 250 pairings of two-portion entrees such as a half-sandwich, salad, potato and cup of soup. As part of the program, McAlister’s offered a new southwestern-style vegetable soup containing tomatoes, onions, black beans and roasted corn with cumin and coriander.

The chain highlighted several low-calorie combinations, including its southwest turkey melt and southwest veggie soup (500 calories); smoky pepper jack turkey griller and fire-roasted vegetable soup (460 calories); grilled chicken caesar wrap and fire-roasted vegetable soup (470 calories); and the Memphian hot sandwich and Savannah chopped salad (570 calories).

In another example of going small and trying to emphasize health, Pita Pit has rolled out smaller pita-bread portions. In some locations, the chain has paired the smaller pitas with fruit smoothies, Patrick O’Dell, Pita Pit’s director of brand marketing, told Nation’s Restaurant News in January 2016. The larger pita spans about eight inches while the smaller one comprises six inches.

“Just to offer a second size is important,” said O’Dell. “We’re giving the customer the opportunity to choose a healthier and lighter path, while at the same time not sacrificing flavor.”

Small Bites Lead to Bigger Sales

Perhaps taking the get-small movement to the extreme, Arby’s introduced five varieties of mini-sandwiches – or sliders – in 2015.

The move, which was designed to capitalize on a rise in snacking and customers’ desire to buy smaller portions at a lower cost, proved to be quite successful.

As Nation’s Restaurant News reported: “Arby’s didn’t just sell a ton of sliders the first month they were introduced. They sold 2,900 tons of them.”

After introducing the sliders on August 31, 2015, the publication noted, Arby’s had sold 29 million of them, including 1,494 on one day alone at a Jasper, Ala., outlet.

As Nation’s Restaurant News also noted, those figures translate to almost a million little sandwiches sold per day. As a result, Arby’s surpassed 100 million slider sales by February 2016 and parent company Arby’s Restaurant Group Inc., credited the “the right combination of great food, excellent service and breakthrough marketing” for contributing to its best same-store sales growth in two decades in 2015.

Still Plenty of Fat in the Middle

There is still plenty of fat, in certain cases, in sandwich filling.

While offering some sandwich options that are smaller in size and lower in fat and calories, chains are providing other items that are big on bites, calories and fat. For instance, Firehouse Subs outlets pride themselves on their large sandwiches, and Capriotti’s sells oodles of the Cran-Slam club, a triple decker on sliced white or wheat bread, not a sub roll, that combines turkey with “so-so sliced ham, cranberry sauce and lettuce,” according to a 2015 USA Today review.

But the Cran-Slam is dwarfed by the McAlister’s club sandwich, a 13-layer concoction that includes turkey, ham, smoked bacon, Swiss cheese and sharp cheddar.

The point?

Sandwich chains appear to have no trouble selling big sandwiches in this era of health consciousness in the fast-food sector. And, while some chains are emphasizing their healthy offerings, they are also selling items that would could infuriate cholesterol watchers.

Sandwich chains scored poorly in an early-2016 Health Grove survey that assessed the nutrient scores of the unhealthiest items at 40 fast-food restaurant chains. While HealthGrove often rates specific items like burgers and chicken servings, this survey spanned various food items, and sandwiches were among the highest in fat content.

Jersey Mike’s Buffalo chicken cheesesteak received the third-worst mark among sandwich chains, earning a D-minus. That Jersey Mike’s offering was found to have 1,770 calories and 79.5 grams of fat.

Rated among the healthier items, Subway’s sausage pizza sandwich weighed in at 820 calories with 34 grams of fat. It barely beat Arby’s turkey bacon cheddar sandwich, which was found to contain 800 calories and 34 grams of fat. Both the Subway and Arby’s items received D grades.

Using ESHA Research, HealthGrove calculated the nutrient scores for the food items in its database using an algorithm whose output increased if a food was a good source of vitamins and minerals, and decreased if a food was high in sodium, cholesterol, trans fat, or other nutrients rated as unhealthy by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Chains Counting Calories

Sandwich franchises have started to count calories – but not by choice.

Starting in April 2017 – or thereabouts, depending on whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduces another delay – sandwich chains, and all other fast-food restaurants with more than 20 outlets will be required to list the amount of calories in each menu item.

The new rules are contained in U.S. healthcare legislation passed in 2010. The revised regulations were not implemented until 2014 and the FDA has revised deadlines for invoking calorie counts on a number of occasions.

Subway was an early adopter of the new rules and introduced calorie counts on all of its menu boards in April 2016.

“For years it has been a priority for Subway sandwich shops to share full nutrition information with our guests so they can make more informed meal choices,” Subway dietitian Lanette Kovachi said in a news release.

“We take pride in offering our guests a wide variety of fresh, made-to-order sandwiches and salads while providing the information that allows them to get the meal that best meets their needs. We want consumers to know the calorie value of our sandwiches and salads, but we also want them to know that many of our menu items contain quality calories and are packed with beneficial nutrients from whole grains, lean meats and the wide range of vegetables we serve.”

Other chains are expected to follow Subway’s lead in the near future. If requested, chains will also have to provide more information in writing on total calories and calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein.

Franchises Want to Keep Serving After Lunch

In decades past, sandwiches were typically about the meal between breakfast and dinner. Lunch.

And, whether served in kids’ school lunchboxes by mothers, or friendly uniformed servers in a name-brand location, a sandwich typically comprised two pieces of bread with meats and other ingredients in the middle. Usually, the bread came in sliced pieces, but times have changed – especially with sandwich franchises.

Pita Pit, which uses pita bread in its fare, makes one wonder if some erstwhile college professor will create a course that debates whether the chain’s products are sandwiches or wraps – and/or whether there is a difference between the two food forms. But Schlotzky’s has added some new twists by creating sandwiches with pretzels.

In March 2016, Schlotzsky’s launched seven new permanent menu items, including beef dip and grilled cheese sandwiches on soft pretzel rolls.

The Ultimate Grilled Cheese contains melted muenster, parmesan, provolone, and swiss cheeses, along with smoked bacon strips, avocado, and vine-ripe tomatoes. For dipping purposes, the sandwich is served with tomato-basil soup. The French Dip comprises shaved Angus roast beef topped with a trio of melted muenster, provolone and swiss cheeses and caramelized onions. It is served with French onion jus for dipping.

The permanent pretzel-based additions came after Schlotzsky’s launched a partnership with Auntie Anne’s, the world’s largest hand-rolled soft pretzel franchise, in fall 2015. The Schlotzsky’s moves are part of an ongoing effort to attract customers at other times than lunch.

In March 2015, the Austin, Texas-based chain introduced pasta items to to attract customers at dinnertime, and began testing breakfast offerings with Cinnabon, which is also owned by its Atlanta-based parent FOCUS Brands Inc.

“We feel it’s important to satisfy what guests are looking for, and they are clearly looking for a heartier meal and something a bit more than a sandwich, chips and a drink,” Schlotzsky’s chief marketing officer Mark Mears told Nation’s Restaurant News. “It’s important for us to offer a high quality, wholesome and hearty dinner item so they don’t have to go to a casual-dining restaurant.”

The pasta introduction followed efforts to revitalize older Schlotzsky’s restaurants.

“We’ve been on an evolution at Schlotzsky’s for several years, and we think we’re ready for a revolution,” Mears said. “That means expanding more into our dinner daypart.”

Like other fast-food franchise sectors, sandwich chains are also hoping that breakfast will be a big differentiator.

For all of May 2016, Subway offered a free six-inch breakfast sandwich with the purchase of any sub. Customers could choose from three egg-and-cheese varieties on grilled flatbread with either black forest ham, steak or Applewood bacon, as well as the usual vegetables.

Panera Bread and Blimpie are among sandwich chains that offer breakfast items, and it appears likely that several others franchise brands will go big on brekkie in coming years.

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