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Humble Sandwich Often Tops the Menu

Chains Try to Gobble Up the Market for Gourmet Lunch Fare

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page A01

The elevator doors open and thousands of office workers in downtown Washington are launched into a sea of lunchtime options: traditional fast-food burger places, dozens of white tablecloth restaurants for the expense account crowd, and myriad mid-price choices, including salad bar-buffets, design-your-own burritos and custom-blended smoothies.

But what places are packing them in, not just downtown but in Friendship Heights and Ballston, Reston and Rockville? A proliferating number of sandwich chains such as Potbelly Sandwich Works, Panera Bread, Corner Bakery and Cosi that offer such items as tuna and Swiss cheese on multigrain bread, a grilled Italian panini on rosemary-onion focaccia, or tandoori chicken with roasted red peppers and vinaigrette in a flat-bread pocket.

Workers make salads and sandwiches from scratch at a Cosi sandwich shop in Washington. The chain, like its competitors, offers many choices. (Tom Allen -- The Washington Post)

Ringing Up Sandwich Sales Annual revenue of selected chains.
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Potbelly, for example, has opened 15 restaurants in the Washington area in the last two years, the latest in Dupont Circle. The first Potbelly, at 19th and L Streets NW, still has lines out the door at lunchtime. So does the one just two blocks away at 17th Street NW.

"L Street has been very kind to us," said Potbelly chief executive Bryant Keil, who grew up in Potomac and attended American University before moving back to Chicago.

The location is so good that a competitor is moving in a block away. The Potbelly store's general manager, Todd Weisenstein, can now look across L Street from the 17th Street site and see an empty storefront that has a sign promoting a new Quiznos Sub franchise -- "Get Toasty Here."

The Atkins diet frenzy slowed growth briefly, but the sandwich business is booming, 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.

Business Is Booming

Denver-based Quiznos Sub sales hit $818 million, up 33 percent, compared with 2002. Panera Bread 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, and about 325 in the Washington area, rose 10 percent, to $5.7 billion.

"The low-carb craze is starting to peter out," Pawlak said. "People try eating that way, but then they cheat. They think, 'Maybe I'll just reduce my carbs, not cut them out entirely. Maybe I'll just skip dessert.' " Samantha Panda, a petite 20-year-old junior at George Washington University who was waiting in line recently at the Corner Bakery on 19th and L Streets NW, never bought into the low-carbohydrate craze. "A salad just doesn't do it for me," she said. "I like sandwiches during the day because they're portable and filling. If I eat a salad for lunch I get hungry within three hours."

Even well-known, big city chefs are stoking the trend. 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. In Los Angeles, chef Nancy Silverton of Campanile serves a menu of 12 inventive sandwiches, such as braised artichoke, ricotta and mint pesto, every Thursday, which now is her upscale restaurant's busiest night.

Cutting-Edge Chefs

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."

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