The numbers paint a dim picture of how far consumer dollars aren’t going in current economic conditions: The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor said in its Consumer Price Index report that the food away from home index rose 0.9% in June after rising 0.7% in May. The index for full-service meals rose 0.8% over the month while the index for limited-service meals increased 0.7% percent in June, as it did in May.

The index for food away from home rose 7.7% over the last year, the largest 12-month change since the period ending November 1981. The index for full-service meals rose 8.9% over the last 12 months, and the index for limited-service meals rose 7.4% over the last year.

In its 2022 Global Food and Drink Trends report, trends and consumer research firm Mintel, Chicago, said consumers will be looking for ways to feel in control over their lives during times of economic uncertainty and ongoing concerns about health and wellness spurred by news of burgeoning COVID-19 cases. Still, consumers always are looking for ways to save time and money, and they are no less demanding of convenience, value and portability, according to Mintel.

“Having endured lockdowns, consumers are eager to break out of their confines and explore, play and embrace novel experiences,” Mintel said. “Consumers will be seeking joyful products that amplify the flavors, colors, textures, aromas and interactivity that food and drink can provide.”

As food price inflation takes a bite out of consumers’ budgets, it makes sense that leading sandwich chains developed new menus to deliver on the value pledge and showcase flavor innovation. After all, sandwiches appear on foodservice menus more often than other entrees because operators can easily adapt them to culinary – and economic – trends.

Epic refresh

Subway Restaurants launched the biggest menu update in the brand’s history in July 2021. The ‘The Eat Fresh Refresh’ featured more than 20 menu updates consisting of 11 new and improved ingredients, six new or returning sandwiches and four revamped sandwiches. The update was so significant the chain closed more than 10,000 Subway restaurants across the United States to prepare for the launch.

“Subway has been serving freshly made, customizable and better-for-you sandwiches for more than 50 years, and we wanted to give our guests more new and improved flavors,” Trevor Haynes, president, North America at Subway, said at the time of the launch. “Our new culinary team is delivering monumental updates to the entire core menu. The Eat Fresh Refresh makes Subway better than ever with freshly made, craveable and delicious sandwiches to excite new and returning guests.”

For its new signature sub, the Baja Steak & Jack, Subway opted for Latin flavors for the steak sandwich featuring the company’s refreshed steak recipe topped with spicy, pepper jack cheese, green peppers and red onions.

Most recently, Subway launched the Subway Series, a lineup of 12 all-new signature sandwiches that consumers can order by name or number. Subway divided the sandwiches into four categories (Cheesesteaks, Italianos, Chicken and Clubs) with three sandwiches each.

“The Subway Series is the most ambitious undertaking in company history, as we are changing the nearly 60-year-old blueprint that helped make Subway a global phenomenon,” Haynes said in July. “Last summer’s Eat Fresh Refresh laid the foundation to build a better Subway, and now the Subway Series enhances the entire Subway guest experience – proof that we continue to improve and get way better.”

The refresh strategy paid off; Subway ended 2021 with US sales exceeding company projections by nearly $1.4 billion and its highest annual system average unit volume (AUV) since 2014. And 75% of the system, representing more than 16,000 locations, produced a 7.5% increase in same-store sales in 2021, compared to 2019, despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, such as reduced operating hours.

Value and adventure

Peter Hastings founded Potbelly Sandwich Shop in 1977 to encourage shoppers browsing through his antiques shop in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park to stick around for a while. In 1996, he sold the business to Bryan Keil who grew the business from one location to 250 shops over a 12-year period. Today, Potbelly boasts more than 500 locations.

Like many foodservice operators, Potbelly is rebounding from pandemic-induced closures and slumping sales, and leadership credits a revitalized menu launched in August 2021 for the chain’s turnaround. Bob Wright, chief executive officer of Potbelly, said the company’s ultimate objective is to improve traffic and enhance the customer experience with Potbelly’s foods while driving customers’ perception of value.

“All of these objectives were validated in the testing phases in addition to increases in sales by both check and transaction growth,” Wright told analysts during an earnings call to discuss Q2 2021 financial results.

Wright explained that the menu simplification included consolidating the menu boards and offering a wider price ladder as well as other product enhancements like making each sandwich on the menu available in a ‘skinny’ variety in addition to half-size salads not included in Potbelly’s ‘Pick Your Pair’ offering.

“We also have more large-size options with more meat, cheese and toppings,” Wright said. “And we’re very excited about some of the new variety on the menu, including our new Avo-Turkey Sandwich and our new Steakhouse beef sandwich, among others.”

Potbelly CheesesteakPotbelly Sandwich Shop made the menu more approachable by offering different sizes and price points while maintaining high standards for quality. (Source: Potbelly Sandwich Shop)


Protein variety

In a blog about trends in sandwiches, US Foods, a leading broadline distributor, noted that “…flavorful chicken sandwiches are popping up everywhere.” This trend reflects signs that consumers are buying more poultry and ground beef and fewer cuts of beef. Foodservice operators in the deli segment are following suit while keeping other protein options on the menu for limited-time offerings.

As part of its menu refresh, Subway debuted its chef-recommended sandwiches that offer consumers familiar flavors such as the Turkey Cali Fresh, Steak Cali Fresh and All-American Club.

Additional ingredients that pack on the flavor and increase value include deli-thin sliced ham and turkey, hickory smoked bacon, avocado and premium cheeses.

Potbelly turned to the Mediterranean for flavor inspiration. The chain launched its Gyro Flat Sandwich in July as a limited time offering. The sandwich features lamb and beef gyro meat, topped with tzatziki sauce, crumbled feta, and fresh onion and tomato on flatbread and toasted.

“Potbelly is committed to delivering the highest quality, craveable sandwiches that satisfy any consumer palette. We are excited to keep the good vibes going this summer with the return of this fan favorite,” said David Daniels, chief marketing officer at Potbelly Sandwich Shop.

“This delicious sandwich is a slight twist on the classic Gyro and yet another great addition to our stellar lineup of hot, oven-toasted sandwiches.”