Bespoke Bowls

Exotic offerings such as Kaleidoscope’s salad rolls and poke bowls from Deli Lites (pictured) are enough to make the cheese sarnie feel woefully insecure

Subway co-founder Fred DeLuca had a simple secret to his success. “People like sandwiches. We don’t really overthink that one.”

Until now, there really was no need to overthink it. Nothing could beat the trusty format of two slices of bread and a tasty filling. Anyone who shunned the sandwich was, well, a bit out there.

But the tragic death of a teenager, following a severe allergic reaction after eating a Pret sandwich, has thrown an unwelcome spotlight on the sandwich.

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That’s not all. Consumer tastes are changing too. The Lunch exhibition at London’s ExCeL centre suggested we are increasingly a nation of sandwich-shunners. Among the multiple rows of exhibitors, it was surprisingly hard to find a sarnie. In its place were plenty of new formats looking to steal the sandwich’s crown.

Options ranged from salad rolls to trendy poke bowls. And the amount of buzz around these stands suggested they were far more than just a fad. Trang’s, a food group showcasing a Vietnamese-made bao bun, said it had been approached by more than one supermarket buyer at the exhibition. Following the excitement around the Sainsbury’s bao bun last year, it seems others are keen to get in on the act.

The flavours on show were equally exotic. Deli Lites put Moroccan and Italian twists on the Hawaiian poke bowl format. Kaleidoscope’s salad rolls – essentially a sushi-style format for salad – included flavour combos such as roasted sweet potato with red onion, tahini & chilli flakes. It was enough to make the cheese sarnie feel woefully insecure.

The message was clear: the sandwich has a fight on its hands. Consumers want to see retailers experimenting with new, exciting options in their food-to-go aisles.

That’s not to say the sandwich is dying. As a nation, we ate over 1.1 billion of them last year [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 25 February 2018]. Sandwiches accounted for 55% of all lunchbox occasions while their nearest rival – soup – had just over 5%.

It’s simply that today’s lunchers like to mix things up. The sandwich may always be king, but consumers don’t necessarily want to eat them every day. They also want to try poke bowls, bao buns and twists on sushi. Or they may be open to getting a taste of these world flavours in a sandwich format, if it offers something a bit different to the norm. All this was demonstrated by the 15 million extra lunchbox choices last year made because consumers “fancied a change” [Kantar Worldpanel].

So Subway’s founding principle may need a bit of revision today. People do still like sandwiches. But more than ever, this format requires plenty of thought.