The State of Sandwiches

Although deli prepared food programs took a big hit in the last year, sandwiches are bouncing back.

Tall club sandwich and french fries

To say the last year has been challenging for supermarket deli prepared food programs may be an understatement. And there is no doubt prepared sandwich programs were caught in the crosshairs due to the pandemic. Yet, there is good news in recent months with what had been a profitable, booming category.

“Sandwiches really had a rough year, but we are seeing a recovery,” says Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator, Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).

According to the IDDBA, in 2019, the sandwich category was up 5% year over year, yet it was only down 1.6% in 2021 compared to 2020 numbers.

“This shows there is a recovery,” Richard says. “We’re not sure what factors are attributing to that. It could be consumers are less cautious with premade sandwiches, or it may also be retailers doing a great job positioning sandwiches as grab-and-go options.”

According to the IDDBA, the pandemic prompted a multi-year growth engine to change into an area of loss, with dollars down 9.2% or $1.8 billion in the deli prepared category. However, some areas did manage gains in 2020, including holiday meal solutions and side dishes.


The sales results in December remained mixed, yet many have been on a road to recovery between April and December, and that provides hope for a better 2021, reports IDDBA. “Retailers are figuring out what works in pre-packaged and what doesn’t, what amounts and variety is needed and what meal occasions have the greatest potential,” Richard says. “While full recovery may not be on the horizon for the first part of 2021, the continued innovation and retooling will get us closer and closer to the 2019 base line.”

An Update

IDDBA’s Richard reports that it’s easy for consumers to pick up pre-made and prepackaged sandwiches, which has been beneficial to the retail prepared food category as a whole.

“People are making sandwiches at home,” he says. “This may not be their choice, but they are still having to stay home, and students are not all in school. Things can change day by day, and we think the deli prepared foods category will get back to where it was, but there’s been a temporary change due to COVID.”

With many restaurants closed down at the beginning of the pandemic, people were at home experimenting in the kitchen and getting creative with deli meats and sandwiches.

“Creative recipes were coming out using deli meats, since people were limited to how much meat they could buy in the supermarket,” says Jaline G. Isidor Horta, marketing director at Cibao Meat Products, located in Rockaway, NJ. “[One] thing we have seen is making nice big sandwiches filled with Induveca Ham and a handful of alfalfa sprouts with a drizzle of honey mustard, which makes for a nice deliciously gourmet-looking sandwich.”


The shift has been more consumers building sandwiches at home, as opposed to grabbing those pre-made in the deli.

“People are seeing more value in higher-quality meats with which they can make sandwiches at home for the family,” says Evan Inada, brand manager for marketing at Columbus Craft Meats, headquartered in Hayward, CA. “I don’t see this changing in the next year.”

Like with deli meats, consumers are benefitting from more choices when it comes to breads for sandwiches. Where it used to be more limited with white and wheat bread, along with sub rolls, there are now pita pockets, tortillas, naan, gluten-free options and low carb bread lines.

“With certain supermarket chains, if they adapted to COVID quickly, they could still do a decent job with the sandwich program with online shopping or e-commerce,” says Karen Toufayan, vice president of marketing and sales for Toufayan Bakery, Ridgefield, NJ. “I was recently in a Publix and noticed they have a fantastic selection of grab-and-go sandwiches. The variety was extremely impressive, with different types of breads and wraps and a wide range of deli meats and toppings like flavored mayo.”

Ingredient Trends

According to IDDBA’s Richard, with sandwich programs, what was working pre-pandemic in terms of trends is still working now.

“For example, seasonal sandwiches offered throughout the year,” he says. “Sandwiches can work during the holidays, as well, with deli or sandwich trays that can be preordered and delivered or picked up. The interest was there, but the quantity of food wasn’t as big in past years due to smaller gatherings.”

Cibao’s traditional line of Hispanic-style salami, Induveca Ham and Campesino sharp cheddar cheese can be easily combined with bread, mayo and garlic paste for a simple sandwich, says Horta.

Columbus Craft Meats’ popular sandwich ingredients include its traditional roasted turkey, homestyle honey hams and roast beef sales, with the latter having sales picked up recently.

“When you think about roast beef, many like it as a hot sandwich,” says Columbus Craft Meats’ Inada. “At home, people are using higher-quality roast beef, so we’re focusing on our premium product with USDA top round beef.”

In addition to authentic flavors, consumers are seeking variety and ethnic options.

“When people make sandwiches at home, they want the turkey flavor to taste like slow roasted,” Inada says. “[Consumers also are seeking] international flavors in deli meats. We’re trying to inspire shoppers to make high-end sandwiches at home to see how easy it is to make a Cuban sandwich, for example.”

Pita bread and sandwich wraps have become deli sandwich program staples, adding to the ingredient variety.

Due to consumer demand, Toufayan is focusing on all-natural breads, which now encompass 80% of its offerings.

“We decided to take that plunge with our pita and Smart Pockets, which was not too much of an adjustment,” Toufayan says. “We had already offered all-natural private label product, but the shelf life was doing so well we decided to do branded lines.”

Marketing & Merchandising

Richard at IDDBA notes the different ways to engage with consumers through in store and online marketing and social media are still being utilized.

In the past, the most effective way to market sandwiches was by sampling. Pre-COVID, Cibao sampled its products in different forms.

“Post COVID, we have yet to hit the market since it is still a touchy subject whether or not we can start doing demos again,” Horta says. “Our demonstration team is ready and eager to go back to the supermarkets so people can sample our products as well as new products that we are hoping to introduce later in 2021.”

Cibao will provide retailers with small cups for sampling so people can grab their sample without coming into contact with other things on the table, along with a custom sneeze guard to help market its company image.

“The challenges are different ways of marketing ourselves to the public, since we have been predominately known for Hispanic-style salami and not cold cuts or cheese,” Horta says. “We have over 50 years in the market selling salami to everyone on the East Coast; our challenge now is having our loyal customers know that we now offer deli meats for sandwiches and other things.”

Educating consumers on creating the perfect sandwich at home has been an effective merchandising tactic for selling sandwich ingredients in the deli.

“[Customers] see high resolution photos in the deli and want to make [the sandwiches] themselves at home,” Columbus Craft Meats’ Inada says. “Perception is probably the biggest hurdle we need to get over now. Having a fresh sliced program makes it easy for someone to grab their favorite items in 1-pound increments, and customers don’t have to wait in long lines.”

Columbus Craft Meats’ antibiotic free meats will be relaunched to focus on quality. It has transitioned its pre-sliced line for convenience and quality.

“We’re giving them a choice with turkey, chicken and beef items, full muscle with cleaner labels, which people have been looking for in the last two to three years,” Inada says. “Shoppers have become more educated with meat; as long as it’s good quality cuts, they are good with that. They also prefer more slices in their packages.”

Toufayan Bakery has a rack program with different sizes and configurations, including a four-shelf wood rack for wrap merchandising.

“We like to put that near the case in delis by prepackaged meat and the grab-and-go area,” Toufayan says. “Our flatbreads and pita breads are different than typical items found in the bread aisle, with multi grain and flax seed varieties.”

Toufayan Bakery also has ethnic lines, including pita, naan and tandoori bread that sell well in deli departments.

“Sandwich programs were curtailed [with COVID] but we’ve seen a big retailer recently do a sandwich program, and we’re starting to see a comeback with prepared sandwiches in this department,” Toufayan says. “Delis are doing a good job of keeping things clean and sanitized, and we’re seeing people come back in the store.”

Looking ahead at the deli sandwich category, Toufayan predicts a continued trend toward breakfast sandwiches, and not just for the morning day part.

“Breakfast sandwiches all day long are the cool future of sandwiches, as bacon, egg and cheese is appropriate for lunch or the afternoon,” Toufayan says. “There are different ways of doing breakfast sandwiches as well as better toppings in a sandwich. For example, instead of just turkey with mayo we’re seeing it with avocado or avocado spread. Also, meatless sandwiches with plant-based meat [is on trend].”

IDDBA’s Richard sees deli prepared food and sandwich programs working together to capitalize on the potential in the future.“When you have fresh departments working together, like fresh bread in bakery utilized for in-store sandwich programs, and a variety of different meats, cheeses and specialty sandwiches, I don’t see why we can’t get back to where we were,” Richard says. “Not all prepared food programs have been shut down; those supermarkets that had a good following leading into the pandemic with sandwich programs, where consumers would seek out those sandwiches, those consumers are finding ways to continue their purchases of these products. This can be either online or in person. The fresh category was hit hard this past year, but things are looking up.” DB

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