But when chefs get into the sandwich-making business, a sandwich isn't just a sandwich. They obsess over each and every ingredient, which can make something as simple as mayo a time-intensive endeavor. That's something that Nancy Pugh says she had to balance at Duckfat, the Portland, Maine-based sandwich shop she opened with her husband -- French Laundry alum and 2009 James Beard Best Chef: Northeast winner Rob Evans -- back in 2005, three full years before the chef-driven sandwich movement really took off.
"It seemed simple at the time, but nothing is simple in our world," says Pugh. "Everything was from scratch. We were smoking our own meats, making our own duck gravy, making stocks for our soups, making our own mayonnaise, fermenting our own pickles. It sounds so simple when there are six ingredients in the sandwich. Then we’re making all six ingredients, and there are six sandwiches… it became far more complex than we thought.”
Such attention to detail seems impossible to scale, but as it became apparent that there was a vast demand for elevated sandwich shops, the mainstream followed suit. Localized chains started to spring up around the US, offering more discerning eaters alternatives to Jersey Mike's and Subway.
Southern California's Mendocino Farms has opened more than two dozen shops over 15 years based on demand for spiffed-up takes on popular sandwich styles including pork belly banh mi and a Brazilian steak sandwich on a pretzel roll. Homegrown, meanwhile, takes an au natural approach to sustainably farmed meats and vegetables, a unique fit for its growth across Washington state.
It's a trend that Dallas entrepreneur Hunter Pond seized upon. In 2012, the law school dropout with no restaurant experience took a hard right turn into sandwich culture with the launch of East Hampton Sandwich Co. It was a restaurant that did everything the chef-driven sandwich shops were: He had trending sandwiches like the lobster roll sitting next to fried chicken carb bombs. The ingredients were fresh and local. The food was photogenic. The only thing it was really missing? An actual chef. Pond had come up with the blueprints of his menu, hired pros to figure out how to effectively scale it and keep things tasty, and opened the doors to huge acclaim. He created a self-driven sandwich shop in a chef-driven era.
Now, the "fine-casual" East Hampton has nine locations across Texas and is showing no signs of stopping. It helps that it launched as social media was becoming something of a modern messenger pigeon for food nerds to spread the word. After all, in an age where you could instantly see what money was going to buy you, the proof was in the pixels.
"I think everyone is glued to their phone and glued to Instagram and constantly seeking what is best in class," Pond says. "I think that has allowed fine-casual concepts to beat the preconceived notion that $12 dollars for a sandwich is ridiculous. I think that people now say, 'Oh well, East Hampton's the best sandwich I can find within 100 miles of my house. I'd pay $15 dollars for this sandwich because it's the best.'"