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Depending on the region of the country, delis are merchandising and promoting panini, wraps, sliders and, of course, subs and traditional sandwiches like never before. They're adding new flavor combinations, making use of fresh baked bread, interesting sauces, fresh ingredients like bell peppers and watercress, and they're packaging sandwiches with a salad to make a statement. Panini programs may

Depending on the region of the country, delis are merchandising and promoting panini, wraps, sliders and, of course, subs and traditional sandwiches like never before.

They're adding new flavor combinations, making use of fresh baked bread, interesting sauces, fresh ingredients like bell peppers and watercress, and they're packaging sandwiches with a salad to make a “meal” statement.

Panini programs may have plateaued in some markets, but in other areas, the hot pressed sandwiches are still the rage.

“We see the panini category growing,” Terri Bennis, vice president of perishables at Kowalski's Market, St. Paul, Minn., told SN.

Indeed, panini sales at the nine-unit independent have shown double-digit increases in each of the past two years. “In some of our stores, sales are up 20%. It's not unusual to see eight or 10 people waiting for their panini to be done.” Meanwhile, Charleston, S.C.-based Piggly Wiggly Carolina is just getting a panini program underway.

“In the last three months, we've put panini in three stores, and we'll get them into more. We're looking at 20 other stores for it right now,” said Craig Inabinett, the 112-unit chain's director of deli-bakery operations.

“We're actually going through our whole sandwich program right now to see what we want to make permanent, and what we want in which stores.”

The chain heavily promoted a fresh, made-to-order sub sandwich program this winter.

“And now, for summer, we're promoting wraps with interesting ingredients like sundried tomatoes and spinach,” Inabinett said. “People are looking for more flavor and more variety. We have one of our chefs working on pairing different flavors together.”

Bennis at Kowalski's said she was surprised by how quickly Kowalski's customers gravitated toward a combo of sweet and savory. “One of our best sellers is turkey and Havarti with strawberry-rhubarb preserves. Another is turkey and Brie with cranberry-raspberry preserves.”

Inabinett said Piggly Wiggly Carolina started its sandwich overhaul basically by making a big thing this winter of its sub sandwich program “to build a base, to get people to know we do sandwiches.”

Now that warm weather is here, he's concentrating on wraps. “We'll start out with a club, and Italian, and a vegetarian one.” He added that customers want taste and quality, and so the delis are using an expanded palette of cheeses, instead of the standard American and Swiss. “For example, one of our best selling subs was brie and turkey with cranberry sauce. We'll do that in a wrap, too.”

Two other ideas Inabinett will implement this summer are promoting a flavor of the month and introducing a two-compartment package that holds a sandwich and a light side-salad — such as a green salad or fresh fruit salad — to make a meal, a healthy one. “People are thinking more about their health these days.” Mintel, a Chicago-based consumer research group, found in a recent foodservice study that “vegetarian dishes are often associated with health and wellness and this is among the factors driving some to at least occasionally choose ‘veggie’ options.”

That same Mintel research report cited data that could be good news for supermarket delis. The researchers found that almost three out of four (73%) sandwich shop customers believed that sandwiches from these shops are generally healthier than “regular fast food.”

What's more, consumers, spurred by cooking shows and the consumer media, are beginning to think creatively when they think of sandwich fillings. Martha Stewart's April issue of “Whole Living,” for instance, featured an entire section on recipes for meatless sandwiches such as white bean and escarole, and roasted beet and goat cheese on ciabatta bread.

When Kowalski's Market had a Spring Entertaining event that involved all fresh departments, its produce departments were grilling strips of portobello mushrooms in a grill basket and laying them on ciabatta rolls spread with goat cheese — certainly an eye-catching and taste-tempting choice that pushed the limits of traditional sandwich-making.

The convenience of a sandwich in this busy world is a given. It's a portable meal, but retailers and industry observers agree that “healthy,” “quality,” “fresh” and “variety” are crucial factors for sales success.

Kings Super Markets, Parsippany, N.J., is putting a new focus on its prepacked sandwich program, taking a strength the company already has “freshness” and underscoring it, according to Scott Zoeller, director of deli sales and merchandising.

“We're already known for freshness at Kings,” Zoeller said. “Our customers trust us for freshness. So, with merchandising the way we do, we're calling attention to it. People are time-starved and sandwiches are convenient, but quality also continues to be top of mind.”

Kings lets customers know via signage and by talking to them that their prepacked sandwiches are made fresh each day, sometimes twice a day.

Zoeller, like Bennis at Kowalski's, places tremendous importance on offering variety as well. Kings is bringing in the best breads every day from bakeries in New York City, and adopting gourmet sandwich recipes from the repertoire of its sister stores Balducci's.

Customers want choice. They don't want to buy the same thing every day.” Zoeller's revamping of the chain's sandwich program involves displaying nine to 16 varieties of sandwiches, prewrapped in see-through film. Each variety is put into a wicker basket and the baskets are displayed at eye level, and each basket sports a sign that calls out the variety and the ingredients.

“It makes it easy for the customer to see what we have. A man comes in and sees immediately a basket of Italian combos,” which are made on hefty rolls. At the same time, women scan the whole line of baskets and are apt to choose a smaller sandwich, perhaps with veggies on a ficelle, a longer, thinner baguette, Zoeller pointed out.

Kings' deli customer count has increased significantly since Zoeller turned the spotlight on sandwiches and on accoutrements such as chilled soups. Healthy salads such as edamame and tomatoes, mini fresh mozzarella balls with grape tomatoes, and julienned vegetables, line the shelf below the sandwiches

“Our lunch business is way up since we did this,” he said. Feeling that panini popularity is fading in the New Jersey and New York market, Zoeller is concentrating his efforts on cold, wrapped sandwiches on fresh baked bread that feature gourmet ingredients such as traditional French brie and artichoke pesto. That's not to say he isn't interested in offering hot sandwiches.

“In three of our stores, we're testing sandwiches that have been developed to be reheated in a Merrychef, an oven that uses a combination of technologies designed to heat food quickly, but also keep bread crusty and meat tender.”

Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., also just recently added three new varieties of hot sandwiches to its renowned sub sandwich program.

“We had a demand for hot sandwiches, thus the newer selections of chicken tender, Philly cheese [steak] and meatball subs,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the huge Southeastern chain.

Demand for sliders is heating up in Minnesota. In fact, these hot, tiny sandwiches are just about to get their day in the sun at Kowalski's.

“We're working on one now,” Bennis said. “Our catering department does a great slider with a high-grade ground chuck on a handmade onion roll, with a burgundy reduction. Sometime in the summer, we'll have a Slider Night to introduce them.” Bennis, like all the retailers SN spoke with, can see a bright future for the sandwich category in the supermarket deli.

Bennis called it one of the most creative categories in the deli “because you can pull so many interesting ingredients together easily.” Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, agreed.

“Sandwiches are wonderful profit centers. They don't require a major retrofit, can be customized to the nth degree, and appeal to every appetite and pocketbook,” Christison said, and then she described multi-wraps which she saw during her recent trip to Europe.

The multi-wrap is in the genre of small bites, similar to the slider. Basically, it's a wrap cut into thirds, and then mixed and matched with other wraps. So, each third has different ingredients, but all three are packaged together in a clear clamshell package. “Consumers love being able to make a meal out of sample-sized taste-treats,” said Christison. “The smaller-sized sliders, miniature, and finger sandwiches have captured the imagination and taste buds of adventurous eaters.”

Each year, Christison travels to Europe and, as part of her trip, she visits food retailers to see what's going on across the Atlantic. She always brings back ideas that sometimes are implemented in the popular Show & Sell Center, a main attraction at the annual IDDBA Seminar & Expo, held this week in Anaheim, Calif.

Often, what's popular across the Atlantic makes its way to the United States. Pretzelwiches, panini and open-faced broiled sandwiches are cases in point. Christison said the increase in whole grain and artisan breads, and unusual combinations of ingredients have turned sandwiches into “gourmetwiches.”

“The big switch up is that, in addition to an incredible variety of protein-based sandwiches, we're seeing more non-meat options and fillings that appeal to multiple tastes and cultural cuisines.” Melissa Abbot, director of culinary insights at The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., had much the same thought.

“There are fewer rules, so Korean kimchi will make its way onto a Mexican corn taco with sriracha sauce,” Abbott said. “Mediterranean spreads like hummus and baba ganoush are mingling with fresh farmers' market offerings, including artisan pickles, beets and carrots to cukes and garlic. “Sandwiches [in all their forms] are hot, definitely making a comeback,” Abbott said.