BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Markets is enticing the lunch crowd with a new collection of hearty sandwiches.
The natural foods chain last month rolled out "Toasted Sandwich Creations," 19 offerings that feature unique toasted rolls, zesty sauces and generous fillings. Offered at deli service counters as well as packaged for carry-out, the sandwiches are priced from $5.49 to $6.99.
With the new line, Andre Halston, the retailer's vice president of food service and corporate executive chef, aims to capture a larger piece of the fast-casual dining business. So far, the response has been good. Initial sales have been strong, given that the sandwiches were rolled out with no discounting on the retails, Halston told SN. About 70% of sales are generated on the made-to-order side, with the rest coming from sandwiches packaged for shoppers to take home and reheat, Halston said. Not surprisingly, the busiest hours of the day for sales are between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
"In two complete weeks nationwide, [sales] are totally exceeding our expectations," Halston said. "I'm absolutely amazed."
To promote the sandwiches, Wild Oats has touted them on its Web site, in a magazine that goes out to homes, and on marquee signs in the stores, as well as on old-fashioned A-frame chalkboard signs.
Halston's goal was to create restaurant-quality sandwiches that were out of the ordinary. La Madeleine French Bakery, Cafe & Bistro, the Dallas-based restaurant chain, supplies the rolls, baked to Halston's specifications. Carla's of Windsor, Conn., customized the sauces, following Halston's requirement that they have bold flavors. He also insisted that the sandwiches be meaty.
"These are abundant sandwiches," Halston said. "They have five ounces of filling versus two ounces" offered by competitors. "On our BLT, there are seven strips of bacon. Most BLTs are three or four slices."
To date, the top sellers have taken Halston by surprise. The tuna and Swiss melt on a toasted multigrain roll, retailing for $5.99, is No. 1, he said. The grilled vegetable focaccia, also $5.99, ranks among the top six in sales. Other offerings include London broil and cheddar for $6.49, French dip au jus, $6.99, the chicken meatball hoagie, $6.49, and Black Forest ham and brie, $6.99.
The program isn't too labor-intensive, Halston said. Behind the scenes, the retailer spent 30 days training associates to assemble the sandwiches. Now it takes, on average, 4 to 4 1/2 minutes to make one from start to finish, "depending on the sandwich," he said.
The line is inspiring some new sales and merchandising. Customers around dinnertime often pick up a side salad, either from the salad bar or the service counter, to go with their sandwich. In the next 30 days, the stores will introduce La Madeleine rolls packaged for sale in the bakeries.
A chef and former restaurant executive, Halston came to Wild Oats about a year ago, bringing 30 years of restaurant and hotel experience to the natural-food chain. The sandwich program is part of an ongoing upgrade to the retailer's food-service departments.
While it's satisfying to see consumers buying sandwiches, Halston is also happy when he hears of rivals from supermarkets and restaurants scoping out the merchandise.
"It's nice to hear our competitors are coming in and trying our sandwiches," he said. "We've made them nervous."
And he's not done with sandwiches. Wild Oats will roll out more new varieties next month for a half-sandwich, cup-of-soup promotion.