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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

Sandwich chains gobbling up other restaurants lunch

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
Lunch-time customers crowd Bellacino's Pizza and Grinders, at Huron and Adams streets. Lunch-time customers crowd Bellacino's Pizza and Grinders, at Huron and Adams streets.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Subway and Barry Bagels long have been mainstays in downtown Toledo.

But then came sandwich shops from Quiznos Sub and Jimmy Johns Gourmet Sandwiches, even as McDonald s closed its downtown doors.

Still, Tony Volpi, Sr., wasn t daunted. He opened a Bellacino s Pizza & Grinders franchise in the historic LaSalle building early last month.

The lunch-time crowds have since reinforced his decision to sign a 10-year lease.

We thought we would be busy, he said last week. We didn t quite expect to be this busy this soon.

Nationwide, a proliferating number of sandwich chains such as Quiznos and Panera Bread are offering specialty concoctions for around $5 on multigrain, panini, focaccia, or other breads that may be toasted or grilled.

In downtowns and suburbs nationwide, the sandwich chains are packing in lunch customers over traditional fast-food burger places, white-tablecloth restaurants, and midprice choices such as salad-bar buffets.

Bread is the key to a Bellacino s sandwich, Mr. Volpi said. The grinders are very popular because of the fact we bake our bread fresh every day.

Business also is good at the downtown Quiznos despite the growing list of competitors, said Bill McKisson, owner of the franchise store.

The Atkins diet frenzy slowed growth briefly, but the sandwich business is booming nationwide, with $105 billion in sales last year.

Chains grew at 6 to 8 percent, a rate twice that of fast food restaurants and the restaurant industry as a whole, said Joe Pawlak, an analyst at Technomic Inc., a restaurant industry research and consulting firm.

Denver-based Quiznos sales hit $818 million, up 33 percent, compared with 2002 s results. Panera, of St. Louis, had $977 million in sales, up 29 percent.

Sales at Subway, which now has more than 18,000 stores in the United States, rose 10 percent, to $5.7 billion.

Big city chefs are stoking the trend for specialized sandwiches.

In New York, Tom Colicchio, chef at the famed Gramercy Tavern, has opened Wichcraft, with a menu of 19 gourmet sandwiches, most priced at $9 and featuring ingredients such as marinated broccoli rabe, caramelized onions, and roast pork loin.

The concept has been adapted by the chains, which offer their own exotic combinations.

People want chef-driven sandwiches, said Scott Davis, senior vice president and chief concept officer for Panera Bread, which has menu offerings such as turkey artichoke panini.

In the old days, it was ham and cheese or a Reuben.

The industry has dubbed places like St. Louis-based Panera fast casual basically places that aim to be an improvement on fast food.

They offer fresh ingredients, prepared in front of the customers, with a nicer decor (and higher prices) than traditional fast-food restaurants.

They also encourage customizing of their sandwiches with a lengthy list of toppings, and bread that in many cases is toasted to heighten the flavor and texture.

Such fast casual shops are proliferating in the Toledo area and are taking business from fast-food restaurants, said Dave Long, a retail expert with CB Richard Ellis Reichle Klein in Maumee.

Pete Shawaker, a retail expert at the Toledo commercial firm Michael Realty Co., said sandwich shops are taking business from both ends of the restaurant spectrum, because like fast food they are quick but at the same time are more healthful.

Day in and day out, I think the sandwich shop proliferation is people taking shorter lunches, he said.

Multiple Panera, Quiznos, and Subway shops can be found in the Toledo area along with a smattering of outlets from other big chains, such as Blimpie and Schlotzsky s Deli, and local chains like Barry Bagels.

Another sandwich competitor, Atlanta Bread Co., is looking for franchisees in the Toledo area, a spokesman for the Smyrna, Ga., company said.

Atlanta Bread probably will open Toledo area stores within a couple of years, and more chain stores are likely to open downtown and in new shopping centers, Mr. Long said.

There seems to be room for more, at least for now, he said.

Mr. Shawaker also said the Toledo area is not yet saturated with sandwich shops.

But Mr. Long said: It remains to be seen how many will survive.

Staying on top of operations is key to survival, said Mr. McKisson of the downtown Quiznos store.

We think we have a high-quality product, we feel our service is good, and our place is clean, he said.

Marketing experts have several theories why sandwiches are popular now and with whom they are popular.

A sandwich is very portable, perfect for a time-poor, cash-rich society, said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm that tracks American eating habits.

And, restaurants keep fresh ingredients, which is harder to do at home, he said.

Further, if the restaurant combines sandwiches with ingredients of the cutomer s choosing in a place with good music and comfortable seating, it s all the more attractive, said Juliet Scho, a sociologist and consumerism expert at Boston College.

We ll pay more for quality, for taste, for the psychic benefits we get from being someplace that feels upscale, Ms. Schor said. It is why people buy Starbucks coffee when they could find cheaper, no-name coffee elsewhere.



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