Pick up a panini

31 October, 2008
The panini has been the bedrock of the café sector for the last 10 years, but with reports of people making more sandwiches at home, will panini sales suffer? Not if you adapt your range, says BB's sandwich guru Adam Gilbert
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With the much talked-about credit crunch and economic downturn now setting in and the dreaded 'R' word about to reach our shores, consumers are having to be so much more careful about how they spend their hard-earned cash at lunchtimes, while still demanding to be well-fed and, most importantly, enjoying the same quality of food they did before hard times began to set in.
With restaurants all over the country reporting difficult times, and with the number of covers dwindling and average spend per head falling, everyone is seeking alternatives to attract customers and this presents an opportunity for food-to-go outlets, such as craft bakers and cafés. So what better way than a hot wholesome meal, served in the way of the nation's favourite food, the hot sandwich, commonly known as the 'panini'?Panino, in Italian, means both roll and stuffed bread. There are many types of bread commonly used but a few are favoured: rosette, an airy roll with almost no crumb, slashed with a pattern resembling a flower; francesini, a sort of baguette-style roll; and, of course, the classic ciabatta. Apart from these classic breads, here at our SoHo Sandwich Co, we use Pizza Romana, made with '00' flour, rock salt and olive oil and 'Ciabattini Piatta', a sourdough covered in Sesame & Nigella Seeds. When warm, the golden sesame seeds give a sweet-smelling aroma.The panino filling, for the majority of Italians, should contain cured meats; other ingredients are enjoyed along with the meat, but technically, bread and meat are enough to make a panino. However, for British tastes, we use a variety of interesting and creative fillings, designed especially for the paninis we supply to our customers, with the added incentive that we will supply a panini press, free on loan, provided they can meet our sales targets.In Italy, however, there are two schools of thought with regards to toasting these sandwiches; some love the crunchy bread, holding warm meats and melted cheeses. Others argue that this is just a trick to hide off-flavours. But if the bread, meats and other ingredients are fresh and the combinations are well-balanced, grilling is the only option for a real panino experience.So here are my favourite flavours, which I highly recommend you give a go and, hopefully, watch your sales increase in the hard times ahead.== Chicken Escalope & Swiss Cheese with Tangy Tomato Chutney ==IngredientsSliced chicken escalope 80gSwiss cheese 30gSliced beef tomato 40gTomato & balsamic chutney 40gSesame & Nigella Ciabattini 1== Creamy Brie with Smoked Crispy Bacon & Wild Cranberry Sauce ==Ingredients Smoked streaky bacon 30g Brie 50g Wild cranberry sauce 30g Plain ciabatta 1== Mediterranean Tuna Melt with Mozzarella Cheese and Balsamic Dressing ==IngredientsDolphin-friendly tuna in brine 50gDiced roasted peppers 20gRed onion 10g Finely chopped chives 5gSliced green olives 10gBalsamic & olive oil dressing 20gBuffalo Mozzarella cheese 40g== Giant Fish Finger Panini with Swiss Cheese & Tartare Sauce ==IngredientsLarge cod fish fingers 3Swiss cheese 40gTartare Sauce 40g----=== Building a business on paninis: Caffè Nero ===Caffè Nero has been in business since 1997, and its range of paninis has been the backbone of its sandwich range for seven years. Its current range includes: Italian Mozzarella, Vine Tomato & Basil, Tuna & Provolone Cheese Melt and Ham & Smoked Mozzarella, and it frequently develops new fillings with a classic or artisanal theme. "They're more popular than sandwiches," explains Neville Moon, head of food and beverages at Caffè Nero. "We introduce two new products on a seasonal basis; our two summer specials were Pesto Chicken & Parmesan and Pepperoni, Mozzarella & Tomato."He explains that the paninis used to be made fresh in-store but, as the business expanded and, with it, the product range, the coffee chain tied in its panini production with its out-of-store specialist sandwich maker. When it comes to the development of the range it's all about teamwork, as the sandwich maker feeds ideas to Caffè Nero, and it feeds ideas back. The product then goes through various stages of test production before making it into outlets.As well as seasonal inspiration for fillings, the coffee chain likes to source authentic Italian ingredients, which it also feels differentiates it from competitors. "We try to give the paninis a bit more of an Italian edge," says Moon. Rather than Italian-style ingredients, "we used authentic Parmesan cheese, mozzarella and pepperoni from Italy." It avoids mayonnaise and relishes and doesn't use butter in the range, preferring the flavour of the key ingredients to 'speak for themselves'. "The panini bread is hand-produced, as we're always on the look-out for new Italian fillings," adds Moon.As with many coffee chains, a large proportion of food sold is for takeaway. "It's about 50/50 in terms of eat-in and food-to-go panini sales," adds Moon. Paninis sold to-go are simply packaged in a paper bag with a napkin.Moon explains the company has looked at various methods of packaging in the past, but most were too wasteful. Due to the more rigid structure of a panini compared with a sandwich, they stand upright on their own, which replaces the need for any kind of cardboard packaging.If the experiences of Caffè Nero are anything to go by, the market for paninis is increasing. Caffè Nero also offers hot sandwich options, more popular in the winter months, as well as wedges, but it's the paninis that win the popularity contest.



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