Sandwiches Anchor a Broad Fast-Casual Menu
"We're a deli sandwich concept first and foremost. Approximately 35 percent of our sales are sandwiches, but when you add in catering and our Choose 2 menu option, a large percentage of which includes half sandwiches, it's even higher," Paci notes. The sandwich menu offers more than 100 signature selections and build-your-own-combination options. The chain's best-selling sandwich is the McAlister's Club, a triple-decker with ham, smoked turkey, bacon, sharp cheddar and Swiss cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, light mayo and the chain's proprietary honey mustard served on wheat bread. Also available as a wrap, this signature sandwich leads a full lineup of club sandwiches, hot sandwiches, classic sandwiches and grilled sandwiches that span traditional deli favorites along with innovative newer selections that tout premium proteins, upscale toppings and breads, and ethnic twists. Examples include the Spicy Southwest Chicken Griller, which features grilled chicken breast topped with guacamole, fire-roasted corn and poblano pepper relish, pepper jack cheese and chipotle ranch sauce on a ciabatta roll, and the grilled Horseradish Roast Beef and Cheddar, which boasts USDA Choice Black Angus roast beef, sharp cheddar, caramelized onions and horseradish Dijon sauce on focaccia.
"Over the past year we've done a lot of menu innovation," notes Charles Corley, vice president of operations. "We launched a whole new line of grilled sandwiches. We'd had grilled sandwiches in the past, so there were no related equipment or production changes, but we updated and upgraded the ingredients and created new flavor profiles."
All sandwiches are served with the customer's choice of a side, and options go beyond the standard chips and a pickle to include potato salad, a fruit cup, coleslaw, applesauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, or macaroni and cheese.
The McAlister's menu isn't just limited to sandwiches either; a selection of Spuds — loaded baked potatoes — and a variety of entrée salads are available as well. The Spuds sales leader is the signature Spud Max, a giant baked potato stuffed with ham, smoked turkey, applewood-smoked bacon, cheddar-jack cheese, green onions and black olives with sour cream on the side. A new top salad seller is the Savannah Chopped Salad, which features grilled chicken breast, dried cranberries, Gorgonzola cheese, honey-roasted almonds, tomatoes and cucumber with sherry-shallot dressing. Customers can also choose from a small selection of soup, chili and nacho appetizers and several dessert options, including fresh-baked cookies and carrot cake.
"For a fast-casual concept, we offer tremendous menu variety," Paci notes. "And pretty much everything is customizable. Everything is fresh, made to order. Each category includes vegetarian and gluten-free options. Nothing is fried — we have no fryers in the restaurants."
Headlining the beverage menu is McAlister's Famous Sweet Tea, sold by the glass and by the gallon. It's brewed fresh throughout the day in five-gallon brewers using filtered water and pure cane sugar, and staff serve it in clear glasses to show off its clarity. Once brewed, the hot tea is mixed with cool water to achieve the desired flavor profile. At that point, Corley says, it's fairly strong. Held warm, the tea is then dispensed to order over full glasses of ice, which ensures the right level of dilution from the melting ice. Like the tea brewers, the ice machines connect to special water filtration units installed in every unit.
So important to the concept is the tea that McAlister's has developed an ongoing social media campaign around it. The chain's Facebook page has received more than 154,000 "likes" so far. The McAlister's Twitter feed focuses almost exclusively on promoting Sweet Tea via ongoing "sweet tweets." Both social media platforms were used heavily this summer to promote McAlister's annual Free Tea Day promotion in July. Last year, participating restaurants gave away more than 225,000 32-ounce glasses of tea, and Paci says they expect to top that this year. A line of Tea Freaks T-shirts is also available for sale in stores and online. All proceeds from the sale of the shirts go to the Share Our Strength child hunger relief organization.