The Annie Oakley Panini is a healthier twist on the traditional club sandwich.

The baking industry continues to enjoy the renaissance of bread, and thanks to things like adventurous eating, breakfast all day and, of course, Oprah, sandwiches are getting the spotlight on foodservice menus.

While sandwich makers and foodservice operators are getting crazy-creative with new sandwiches and twists on the old standbys, many of them are relying on bread suppliers to provide a carrier strong enough to support the sandwich.

According to Nielsen data for in-store deli and foodservice, submarine sandwiches saw $833 million in sales in the 52 weeks ending May 28, 2016, an increase of 4.7% from a year ago. Regular sliced bread sandwiches made $486 million in the same timeframe, a 6% increase vs. a year ago. In both cases, the most profitable type for each was “other,” at 32% and 54% dollar sales contributions, respectively, to their categories. In both cases, turkey was the next closest category at a mere 16% contribution for subs and 28% for regular bread.

So what does this mean? Sandwiches today are more than the ordinary PB&J slapped between two slices of bread. In fact, they’re becoming rather extraordinary.

Go big or go home

There’s an intriguing dynamic happening among consumers, bread and sandwich makers. The ever-­adventurous consumers are demanding more for their money, and the creative, artistic sandwich makers are more than happy to oblige. To do that, they must rely on bread makers to supply the appropriate carriers.

For example, grilled cheese, the ultimate comfort sandwich, is becoming not only a hot menu item but also a theme that supports entire foodservice operations such as Cincinnati-based Tom+Chee and Meltz Extreme Grilled Cheese, Coeur d’Alene, ID.

In today’s era of experiential eating, indulgence is no longer reserved for dessert.

“These kinds of operators want a bread that performs — that grills nice, looks beautiful when it’s grilled and can hold up to a big, indulgent sandwich,” said Bo Maurer, vice-president, sales and marketing, Wheat Montana, Three Forks, MT. The bread producer provides foodservice operators a larger, 34-oz bread loaf to serve that purpose. “It’s wider, and it’s taller than your traditional size, and that also helps them load up the sandwich and really make it stand out on the plate,” he said.

Traditional pretzels are also serving the need for bigger, better sandwich offerings. Cincinnati-based Pretzel Baron uses its Bavarian pretzels to create a 3-lb — you read that right — 3-lb pretzel sandwich that is stuffed full of meat and sold in the bakery’s 10 Servatii Pastry Shop and Deli retail shops. “The week of Christmas, we’ll sell 2,000 of them,” said Gary Gottenbusch, owner.

A fourth-generation German baker, Mr. Gottenbusch noted that pretzel bread has a perceived value twice that of a bagel and can garner a higher price point on menus for bigger sandwiches. “I’ve spoken to people in the industry who can get $1 more for a sandwich made on a pretzel bun,” he said.

Datassential research pointed to an increase in pretzel presence on foodservice menus. While pretzel is mentioned on just 9.5% of menus, the product has grown 90% over the past four years. Specific to chain restaurants, that number goes up to 23% for a 157% growth rate in four years.

And even croissants are getting bigger and stronger to support the heartier, more indulgent sandwich varieties. French Gourmet, Sparks, NV, makes a savory Everything Croissant that is made with more ingredients, which makes it denser than a regular croissant and able to hold up to more sandwich toppings. “This dough will perform similarly to traditional breads for hot sandwiches such as panini and grilled cheese,” said Jake Bush, business development manager. “The savory croissants complement a wide variety of breakfast and lunch sandwich ingredients, too.”

Sandwiches offer menu choices for just about any consumer preference.

On the lighter side

In the world of foodservice, sandwiches are serving two seemingly unrelated demands. At the same time thick, bold, indulgent sandwiches are getting a lot of attention, light and healthy sandwiches seem to be gaining the same ground.

Mr. Maurer sees Wheat Montana’s customers — and their clientele — asking for more whole grain breads than ever. “The grainier the better,” he observed. And according to the Technomic 2014 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report, whole wheat/whole grain breads are still popular menu items. Of the almost 500 consumers polled who order a sandwich for lunch or dinner, 31% indicated ordering whole wheat/whole grain sandwiches for lunch, compared with 19% who ordered white and 20% who ordered a traditional bun.

Oftentimes, similar kinds of breads that carry well for the heartier sandwiches serve the same purpose for the lighter ones. For building healthier sandwiches, “less is more” doesn’t always apply. Rather than scrimping on the toppings, sandwich makers are loading them up with heaps of healthful goodness. “We have customers who use a whole grain bread with lots of seeds, sprouts, cucumbers and peppers,” Mr. Maurer said. “It’s like a salad on a sandwich.”

Additionally, the Scottsdale, AZ, sandwich chain Blimpie this summer added an Everything Bread to its menu. The new sub roll contains a mix of sesame and poppy seeds and a Montreal seasoning. “With the Everything Italian promotion, we’ll be able to offer our customers that perfect combination they crave: the signature meats and cheeses they love on brand new bread filled with delicious spices,” Steve Evans, vice-president of marketing for Blimpie, told Milling & Baking News in July.

While Meltz is serving up the richness, Denver-based salad shop Mad Greens toasts healthier sandwiches in the form of panini. Menu items include the Annie Oakley, which is made with slow-roasted chicken, Swiss cheese, bacon and avocado on sourdough. It started as a traditional club sandwich, but the chef chose to replace the deli meat with slow-roasted chicken and the mayonnaise with avocado to give it a healthier halo. It’s served with a side of roasted red pepper dipping sauce.

According to Datassential, quick service restaurant (QSR) menus are including sandwiches with ingredients such as kale, radishes and fennel. “Healthy-halo descriptors like ‘braised,’ ‘housemade,’ ‘vegan’ and ‘slow-cooked’ are also experiencing growth,” said Joe Garber, marketing coordinator for Datassential.

Wheat Montana is producing high-protein and chia sliced bread that has become popular for schools and university foodservice operators as well. “These breads are 100% whole grain, and you’re getting around 10 g protein per slice,” Mr. Maurer said.

For creating better-for-you sandwich items on a menu, pretzels fit the bill, such as a clean-label product Pretzel Baron is making for one foodservice customer. “It’s flour, water, yeast, salt and just a little bit of soybean oil,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. And the healthful possibilities are endless for the bakery. “I can see going to some of the ancient grains and blending them,” he said. “Personally, I can see that direction more than the flavored pretzels. I can see going toward multigrain pretzels.”

According to Mr. Gottenbusch, Ohio State University has a patent on soy flour in pretzels. “Adding soy or pea protein flour, or ancient grains or different multigrains, will definitely add a healthy aspect,” he said.

The new daypart

Sure, sandwich consumption has typically been reserved for lunch and dinner menus. But thanks to fast-food operators like McDonald’s opening up the breakfast menu all day — as well as the rise in eating on-the-go — breakfast sandwiches are becoming a menu staple for any time of day.

C-store dining is becoming a growing trend, and according to a report from Datassential, 74% of c-store operators have seen breakfast foodservice sales increase. “This is thanks to offerings of hot breakfast sandwiches, which nears the top of the list for food items with the greatest sales growth, according to these operators,” Mr. Garber said.

Mr. Gottenbusch sees the breakfast trend as a huge breeding ground for pretzel sandwich sales. “In Germany, pretzels are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said, pointing out the fact that the pretzel is a similar carrier to the bagel. “People don’t perceive the pretzel as a breakfast item just yet,” he said, “but based on my experience in Germany, the more people travel — and most people are — they’re going to start seeing it soon.”

It’s only a matter of time, he observed, especially considering that the pretzel functions so similarly to another breakfast sandwich carrier. “It’s a great option for breakfast sandwiches because it carries any kind of fat — butter, cream cheese — it’s just like a bagel in terms of the dough.”

Innovative sandwich makers can create outside-the-box takes on ethnic sandwiches, like a grilled cheese version of the banh mi.

A creative canvas

When it comes to creating an innovative sandwich, the chef is the artist; the carrier is simply the canvas.

Bakers have an opportunity to provide them with a medium that is either a simple starting point, such as a reliable pan bread, or something totally outside the box such as French toast or a waffle.

Joe McCarthy, owner and chef, Meltz Extreme Grilled Cheese, the “extreme” starts on the outside. “My sandwiches are focused on the bread,” he said. For many of his menu items, Mr. McCarthy uses Wheat Montana’s 5/8-in. sliced bread. “It makes an incredibly delicious grilled cheese that starts with the schmear, the layering outside the bread.”

While most traditional grilled cheese sandwiches are made with a layer of butter on the outside, Mr. McCarthy’s creations are spread with a schmear, which consists of about 14 different ingredients, before toasting. “That’s what makes for even toasting, the moistness and the color level,” he said. “I did a lot of testing with it and the bread before I opened the restaurant.”

Mr. McCarthy’s products won the National Grilled Cheese Invitational in 2013 and 2014. “We make some pretty out-of-bounds grilled cheese, and Wheat Montana is a huge part of that,” he said. The restaurant uses three different types of bread, depending on the application, including on-the-go grilled cheeses sold from Meltz’s mobile unit, which has recently started serving special events such as weddings.

What wholesale bakers do well for sandwich makers is provide a quality product that they can simply run with. Even the most standard carrier can turn into something outrageous. Just look at Pretzel Baron’s pretzels.

“A lot of foodservice companies have chefs on staff because they have so many regional and interests,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. For example, one Pretzel Baron customer has what are called “food fanatics” in every distribution area. “They have these chefs that come up with menus specifically for that market,” he said. “In Charlotte, they were frying our pretzels.” Mr. Gottenbusch was shocked by that; perhaps it’s a misstep with a clean-label product. “But in that region, they believe if you can fry it, they’ll buy it,” he said.

Then again, sometimes it’s good to go with what you know. Just look at Olive Garden, which added Signature Breadstick Bun Sandwiches to its menu. The Orlando-based restaurant chain created a sandwich bun from its ever-popular breadsticks, which are usually served to customers at the beginning of the meal. Sandwiches served on the Breadstick Bun include the Italian Meatball Sandwich, which features Sicilian meatballs with Alfredo and marinara, and Chicken Parmigiana, which features a parmesan-breaded chicken breast that is fried and topped with Italian cheese and marinara.

The ethnic twist

Creative sandwich varieties are also taking inspiration from around the globe and a multitude of cultures, whether it’s bringing the familiar to an ethnic-style sandwich or putting an international twist on an old standby.

According to Datassential, QSR and fast-casual establishments are employing these menu strategies, including banh mi, tortas, cemitas and Cuban sandwiches, noting that tortas come with the strongest appeal with 60% of consumers. Not far behind, falafel and shawarma are popular with about half.

One to watch, banh mi is catching consumers’ attention and opening doors for creative interpretation. Meltz Extreme Grilled Cheese offers a pork belly banh mi made with three different meats and its signature pickled onions. “People love that explosiveness and are picking up on it more and more,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Meltz is also launching a California Roll grilled cheese. “It’s our first ‘sushi melt,’ ’’ Mr. McCarthy noted. “It has everything that’s in a California roll: the crab salad, avocado, cucumber, little fried tempura crunchies and the nori and sesame blend with a yum-yum sauce and a wasabi-and-soy dipping sauce on the side,” he said. The sandwich is grilled with provolone cheese that holds up well to the bold flavors.

These big twist and creative interpretations are increasing rings for foodservice operators. In fact, at Meltz, the restaurant can charge as much as $13 for one of its signature grilled cheeses. “Some people say that’s ridiculous, but those are the people who just don’t get it,” Mr. McCarthy said, referring to its significant number of 5-star Yelp ratings.

Sandwiches are nothing new, but they’re also not immune to consumers’ evolving interests and ever-changing needs. Now that bread is beloved once again, there are myriad ways to get creative with the carrier or even use a basic bread to empower restauranteurs and sandwich makers to run wild with their imaginations and culinary skills.