What can you do that’s new with a panini? Good question. Speed up the delivery, perhaps? Experiment with flavours? Or how about selling one that doesn’t dislodge your fillings?
For such a well-established product, too many operators continue to get it wrong. "What tends to happen is the bread gets over-cooked, it goes really hard and, inevitably, you end up biting through a hot brick," says ex-Pret A Manger food consultant Nellie Nichols. This is not helped if it has spent days in the cabinet staling.
While some chains have gleefully charged £3.95 or £4.25 for eat-in, getting the product right in times of recession becomes more important. "It’s about not ripping people off," says Sean Coughlan of Munch/Coughlans, former winner of the sandwich awards’ (Sammies’) Bakery Sandwich Maker of the Year. "I’m amazed at how much some people get away with. You see so many poor breads. Nowadays, you have to give value for money if you want a daily sale." Coughlan insists freshness of ingredients is often neglected among his high street competitors, although they are cottoning on to the importance of seasonality. For example, for Christmas, Costa Coffee launched a Brie and Cranberry panini.
Seasonality is not just about event peaks. "We’re looking at more fish fillings this month, as people are fed up with meat after Christmas," adds Coughlan.
The problem innovating with paninis is they take so long to grill to a core temperature, and law dictates that high-risk products, such as fish and meat have to exceed 70?C. "People think of exciting things to put in paninis, but the more you put in, the worse it is," says Nichols. "Cheese, as it is so dense, slows the whole process down, so you’re slowing your average transaction time."
While speed is not necessarily a barrier to sale, especially if they are pre-made in the bakery - Coughlans’ customers will happily wait up to four minutes for a take-away panini - is it possible to speed up the process? Wholesaler Brakes has targeted cafés in particular with ready-filled pre-grilled paninis (below), such as a three cheese and red onion variety. The trick is that they can be microwaved while giving the perception that they have been grilled due to the grill markings.
Another possible tack is super-sizing the bread with a rustic-looking ciabatta. Ooze, an Italian risotto restaurant in the new Westfield shopping centre in London, does a nice line in paninis by sourcing a traditionally baked mammoth sourdough ciabatta from London’s Ticino bakery. This sells for £4.50. "The breads are airy, and though they look rather overpowering on display, a good panini should be impacted and moist and these breads make nice paninis," says owner Will Gregg. The bread is pre-filled, grilled to order and drizzled with olive oil. The fillings are simple but authentic - for example, Panino Caprese (mozzarella, tomato and basil) or Toscano (Parma ham and mozzarella).
But creativity need not mean blowing the budget on top-end ingredients. Starbucks’ Cheese and Marmite breakfast panini strikes a chord of homely familiarity and could be a winner - so long as it doesn’t taste like a Marmite-smeared brick.