The best sandwiches in America

Every year Restaurant Hospitality runs a competition for the country’s best sandwiches. In 2016 the editorial staff received far more entries than in any previous year but somehow were able to narrow them down to 17 category winners. Looking at the terrific winning entries, what stood out to me and confirmed the popularity of eggs was the fact that three of the category winners used eggs as a major ingredient. The Breakfast category might be expected, but the two others were somewhat surprising: Pork and… wait for it… Hot Dog or Sausage!


Breakfast Category

Bright Eyed Breakfast Sandwich (Blue Smoke, New York City)

Description:  Fried egg, pimento cheese and spicy fried chicken on a biscuit doughnut.

The chef said, “Our fried chicken is seasoned with homemade hot sauce powder, and the donut is fully glazed with honey and sprinkled with Aleppo pepper. When you press down on the sandwich, the sunny-side up egg yolk pops up through the doughnut hole, hence the name Bright Eyed Breakfast Sandwich.”


Pork Category

Open-Faced Pork Schnitzel Sandwich (Bohemian House, Chicago)

Description:  Grilled light rye bread topped with house-fermented sauerkraut, caramelized onion spread, horseradish cream, Emmentaler cheese, and crowned with a fried egg, pickled dill and house-made mustard.

The chef said, I thought our schnitzel on the dinner menu would make an awesome sandwich. I also considered what a grand impression an open-faced sandwich would make.


Hot Dog/Sausage Category

The All American (Prairie Dogs Hot Dogs & Handcrafted Sausage, Minneapolis)

Description:  All beef natural casing hot dog, crispy pork belly, sriracha aioli and Southern-style hash browns, topped with a fried egg.

The chef said, “This was our way of blending the great American breakfast (eggs, bacon, potatoes) with the great American lunch (hotdogs).”

Champions, all!

2016-07-11 15:02:07

Success is in the food

Chicago is a great restaurant town – I’d put the quality and innovation of its foodservice operations up against any U.S. city. I could follow my bragging by spotlighting one of Chicago’s James Beard winners or multiple-star Zagat darlings, but I’ve chosen an operator I find more interesting: Eastman Egg Company.

Eastman began as a food truck a mere three years ago with a small and very focused menu made with local ingredients, primarily consisting of scratch-made egg sandwiches and good coffee. It’s already added two brick and mortar operations in enviable Chicago Loop locations, and two more are due to open in the next twelve months courtesy of $1.5 million in new local investor funding.

According to founder Hunter Swartz, Eastman’s secret for success is the food. You’ve got coffee shops that offer a great cup of coffee but they’re not as focused on the food. I think people who come to Eastman come for the food first.

And they do. Singled out by Food & Wine as one of the nine best sandwiches in Chicago (that’s best sandwich of any type, not just breakfast), The Captain is made with local farm eggs, house-made pork sausage and melted Pepper Jack cheese served on a fresh pretzel roll. My own favorite is The Eastman, made of fresh-cracked eggs, Slagel Farm ham, artisanal cheese, sliced cucumber and house-made sweet chili sauce on ciabatta. The different flavors and textures are genius.

Social media activity confirms fans of the food are a growing legion, leading me to think about that old saying on the importance of location, location, location. Nothing makes you need more locations, locations, locations than a winning menu with loyal fans clamoring for more.

2016-06-27 13:21:24

Enjoying a little brinner

I was having lunch the other day with a food industry friend when the topic of having breakfast for dinner came up. Why not just have real dinner food? he asked. Why mess with the perfection of a steak or pizza?

Well it turns out that beside the fact there’s never a wrong time for comfort food, there are also some good physiologic reasons to dine on a plate of scrambled eggs or an omelet late in the day. For one thing, we Americans tend to eat a majority of our calories and fat at the end of the day, which doesn’t help fuel all the things we do during that day. On the flip side, eating so many of our daily calories just before lying down for bed isn’t the best plan for good digestion and makes it harder for many people to get a good night’s sleep.

According to Dr. Natalie Nevins, a board-certified family physician in Los Angeles, having a lighter breakfast for dinner instead of the traditional dinnertime fare, such as pasta, meat and potatoes, is beneficial for a number of reasons. She says that many of her patients skip breakfast, leading them to wolf down lunch. Having to wait another six or seven hours for dinner, their hunger makes them overeat again.

Dr. Nevins points out that if you’re constantly refueling yourself throughout the day, you won’t feel so depleted when evening comes, where so many tend to overeat and then lie around. Her recommendations include a nutrient-rich veggie omelet with mix-ins like mushrooms, onions, spinach, broccoli and a little cheese, topped with salsa or avocado and sided with fruit.

Steak and pizza are great, but these days’ eggs are also real dinner food.

2016-06-13 13:19:38

Home again

Industry experts keep telling us ethnic breakfasts are on-trend, and our response has been to add jalapeños to Eggs Benedict, chipotle cream cheese to bagels and salsa to omelets. In other words, it should be obvious that Mexican foods are the #1 ethnic influence on the American morning menu.

We grab a lot of Mexican-influenced breakfasts at quick service (QSR) drive-thrus, primarily highly Americanized versions of breakfast burritos. McDonald’s has its Sausage Burrito, Burger King offers a Hash Brown Burrito, and both Sonic and Jack in the Box have entire lines of breakfast burritos. All these items start with scrambled eggs and cheese, then add various meats and other add-ins.

Being menued at QSR is one indicator a food has become mainstream, but there is a better way to tell when a cuisine has really become part of the American table. It’s when we’re so comfy with it that it no longer feels exotic, and we begin to overlay it with aspects of other cuisines!

For instance, Huevos Rancheros can be found on countless American restaurant menus in its standard eggs/beans/chilies/tortillas format. The eggs can be poached or fried, the beans, pinto or black, the chilies, red or green. That basic structure led to the version served at Rex 1516 in Philadelphia, made with crawfish étouffée, fried eggs, corn tortilla, lime crema, pico de gallo, queso fresco and avocado. It also accounts for the egg-topped Rancheros dishes found at Royal Oak, Michigan’s Town Tavern, centered on venison chili, and at The Kenwood in Minneapolis, replacing beans and tortillas with a bed of roasted potatoes and caramelized onions. That one’s also spiced with North African harissa. 

The message is clear: Mexican breakfasts feel right at home on American menus even when they’re not authentically Mexican.

2016-05-30 08:13:00

Better Burgers

Have you heard about that great new burger place, Chipotle? Yes, that Chipotle. It turns out the chain applied to trademark the term Better Burger on March 11th, which is more than a little confusing.

Enormous burritos? Sure. Margaritas in plastic cups? Oh yeah. Burgers? Um...what now?

Chipotle and burgers. As I mulled it over I realized how much sense it made. Chipotle already has ShopHouse, the Asian concept based on the Chipotle model, and has hinted the platform could be applied to a wide spectrum of foods. So why not burgers?

In fact, this type of seeming incongruity has been happening fairly aggressively all over the menu for some time. Think of Taco Bell announcing its breakfast launch two years ago ‒ wow, that was big stuff in 2014. And McDonald’s all-day breakfast ‒ come on, you know you thought it would never happen. But it did, and began to set in motion a turnaround for the world’s biggest foodservice operator.

And who saw egg-topped burgers not only becoming a thing, but a very common thing?

And eggs for dinner? Your mother may have surprised you with pancakes for dinner on occasion, but now we have fine dining operators like Bobby Flay serving scrambled egg appetizers at Gato in NYC.

And that doesn’t even count all the salads, pizzas and side dishes being topped with eggs. Who saw that coming?

But it’s all happened, just like it will likely happen that Chipotle will open a better burger place. As you go through the line, picking out your ingredients like you do at Chipotle today, you might want to top it with a nice egg. They’re showing up in all the best places.

2016-05-16 13:25:44

Breakfast foods drive us all over the menu

Breakfast foods like eggs and bacon are the driving force behind today’s foodservice growth. Why? On harried weekday mornings they’re convenient and quickly dispensed through drive-thru windows; they make an excellent handheld meal; they’re a relatively cheap high-protein comfort food; and they’re available almost everywhere. What’s not to love?

Coffee and bakery cafés outpace the growth of other segments, attracting diners with high-quality weekday breakfasts. Although quality is a more important driver of traffic on weekends than weekdays, Technomic says 77 percent of diners now say high-quality breakfast items are important during the week, versus only 70 percent in 2013. This follows the overall trend of consumers demanding even QSRs serve higher-quality items with better ingredients.

On the weekend, breakfast foods are a leisurely pleasure, the reason all-you-can-eat buffets magically sprout up in places that don’t normally serve breakfast, and also the excuse to while away an entire morning eating Eggs Benedict while chatting and feeling pampered. Consumers want more of an experience on the weekend, with taste, ambiance and indulgence being paramount. Full-service restaurants are well-positioned to provide that upscale and comfortable feel.

The growth of all-day breakfast is more proof of breakfast foods’ desire. McDonald’s says all-day breakfast had been the #1 request from its guests for years. The National Restaurant Association says 72% of people want restaurants serving breakfast all day. Technomic tells us the number of people who say they enjoy breakfast foods at non-traditional times increased by 12.5 percent between 2013 and 2015, and that 64 percent of consumers are likely to order eggs outside of traditional breakfast hours. That may be why we see egg-topped burgers and salads across segments and dayparts.

The egg is breakfast royalty. There’s a reason it’s called Incredible. 

2016-05-02 14:14:58

Reader’s Digest for Eggs

I read everything there is to know about breakfast so you don’t have to. And I’m happy to provide these interesting bits to mull over while you enjoy your eggs and toast.

Interesting Bit #1: American Breakfast Food is a Young Concept

The idea that some food should be eaten at breakfast but some should not, didn’t begin to pick up steam in the U.S until the mid to late 1800s. According to Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, people ate breakfast, but it looked a lot like dinner or a snack. Colonial American breakfast was last night’s leftovers, often bread and cheese or soup. It was only in the mid-1700s that proteins, including eggs, began appearing on city dwellers’ breakfast tables, and another hundred years before there was an actual group of foods thought of as breakfast foods. This led to the invention of the crunchy food we know today as breakfast cereal.

With the trend of restaurant chains making breakfast foods available throughout the day, maybe the term has outlived our need for it.

Interesting Bit #2: The Most Important Meal of the Day?

Is it or isn’t it? There are factions on all sides of this contentious issue. The Ladies Who Lunch feel their meal is the most important, while Dealmakers see the business dinner as indispensable.

I come down on the side of breakfast and the Harvard School of Public Health agrees with me. In a study of 26,902 men, researchers found those who skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack or death from heart disease versus those who ate it regularly. People who don’t eat breakfast eat more at night, which is likely to lead to metabolic changes and heart disease.

Today’s Last Interesting Bit: Protein and Fiber are Aces in the Morning

Protein and fiber are the most important factors in a healthy breakfast. So says Mayo Clinic, an institution that knows a bit about the human body.

Mayo says the ideal breakfast includes lean proteins (their examples include eggs, lean meat, poultry and fish, and peanut butter), whole grains and fruits and vegetables. High protein and fiber will make you feel full and more energized throughout the day.

Now go and get yourself a nice veggie omelet - I’ll bet you know someplace to get one this very minute.

2016-04-18 13:34:58

The most important meal for restaurants

The battle of the breakfast menus continues to serve customers well. In early March, Taco Bell launched a dollar breakfast menu consisting of 10 menu items, including customizable ones like the Mini Skillet Bowl (scrambled eggs, potatoes, pico de gallo and nacho cheese sauce) and Sausage Flatbread Quesadilla (scrambled eggs, sausage and 3-cheese blend).

The program follows on the heels of the McDonald’s all-day breakfast launch last year and its current testing of an expanded all-day breakfast menu in select markets. If Taco Bell is determined to keep the competition amped up, that can only accrue to consumers’ benefit.

Taco Bell’s Chief Marketing Officer Marisa Thalberg said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that Taco Bell has no plans at this point to offer breakfast beyond its current hours of 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. She mentioned that in the two years after its breakfast debut Taco Bell has discovered gaps between what it was offering and what consumers really wanted: value in the a.m. And who wouldn’t want that?

Of course, chains hope that $1 menus will be the starting point of a customer’s visit, with a higher-margin beverage or other items added to the order. However, from this writer’s viewpoint, the beauty of Taco Bell’s plan exists in the Millennial-friendly ability to customize all $1 quesadillas, burritos, tacos and skillet bowl with various toppings and sauces ‒ for an up-charge. Diners get what they want and so does Taco Bell.

2016-04-04 12:45:35

Signature ‘Sassy Eggs’

Chicago has great breakfast restaurants—everything from the latest trendsetting brunch bistros to tiny diners known mainly to the neighborhood locals. On a crusade to sample them all, I recently discovered a new favorite. What egg-lover wouldn't be attracted to its name? The Over Easy Café. Expecting the usual Benedicts and scrambles, I still hoped for something interesting to mentally dissect. But I got so much more. 

There’s no short order cook here; instead, a chef whose focus is on quality and culinary creativity. I tried the Sassy Eggs, a signature dish I was told the place was known for, and rightly so.

You’ve had eggs over easy, but you've never had them like this. The execution makes all the difference, as these eggs were served on a magnificent pork chorizo-jalapeño-red pepper-potato hash, then covered with melted Cheddar, artfully drizzled with ancho ketchup and sour cream, and topped with house-made guacamole.

Before I dragged myself away from the last dot of ancho ketchup left on the plate, I asked to see their upcoming weekend brunch menu, which included the Damen Avenue Omelet made with sautéed portobellos, spinach and goat cheese; the Smoked Salmon Scramble with smoked salmon and dill havarti; and Sam Giancana’s Favorite Breakfast Sandwich of eggs scrambled with house-made Italian sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, onion and chives, topped with smoked mozzarella cheese on a toasted roll. All simple, yet elegant and inspired.

Great things can be done with very few, carefully chosen ingredients. The execution makes all the difference.

2016-03-21 13:27:37

The Inevitability of ADB

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me the path toward all-day breakfast service was inevitable.

Industry research said people wanted it. Technomic’s 2015 U.S. Breakfast Consumer Trend Report found 54% of consumers – up from 48% in 2013 – enjoy eating breakfast items beyond morning hours. NRA’s 2015 industry forecast showed 72% of adults wanted restaurants to serve breakfast throughout the day.

For Millennials that number climbs to 77%, but as we know, they want things when they want them, which is even more reason to serve it all-day.

But what convinced me (and maybe a few chain headquarters) all-day breakfast was a stellar opportunity specifically for foodservice, were 2014 Datassential findings. Those numbers said that of those folks who eat breakfast foods for lunch, 32% eat that meal away from home vs. only 17% of those who buy foodservice breakfast in the morning. And since we know what a booming business morning-consumed foodservice breakfast is with only 17% of people eating it, it stands to reason that so many people wanting it throughout the day (refer to the paragraph above if you’ve already forgotten the numbers) there would be a significant underserved market just waiting for more places to offer all-day breakfast.

Chains including Dunkin’ Donuts, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Starbuck’s, Denny’s and IHOP have offered all-day breakfast for many years. But now Golden Corral and White Castle have joined the ranks. And then there’s McDonald’s, the real game changer. McDonald’s adds over 14,000 U.S. locations into that underserved space, which, let’s face it, makes it suddenly much better served.

Who will better serve us next?

2016-03-07 15:34:39