What exactly is the difference between a mainstream and an upscale sandwich store? According to Coen, it's all about identity and perception. "If a franchisor calls itself upscale, there had better be a perceivable difference in quality and price," he says. "It's OK to have a higher price, as long as you've made a noticeable improvement [over other chains] in decor, atmosphere and food quality. Most working people eat lunch out 22 times a month, so consumers are the ultimate authority on the differences in food quality."
Upscale sandwich stores use a more diverse selection of food items to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Mike Stimola, 41, founder of Redding, Connecticut-based Sandella's Cafe, believes his franchise's distinctive menu selections are a large factor in the chain's success. Sandella's offers 80 different sandwiches, including pita wraps inspired by ethnic cuisines, as well as soups, salads and smoothies. "We found having a sandwich that people could only get at Sandella's gave them a reason to come here," says Stimola, who grew Sandella's from a single coffee bar he opened in Redding to an eight-restaurant chain in five years. "They can get turkey, ham and roast beef sandwiches anywhere. What really sets us apart is our creativity and the uniqueness of the product. We're going after that sophisticated consumer who's looking for something different in a sandwich from what they get every day."
Lacking the heavy fried food items and greasy hamburgers of most fast-food chains, upscale sandwich shops are able to capitalize on a trend toward healthier eating spearheaded by aging (and generally prosperous) baby boomers. The menu selection at Wall Street Deli, an upscale sandwich franchise with more than 115 stores nationwide, puts a strong emphasis on healthy foods. "We saw where the market was going and felt there was a tremendous opportunity to tap into foods that were perceived as healthier than traditional burgers, fries and pizza concepts," says David Thomas, senior vice president of marketing for Wall Street Deli. "We knew from past experiences that we could produce sandwiches very quickly and efficiently, so the upscale sandwich concept works well for us."