Panini Stations: Panini Proves Popular

Adding panini grill equipment allows an operator to create a signature identity for a sandwich concept and add value for the customer, without the need to retrofit kitchens with extra exhaust hoods and other expensive items.

The availability of the panini sandwich, offered now by foodservice operations ranging from upscale cafés and restaurants to QSRs, non-commercial foodservice facilities to the local corner deli, has been a growing trend in the United States since the late 1990s. In ‘98, Chef Nancy Silverton, responsible for the creation of the artisanal, Los Angeles-based LaBrea Bakery, and former co-owner of Los Angeles' Companile Restaurant, began using portable panini grills to create upscale menu items at her hugely popular Thursday Night Sandwich Night at Companile. Silverton, the author of several cookbooks including the best-selling “Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Cookbook,” is working with panini grills again, as the guest chef for Mozzarella Mondays at her friend, Chef Suzanne Tracht's Jar Restaurant in Los Angeles.

“Mozzarella Mondays are a sort of dress rehearsal for a new Los Angeles-based restaurant concept that I am working on with Chef Mario Batali, of Babbo in New York City,” Silverton says. “Every Monday at dinner time, I just set up a versatile, high-quality, cast-iron panini grill on one end of the bar at Jar, and then use the grill to press mozzarella cheese sandwiches, to grill bread and heat up open-faced sandwiches, and even to heat other elements for mozzarella sandwich creations such as bacon or roast veggies. Mozzarella Mondays are starting to be so popular, that we are having trouble finding space on the bar for plates to serve panini.”

While visiting Italy, Jason and Jennifer Denton, also friends of Chef Batali, wandered into a small Italian café and wine bar, called a paninoteca, and loved the style and simplicity of the classic Italian concept. They were inspired to create their first restaurant, “‘ino,” a tiny, 25-seat café and wine bar located in New York City's Greenwich Village, which opened in 1998. An immediate favorite with locals and the food press alike, ‘ino proved that a big budget and matching high customer check totals aren't necessarily needed to make a great, popular restaurant. ‘ino continues to serve loyal patrons the fresh bruschetta; tramezzini, which are cold, crustless sandwiches; and most notably, their extremely popular panini, mornings from 9:00 a.m. until the wee hour of 2:00 a.m.

A tiny, open kitchen at one end of the space supports the menu at ‘ino. On a front counter, a glass, tabletop display case holds cheeses, tramezzini and some pre-made panini, ready for the grill. Behind the counter, two chefs busily work with knives and the all-electric equipment that includes one small, single panini grill and one double panini grill, a glass-fronted tabletop roasting oven used for vegetables, and a toaster oven. An electric slicer sits atop a small, undercounter bar-style dishwasher. The area also includes a small handwashing sink and low-boy refrigerators that hold ingredients under the cutting board prep-area counter. An excellent bread is an important component of any sandwich, particularly a panini. Artisanal Blue Ribbon Bakery, conveniently located directly across the street, provides bread for ‘ino on a daily basis. ‘ino stores the bread in stacks on wire shelving, along with service plates, on one side of the open kitchen space.

“Because we are open and serving panini for 16 hours most days, our small panini grills get a real workout,“ says ‘ino owner Jason Denton. “We have to replace one or the other every couple of months, because they just plain wear out. We tend to keep at least one in storage for backup, so that we won't get caught short at busy moments.”

For the family-owned- and -operated Buona Companies, with locations around the Chicago area, the addition of Italian-style panini sandwiches was a natural choice, inspired by the family's Italian ancestors' recipes and cooking techniques. “Properly prepared, the panini sandwich should be crunchy and toasted on the outside, but not steaming hot inside,” says Don Buonavolanto, vice president of operations for the Buona Companies. “The ingredients should be warmed just enough to melt cheese and meld flavors. With unique flavor combinations such as chicken and artichoke, Chicken Roma with pesto, roasted peppers and provolone, or portobello mushrooms and asiago cheese, panini sandwiches are perceived to be a delicious, lighter menu alternative. In the four years since we've added the pressed sandwiches to menus at Buona Beef, our 11 quick-casual locations, panini sanwiches have grown in popularity to represent around 10% of total sales at those locations.”

For panini sandwich menu support, the Buona Companies purchased 14 high-quality, double panini grills with grooved, heavy-duty cast-iron grilling plates that serve to create sear marks on sandwiches. The grills include a front grease trough and pull-out drawer for easy cleanup. The double grills are capable of pressing and heating six sandwiches at a time, and two grills were installed at a couple of the busiest Buona Beef stores. “Considering the financial outlay and space allocation needed to add panini to our menus, they proved to be a great sales builder. Our stores were already equipped with the cold sandwich prep tables, slicers and prep table areas needed for panini production, so the grills were the only new piece of equipment needed,” Buonavolanto says.

At five of the older store locations, panini production is accomplished in the back kitchen, but the newer locations feature the panini grills out-front on the counter where staff prepare sandwiches in view of customers. Preparing to expand, the Buona Companies will open future Buona Beef locations with a new, scattered-station configuration and out-front, display cooking capability. Plans for these new stores include panini sandwich stations, which means the company will need to purchase additional panini grills, Buonavolanto says.

Key E&S for Panini Production

Refrigerated sandwichprep table Prep table Drop-in pans Undercounter refrigeration Tabletop roasting oven Toaster oven Wire shelving Bar-type undercounterdishwasher Electric slicer Spatula Brush Knives

“Panini sandwiches, unlike other menu items, can be pre-made and held for grilling, and typically before the lunch rush, 90-to-120 sandwiches will be pre-prepared. This helps our employees at the tight times, and makes panini sandwiches an operationally friendly menu addition,” Buonavolanto says. “We did experiment with partially pre-grilling sandwiches, holding them in a hot-holding oven and warming them on the grill for a minute or so, but this technique resulted in an inferior sandwich. You just can't beat a freshly grilled panini. We also brush the top of the panini sandwich with a high-quality olive oil before grilling for the very best results.”

When Blimpie, the nationwide sandwich QSR, was working to identify a new, hot menu item that would appeal to a dinnertime patron, market research led the company to develop three Italian-themed panini sandwiches as an addition to menus. “Blimpie franchisees around the country may offer a regionally identified menu item, and the tremendous popularity of a Cuban-style grill-pressed sub in the Miami area pointed the way towards adding a grilled sandwich nationwide,” explains Bruce Kolbinsky, vice president, office of associate relations and training for Blimpie International Inc.

In creating the panini sandwiches, Blimpie operators use deli-quality ingredients found in traditional Blimpie subs, such as cappacola ham, roasted red peppers, provolone cheese and oven-roasted turkey. Unlike the traditional Blimpie sub, however, the paninis feature a seven-grain Ciabatta bread, specially developed for these menu items to provide a different flavor profile. Panini sandwiches first appeared in some Blimpie locations in 2002, and they are now available in all 1,600 Blimpie stores nationwide.

Blimpie incorporates an internal company, BI Concepts, created to assist franchisees in obtaining all necessary Blimpie products and equipment, according to Kolbinsky. BI Concepts deals with the chosen manufacturer of the panini grills for Blimpie operations directly, and utilizes a network of dealers, reps and others in the distribution chains nationwide to provide grills and service to Blimpie franchisees.

“We chose the grills that we did for three basic reasons,” says Kolbinsky. “The inclusion of a timer was important for our busy locations, to help provide consistency and ease of use by employees. Cast-iron construction of the grilling plates in the manufacturer's grills provides durability, and we found that aluminum construction did not provide a fast enough rebound for grilling. Also, because the manufacturer is based in the United States, we can count on dependability in service and parts replacement.”

Kolbinsky points out that it is always a concern at a QSR franchise to add as little as possible in the way of new equipment when introducing a new menu offering. “The beauty of adding panini to menus was the simplicity. The small, electric panini grill to support new menu items at Blimpie can rest on the back counter in our stores, and requires no additional hood system,” he says. “The 4-foot, refrigerated sandwich prep table to hold panini ingredients is already a staple item of equipment in Blimpie stores. So with the addition of a grill and a change in menu boards, a franchisee is equipped to serve panini.”

The only problem to arise with the addition of panini grills to Blimpie stores was an occasional failure of the grill lever control. “The manufacturer of the grills worked with BI Concepts to remedy that problem and to provide training tips to avoid the problem happening at franchises in the future,” Kolbinsky says. “Panini sandwiches now represent up to 20% of total Blimpie sales, and have been a big success in terms of enhancing the Blimpie brand and, we believe, in encouraging an increase in the ever-illusive loyal, repeat customer that QSRs seek.”