Specialty sandwiches can be a much needed boost to your menu
Not many businesses have such overlapping culinary footprints as pizzerias and sandwich places. Both have a base of wheat followed by cheeses, vegetables, proteins and even cold greens. Therefore, many pizzerias like mine were able to jump into the sandwich scene with a splash like a fat dude off the high dive. By researching hot sandwiches, training staff and adjusting existing infrastructure, I was able to start this new food item in our fifth year. We then began letting customers try the new lineup free or with deep discounts, and we bundled with pizzas to get customers addicted. I was all in on this new lineup because I knew that meekness would lead to lackluster sales and a failed plan, so I went big. But first, I needed mentorship.
Nearly 15 years ago, I sought sandwich help from professionals who had been in this business for a long time. I contacted Pizza Paul Nyland, Big Dave Ostrander and Pat Bruno, who always offered his sandwich support by saying stuff like, “John, that’s the stupidest sandwich I’ve ever heard of…” All three of these great guys said that to start a hot sandwich line, you must ask yourself a few questions, because…this is the way.
- Who would be my sandwich customers? How much would they pay?
- What hot sandwiches would appeal to these customers?
- What was my food cost on these sandwiches?
- Which sandwich shop nearby is the best, and what do they serve?
- How would I manipulate my operation and capital equipment to start a hot sandwich line?
These questions are answered differently depending upon the market you live in. I decided to make my own large round sandwich buns and slice them horizontally in three tiers, calling them “Boulders” (since my shop is named Avalanche.) My motive was that if I had to bring out a sandwich line, I would go for GLUTTANY! Yes, my target audience was young, ravenous and would love to eat a sandwich that was as big as their face. I was determined to stand out, make something incredible and charge a little extra for the hassle of making a huge hot sandwich while we were busy with pizzas.
The Sandwich: The best way to find out which hot sandwiches sell is to steal information from other sandwich makers. Menus are the open book into any food establishment. By seeing what specialty sandwiches other places have on their menus, you can get a great indication what customers are already buying. The flip side of this coin is to gauge what items they don’t sell that would make you stand out from that crowd of pizza/sandwich shops.
Bread: Most food purveyors have cooked or par-cooked buns, these usually come in frozen. These buns will cut into your food cost but may free you up from the dough labor. We started with pre-cooked buns but realized that .90 cents each was not sustainable. We now make our own buns with the same pizza dough modified with higher hydration, longer holding time as well as other secrets, (Message me for that stuff.)
Intertwine your Menu: The best way to make your sandwiches sing without driving yourself nuts is to use your existing food. Chicken, salami, pepperoni, ham, shredded cheese, tomato, sausage, banana peppers, jalapeño’s, beef, and meatballs are all great hot sandwich toppings. Wing sauce, Ranch, pestos, Gorgonzola, feta, Asiago, sliced provolone and even your proprietary pizza sauce are great finishes.
Infrastructure: What ovens are you going to make this hot sandwich with? Conveyors are good for consistency, especially when you have an oven staff that is less trained. Unfortunately, the adjustable entry and exit slots may only accommodate two inches for pizzas. You may have to adjust these (which will release more hot air into your pizzeria). Deck ovens without timers will place the baking process in the hands of your oven staff. This can raise consistency issues as these decks can burn the bottoms of buns while not melting the top cheese.
Other New Equipment: Your entry into the hot sandwich market may depend upon what your new equipment is. Panini sandwiches are popular with a certain segment of the population. Fast is king nowadays. How about using a hot pot usually used for soups to store a hot protein such as pulled pork and top the hot meat right on the bun? Super toasters can blast a bun and cheese with ease in just 60 seconds. You will need the room, the training and the clean-up.
By seeking out and grabbing your bit of sandwich history, you will be able to connect with your customers past and the taste profiles that they love. Here are a few iconic sandwiches from the past and the regions they are from.
Louisville: The Hot Brown — open faced with turkey, Mornay sauce (Béchamel or “Alfredo” with Gruyere chese) topped with tomato and bacon.
New Orleans: Muffuletta — round bread with cold cuts, melting cheese, giardiniera and chopped olives.
Omaha: Hot Corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and Russian dressing.
Philadelphia: Cheesesteak — seared thin sliced steak with melted cheese and optional “wit wiz” and “wit grilled onions.”
Chicago: Italian Beef — thinly sliced beef dipped in au jus (gravy) served on Italian hoagie, served “wet” (dipped) or with cheese and spicy giardiniera.
Here are a few others that I have found to be popular in pizza establishments like mine:
The Italian Meatball: Meatballs, marinara, mozzarella, provolone and Parmigiano baked to perfection.
The Italian: Salami, pepperoni, ham, turkey with cheese (all cooked hot in the oven) oregano, Italian dressing, mayo (sometimes) lettuce, pickles and tomato.
The Pesto Chicken: (An ode to Pat Bruno) Boneless chicken wings tossed in proprietary basil pesto, provolone, fresh mozzarella, pizza sauce, Parmigiano and fresh basil.
Hot Wing Sandwich: Buffalo wing sauce tossed with chicken, mozzarella, provolone, gorgonzola, baked in the oven then topped with Ranch and stabbed with a sharpened stalk of celery.
A Field Guide to preparing Meatballs
These secrets may save you time, hassles and ruined meatballs.
- They need lightness. Ricotta cheese is perfect for airy meatballs.
- All meatballs need fat. Ground chuck is perfect, as well as ground pork shoulder. Adding fat from charcuterie and bacon ends is even better so cut, freeze and save that stuff.
- Binding them is an art. Just enough egg and breadcrumbs are the key to keeping it all together. Panko breadcrumbs soak up and bind better than hard regular crumbs.
- The use of 2-3-4-ounce ice cream scoops helps immensely. Fill these only once to weigh a ball to specifications, then just use the scoop for the rest.
- Roasting is the most efficient way to cook meatballs. Braising in liquid tends to soak and weaken meatballs, sauté pans provide only bottom heat.
- Parchment rules. Butter and olive oil will burn the bottom of meatballs, parchment will eliminate the fat that caramelizes and burns under them.
- Heated meatballs with sauce on a bun will not seep through the bottom of the bread if you put a few slices of cheese under them. I prefer provolone for the flavor.
Pesto Super Chicken Meatball Submarine
Chicken meatballs are big now. This sub is very quick. The three chicken balls are heated in marinara and placed in a sub bun with provolone and fresh mozzarella. It is then heated to melt and topped with basil pesto, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and fresh basil.
Get the Pesto Super Chicken Meatball Submarine recipe.
JOHN GUTEKANST owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.