Sandwiches Remain a Deli Staple
How to make shopping for sandwiches a deli experience

Carol M. Bareuther

Make sandwich shopping an experience! That’s how one deli turned its original 1,300-square-foot space in Ann Arbor, MI, into one of the most sought-after sandwich destinations in America. Zingerman’s Delicatessen even received a celebrity sandwich customer in 2014 when Barack Obama walked in, ordered the top-selling Zingerman’s Reuben, and gave it his presidential seal of approval. The Reuben is made with thick layers of sliced corned beef, Swiss Emmental cheese, locally- sourced sauerkraut and house-made Russian dressing, all on hand-sliced, grilled Jewish Rye bread from Zingerman’s Bakehouse. The deli makes more than 50,000 Reubens annually, plus boasts a menu of nearly 40 sandwich selections based around beef, chicken, fish, pastrami, pork, turkey and even vegetarian, with brined tempeh substituting for corned beef in the Rucker’s Raucous Reuben.

The secret to success isn’t just about the quality and quantity of what goes between two slices of bread in Zingerman’s made-to-order sandwich program, according to Rodger Bowser, chef and managing partner. “Our customers are looking for the Zingerman’s Experience. They want a full-flavored experience that they are going to tell their friends about. Plus, we have an iconic style of artwork that is fun, bold, high-energy and action-oriented. We have animated cartoon dancing sandwiches, pickles and all sorts of animals doing fun and crazy things with sandwiches and food. We use these cartoons on painted posters in our store, on murals on our restaurant walls, on our packaging and T-shirts and throughout all of our digital designs like menus and marketing materials. We also love photos of our sandwiches. While we have a style that we use ourselves, we also love sharing fan pics from Instagram.”


Food historians say the sandwich got its start in 1762, when John Montagu, Great Britain’s 4th Earl of Sandwich asked for his roast beef to be tucked into two pieces of bread so he could continue at the gaming table without leaving or dirtying his hands or cards. However, according to the 2003-published Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, Montagu didn’t start but instead brought home the idea. During his travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, he saw the Greeks stuffed pitas with meats and vegetables to serve at their mezes.

Origin aside, Americans have embraced the sandwich and eat some 300 million daily. More specifically, while unit or volume sales of several fresh items declined in 2022, deli sandwiches remained a strong performer. In Deli Prepared, sandwiches ranked fourth, behind entrees, prepared meats and salads, with sales of $3.3 billion, up 12.2% in dollars, over the 52 weeks ending on Jan. 29, 2023, according to IRI data in the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) What’s In Store 2023 report.

“Traditional ham, turkey, roast beef, chicken and salami sandwiches continue to be staples today, but we’re seeing some consumer fatigue,” says Megan Ward, senior brand manager for retail sales at Hormel Foods, headquartered in Austin, MN. “Consumers are seeking new creative options to spice up the traditional deli sandwich. Creative options could include things such as new toppings (like avocado/guacamole, flavored aioli, fresh herbs, roasted vegetables) or carriers (flatbread, focaccia, baguette, lettuce wrap).”

There are four top sandwich trends mayonnaise-maker Hellmann’s is focused on this year, according to Mico Mendoza, senior category manager for the brand owned by Unilever US, based in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. “These are healthy options (focused on grilled meats and veggies), bold and/or spicy flavors, vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options (including more plant-based meats and veggie-based sandwiches), and Latino influences (e.g., Cuban sandwiches, Mexican cheeses, chipotle honey).

Health and trending diets are a great focus for deli sandwich programs, says Karen Toufayan, vice president of marketing for Toufayan Bakeries Inc., in    Ridgefield, NJ. “Providing vegetarian and other specialty-focused offerings can grow consumer loyalty. Our newest Keto line includes wraps, pita and flatbreads, providing deli operators with multiple sandwich bread options to fulfill a consumer request.

For consumers, the trend for premiumisation is here to stay.

“Previously, shoppers were elevating their meals at home because they couldn’t travel or dine out in the pandemic,” says Neil Pittman, U.S. sales director at UK-based St Pierre Bakerys. “Now that the cost of living is on the up, consumers are still looking to treat themselves well at home. This is backed up by the data, too – with ‘speciality rolls’ sales growing 22% in the last year and ‘brioche’ as a category growing at 20%, according to recent Nielsen data.”

Another category benefitting from shopper demand for more premium offerings is ‘Speciality Rolls’, which is up 22% and perhaps more impressively 14% in volume, Nielsen reports,” Pittman says. “It’s one of the only subcategories to be showing positive volume growth.”

Last year also saw the launch of St Pierre’s first-to-market Brioche Bagel product – another subsector of bakery showing growth in both value and volume.

“As a brand, we are offering upgraded versions of bakery staples and reinvigorating the choice consumers have in ‘sandwich breads’,” Pittman says.

Last year, Kontos Foods introduced a garlic flavor to its Greek Lifestyle Flatbreads.

“It has half the carbs and twice the protein of regular flatbread,s and the garlic flavor has been well received,” says Warren Stoll, marketing director for the Paterson, NJ-headquartered company.

Bread alternatives for sandwiches are trending in airport dining, a place where diners are looking for the familiar during hectic travel yet are open to experimentation, says Liz Einhorn, founder and CEO of Philadelphia, PA-headquartered Experience Three, a hospitality and growth strategist, trend forecasting and concept development company. “We’re seeing bell peppers cut in half and made into a sandwich, sweet potato toasts and lettuce wraps.”

Be sure to have plenty of spicy flavors for consumers today, recommends Mike Kostyo, trendologist and associate director of Chicago-based Datassential, “or compound spicy flavors like hot honey or mango habanero, which consumers continue to gravitate to.”

Deli operators up the flavor on sandwiches by using products like Hellmann’s Spicy Mayonnaise Dressing and Sandwich Spread, a spicy mayo made with red jalapeño and cayenne pepper, says Mendoza. “We also have Hellmann’s Real Ancho Chipotle Sauce, which is a creamy blend of smoky chipotle and mild, sweet ancho chili peppers.”

Sandwich fillings like cheeses are another way to deliver more flavor.

“Our creamy Crescenza cheese makes a tasty sandwich spread when topped with fresh arugula and sliced prosciutto. Our crumbly Gorgonzola is delicious topped onto a spicy, crispy chicken sandwich on sweet buns,” says Sofia Auricchio Krans, a fifth-generation cheesemaker at BelGioioso Cheese, Inc., in Green Bay, WI. “Years ago, saying there was cheese in the sandwich was good enough. Now consumers want to name that cheese. Our products fit well for the deli because we offer loaf’s for slicing.”

Some of the cheesemaker’s newest products that fit well with deli sandwich programs are Asiago Loaf, Asiago Fresco Loaf, Fontina Loaf, Fresh Mozzarella Loaf, Smoked Mozzarella Loaf, Pepato Loaf, Pepperoncino Loaf, 12# Provolone Salame, Sharp Provolone and a Low Moisture Mozzarella Loaf.

Meatless offerings are on the rise. Case in point, the newest sandwich on Zingerman’s menu is the Soy Vey!, a vegan barbequed tempeh sandwich.

“People are eating more vegetarian and vegan options and, indeed, we frequently get requests for these types of items, but the volume of tempeh sandwiches we sell is a small fraction of the number of corned beef sandwiches,” says Bowser.

Hormel Foods continue to innovate within new protein varieties that work on sandwiches like its Happy Little Plants Plant Based Meatballs.

“Like in so many categories, we see global flavors driving many of the trends in sandwiches. We continue to see options like the banh mi, Asian-inspired wraps, Middle Eastern shawarma wraps and pockets, and spicy Latin-inspired sandwiches growing on menus,” says Datassential’s Kostyo.

Adding a global influence and changing up a sandwich completely is as easy as swapping out one ingredient – the bread, says Kontos’ Stoll. “We offer more than 60 varieties of pita, flatbread and naan.”


When designing a sandwich program, Hellmann’s Mendoza says the factors that come into play include the availability of labor in-store to execute, perimeter/counter space for making sandwiches, and the store’s positioning and value proposition. For example, is it focused on convenience or more premium offerings?

“If the retailer has the labor available to execute made-to-order (MTO) sandwiches, this is where consumers can get the freshest options. Consumers today are seeking fresh, store-made options that they can customize and watch being created in front of their eyes. In-store signage is key to success as well as having availability online and for delivery. This is key for retailers to compete with quick service and fast-food restaurants,” says Hormel Foods’ Ward.

Hormel has been focused on innovating within format and flavor, thus creating ease for the retailer and excitement for the consumer, Ward adds. Examples include new pre-sliced varieties. The company is expanding with its Hormel BACON 1product, which is perfectly cooked bacon. It’s also creating a cooked-from-raw experience for the consumer, but without the pain points for the retailer.”

“Applewood smoked, wild cherrywood smoked and smoked peppered bacon can add that extra flavor to any sandwich, including clubs and BLTs,” says Allison Michels, marketing manager for Nueske’s, in Wittenberg, WI.

Kontos Foods makes made-to-order paninis easier for deli operators by offering its 8- and 9-inch flatbreads with grill marks.

“The deli can line 10 to 12 paninis up on a flat top, press down and heat. The grill marks are there. We also have mini 4-inch—by-6-inch oval flatbreads for soup and half sandwich programs,” says Stoll.

Whether MTO or grab-and-go (GNG), one area that should be represented in a deli sandwich program is chicken, particularly offering a wide range of chicken varieties, according to Datassential’s Kostyo. “Chicken is a consumer favorite that continues to drive several growing trends on menus, much of it driven by the evolution of the ‘chicken sandwich wars’ that drove renewed interest in chicken sandwiches at restaurants.”

Hellmann’s Mendoza recommends operators make a simple rotisserie chicken salad in-store by using rotisserie chicken from the deli and adding mayonnaise and celery. “The heat stability of Hellmann’s opens up a whole variety of applications to ‘Make Taste, Not Waste’, as well. Also, one of the benefits of our mayo is that it doesn’t sink into the bread. So, no soggy sandwiches, whether they’re made-to-order or pre-packaged.”

Pre-made and other prepared programs have a huge impact on where people buy and are becoming increasingly important to foodservice operators, according to Hellmann’s Mendoza. In fact, he says 78% of people say that shopping destinations’ prepared departments are an important factor in determining where they get their groceries.

“Pre-made sandwich programs enable deli operators to maintain a stock of curated fresh sandwiches with minimal in-store labor. These are often fully made and packaged or crafted into sandwich kits in upstream manufacturing facilities and then shipped to grocery retailers. With pre-made sandwich programs, deli operators can deliver consistent quality and taste to their consumers while increasing in-store operation efficiencies,” explains Irma Randles, global market manager for food service and fresh food packaging at ProAmpac, in Cincinnati, OH.

Packaging is an important component of GNG sandwich programs.

“Our fiber-based sandwich wedges feature a fully laminated film lining and a large window that offers moisture protection and product visibility to ensure freshness. The wedges, available in top-sealed and extended shelf-life options, also serve as a carrier to eat from, enhancing consumers’ eating experience while on the go. For operators, the wedges are lightweight with a flat-pack design for easy storage,” adds Randles.

ProAmpac’s RecycAll FreshPack is an all fiber-based wedge that has a thin translucent paper lining in place of conventional film lining. The new format can be easily recycled in paper streams in one step without separating the lining from the board.”

Cross merchandising meats, cheeses and condiments together in a refrigerated case, with breads showcased in the knee-knocker position, creates do-it-yourself (DIY) destination displays for shoppers to buy all their fixings to make sandwiches at home.

“Consumers are finding a lot of premium, interesting, global, flavor-forward sandwiches at restaurants featuring a range of meats, cheeses, veggies, carriers and condiments. The deli operator should make it easy for consumers to recreate those options at home, bringing ingredients together in the same area or in prepackaged options or meal kits. 


Made-in-store, a specialty signature sandwic, utilizing fresh bread from the retailer’s bakery, offering seasonal promotions, hanging signage calling out sandwich selections to pull customers in, catering options, remodeling a sit-down dining space and/or providing new-tech purchasing options like online orders with delivery and click and collect are all ways Hormel Foods’ Ward suggests delis can become sought-after sandwich destinations. There are also limited-time offers (LTOs) and meal deals.

“LTOs also bring a fresh spin to the menu, creating excitement and combatting menu fatigue. Whether it’s a pit-smoked pulled pork sandwich for summer or a cranberry turkey stuffing sandwich for the holidays,” says Ward.

Special menu items and LTOs are leading customer preference today, which is an important insight to keep in mind when updating menus and thinking long-term about ordering and sandwich creation, according to Hellmann’s Mendoza. “Also, 91% of people are interested in seeing LTOs or special menu items in their favorite grocery store.”

Meal deals, like a sandwich, beverage and sides like chips, pickles or behind-the-glass salad provide a complete solution and boost basket rings, too. So does a trendier option of offering sandwiches at multiple day parts like at breakfast.

Branding is key, too., says ProAmpac’s Randles. “Currently in the U.S., rigid plastic containers are typically used in delis for a variety of deli-prepared foods and sandwiches. While these packaging formats offer product visibility, there isn’t any differentiation between grocery retailers. Branding is key to differentiating a deli sandwich program from competitors and enabling retailers to offer a shopping destination for consumers.”

Finally, remember to make it an experience when customers shop at the deli for a sandwich. “Whether you have a small sandwich shop or a busy campus like ours that includes a specialty grocery shop and coffee and dessert cafe, make sure that you’re offering more than just sandwiches. Tell stories. Engage with your customers. Make them feel welcome and special. No matter what we do, even if it’s selling sandwiches, we always have the opportunity to be the best part of someone’s day.” 


Pickles are hot. Just check Tik Tok. There’s the ‘pickle in a blanket’ recipe, a slice of fried cheese wrapped around a crispy spear. There’s what’s called chamoy pickle kits, long a favorite in Hispanic communities where giant pickles are stuffed with spicy sweets and either wrapped in fruit leather or simply sprinkled in hot sauce and chili powder and eaten as a snack. Beyond that, there’s Pickle Juice Slush, Sonic Drive-In’s neon green beverage made of tart pickle juice and a sweet slush that was offered last summer as an LTO. The recent pickle craze has hit menus, too. In fact, 43.9% of restaurant menus surveyed in the second quarter of 2022 mentioned pickles or pickled ingredients, according to Chicago-headquartered foodservice market research firm, Technomic.

“Pickles in the deli section are huge for grab-and-go sandwiches. It’s the perfect combo,” says Alexis Ratliff, brand marketing specialist for Van Holten’s, in Waterloo, WI. “Our classic Dill Pickle-In-A-Pouch and Big Papa Pickle-In-A-Pouch are the most popular as these provide the classic cuke crunch that grab-and-go consumers are looking for. We’re also seeing a spike in our refrigerated Pickle Cutz line with the addition of Tapatio Pickle Cutz in 2022. These pre-sliced pickles make eating on the go a simple and dill-icious experience. Plus, the crinkle-cut slices add the perfect amount of crunch to any sandwich.”

What’s driving the power of pickles are health benefits. They are gluten-free, non-GMO, fat-free, vegan, clean label and made from cucumbers, which are a vegetable, according to Patty Amato, retail sales director for Patriot Pickle, in Wayne, NJ. Single-serve pickle pouches are the top-growing SKUs. Our CRISP single-serve pickles are barrel cured without brine for mess-free snacking, and they’re individually hand-packed for easy lunch box, pocketbook, picnic basket, briefcase and beach cooler stashing.”

The company offers its original “OG”, plus flavor variations like Straight Fire, Slow Burn and Sweetness.

Heat is a common theme. The Yee-Haw Pickle Co., in Crusted Butte, CO, packs a whole habanero pepper in each 24-ounce jar of its Dam Hot Dills. The company also sells 16-ounce jars of Sweet & Spicy Stackers, which are spicy bread and butter pickles with honey. The Wild Dill Stackers call out that they are deli-style sandwich stackers right on the label.

“Our pickle sales have been up 20% year over year,” says Yee-Haw Pickle Co. founder, Andrew Cesanti. “We’ve noticed the clean ingredient panel has resulted in strong growth from conventional retailers too.”

Not only are pickles ideally cross merchandised with sandwiches, but the deli can also use pickles in place of bread to make low-carb and keto-friendly sandwiches, suggests Niki Toscani, dietitian and co-founder, with chef husband Mike, of the Fishtown Pickle Project, in Philadelphia, PA. The duo handcrafts small batch, refrigerator pickles in culinary-inspired flavors such as Zesty Sweet Garlic, Philly Dilly Deli and the Original Sour.

“Delis can wrap meats and cheeses around individual pickle spears. Or, take the wrapped spears, cut them crosswise in bite-sized pieces like pinwheels, and sell in a single-serve sandwich or snack containers to-go,” Toscani recommends. “Delis can also use any pickle juice in tuna salad, to brine chicken and make salad dressing. Doing this can decrease shrink and increase gross profits.”


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