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5 Takeaways From This Year’s Sandwich Lab Cycle

We’ve got a lot to talk about this week. WordPress’s “readability” analysis is going to hate this post, but I hope you can find some joy while reading it. Brace yourself for an especially long-winded 5 Things™. Take care that your limbs don’t fall asleep.

Sandwich Lab—we won’t stop talking about it, but what is it?

  • *BUM BUM* IN THE DELICATESSEN SCENE, NEVER SHAKING UP YOUR SANDWICH MENU IS CONSIDERED ESPECIALLY HEINOUS. AT NORTHERN WATERS SMOKEHAUS, THE DEDICATED DELI EMPLOYEES WHO INNOVATE ON THE SANDWICH MENU ARE MEMBERS OF AN ELITE SQUAD KNOWN AS THE SANDWICH LAB. THESE ARE THEIR STORIES.
  • A place where dreams come true. Every Northern Waters Smokehaus employee gets a free shift meal each shift. This is an essential part of the Smokehaus business model: Well-nourished employees who feel valued are likely to work better. Newcomers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the entire menu, so that is where their meals usually begin; however, there are dreamers and seekers among us. Eventually, there are those who travel through the looking glass, then down the rabbit hole, often there and back again, discovering obscured and forbidden combinations of flavor, and discerning the likes of which are their favorites. Colloquially, we refer to them as pet sandwiches, which is a very tender way to describe something that you obliterate with your mouth and hands, but that’s beside the point. These Seekers of the New Flavor wear their desire paths until they settle upon the True Recipe, and Sandwich Lab is the place where they may enter their creation in a fateful test against the gauntlet of their co-workers’ palates. And among those entrants, only the most Supreme earn their place upon the Sandwich Menu, some for a short time—more on this in a jiffy!—and some for good.

    Having your creation up on the menu at a beloved deli feels good. The current permanent-menu sandwiches that came from this recent NWS tradition are the Cedar’s Secret, the Pork Lion, the Purple Range, the Hardhat, and the Adisalad—a rare salad entry that became the most recent Lab’s only permanent-menu addition.
  • A place where heretical beliefs are crushed! Sometimes—most often with our toasted sandwiches—steps in the preparation of sandwiches give way to shortcuts discovered in trying times, like the midst of an especially grueling 5-hour Summer rush; or to alternate arrangements of ingredients, like a Cajun Finn where all the vegetable elements are below the Cajun Smoked Salmon (the horror!). Imprecise amounts of condiments can make or break the overall experience of a sandwich. There’s a million-and-one things our sandwich makers have to juggle in their, ultimately and tragically limited, human brains while churning out those stacks of bread, meat, cheese, sauce and veg, and sometimes things just go astray.

    Until Sandwich Lab, whereupon these heretical ideals are brought to heel, though not without the opportunity for fair trial. While a select panel of experts prepares its own case in the name of getting us back on course, there is also opportunity to determine if the old way really is the right way. A few examples of changes brought forth by Sandwich Lab include shifting the Big Dipper from a cold sandwich on a square roll, cut in thirds, to a hot sandwich on a hero roll, cut in fourths; and the admittedly very-involved multi-cycle toasting of ingredients—first separately, then stacked together—of the ’06.
  • A fun time. This blog is really playing up the drama of Sandwich Lab, but ultimately, it’s mostly a lot of laughter and snacking, with some demonstrations going on throughout the time. It’s a paid meeting and it’s only mandatory to those of us embroiled in the sandwich arts.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to these Things™, which will be a mixture of stone cold statistics and subjective observations.

A recap of Sandwich Lab 2019.

The dates of the nine monthlong specials had somewhat arbitrary beginnings and endings, based roughly around the first Monday of each month. For the sake of this retrospective, we’ll just note the month in which each ran. For the sake of your time, I’ll just include brief notes for each sandwich.

January—The Breakfast Club

Turkey & Pancetta roughly equals a club sandwich. Bagel & cream cheese roughly equals breakfast sandwich. This sandwich is not groundbreaking, but it sure tastes good.

The blog post announcing this sandwich was fun to write, and almost entirely synthesized from material Wesley, the sandwich’s creator, wrote down for me.

Later Sandwich Lab announcements began to follow a semi-consistent format.

February—The Wagner

Probably my favorite of the sandwich lab specials, and that’s including my own contribution to the cycle. This is a very sauce-driven sandwich, including mayo, mustard and sriracha. While Turkey & Pastrami were the two meat options, the secret third option—Black Pepper & Coriander Atlantic Salmon—also made for a great savory & spicy sandwich.

March—The Spinderella

Before this sandwich entered our lives, I had never really thought of cream cheese as a dipping sauce. After this sandwich, the recipe of which called for “A side of cream cheese, for dippin’,” I now recognize it as such. Smokehaus sandwiches with multiple meats are few and far between, so Turkey & Salami-mix as a double protein was certainly a treat. Hip-hop trio Salt’n’Pepa—after the DJ of which this sandwich was named—also toured this Spring, so the name was an apt tribute, mostly by accident.

April—The Bloody Mary

So many Smokehaus products lend themselves easily to Bloody Mary construction. Originally, the plan for this sandwich was to have Bison Buddies as the main protein, however, due to prohibitive food costs and fluctuations in bison availability, we settled on our Beef & Pork Summer Sausage and Smoked Pancetta.

The early Sandwich Lab specials received a ton of marketing support (before we realized that it wouldn’t be sustainable in the busy months and dropped the hilarious video/audio clips), and the Bloody Mary got some of the best: breaking mirrors, smoke, and a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic butchering of The Shining (seriously, read the book).

This sandwich’s downfall was an ongoing struggle with the “bloody mary mixer” sauce, which was often unavailable, due to other prepping priorities. Its upside was its beautiful mess personality.

May—The Wallaby

Michael brought this sandwich from a small coffee shop and deli in Sedona, AZ. Its name comes from the Australian owner, whose voice and accent is stuck in Michael’s head even to this day, whenever he smashes an avocado. The Wallaby marked the Smokehaus’s first-ever inclusion of avocado on the menu, and the sandwich itself was on the low-end of our price range. Additionally, it was a vegan sandwich, which is still new territory to a lot of our customer base—hence our recommended inclusion (for a slight upcharge) of Smoked Pancetta.

Our sincere apologies if associating the proud people of Australia with wallabies is at all insensitive. The name played into a Rocko’s Modern Life marketing sub-theme, and we thought it was cute.

June—The Sebu-chan

The marketing of this sandwich was a bit erratic. The name comes from one of Sebastian’s nicknames, his suggested marketing notes were to include cats, because he loves cats, and it’s a great sandwich that elides the best parts of a handful of our other fish sandwiches—the Cajun Finn, the Sitka Sushi, and the Great Summer Caper—into one sleek package. All things considered, the Sebu-chan was available at the beginning of our busy Summer season, and it was a fish sandwich, [WHICH HAS PROVEN TO BE A SUCCESSFUL MODEL ON ITS OWN], so it sold quite a few units, and we received no bad reviews. I’d call this Sandwich Lab Special a success.

July—The Fish Schtick

Another entry in the line of successful fish sandwiches that emerged from Sandwich Lab. In terms of percentage of units sold (the category we’ll be using to rate an aspect of the sandwich’s success in a later Thing™) the Schtick was on-par with the rest of the sandwiches, but in terms of how many it actually sold, this one is the winner.

The average (mean) number of units sold overall was 119.222222222, and the Schtick sold 229 units during its tenure. These numbers don’t account for factors such as how slow or fast business was at the time, but they’re still interesting enough to note. The next largest seller of individual units was the Wagner, at 133 sandwiches sold.

Harrison, its creator, is a proponent of bombastic flavor profiles, and this sandwich is no exception. Between pepperoncinis, lemon pepper, and cornichon pickles, this sandwich has a lot of flavor going on.

August—The Lake Trout Situation

Jacob accurately assessed our need for a Smoked Lake Trout sandwich, and offered up this NWS spin on a New England Lobster Roll. The hurdle this sandwich had to struggle with was a general shortage of Lake Trout during the month of August. Fortunately, this delicious Lake Trout Salad and Smoked Pancetta sandwich (on our haus-baked Pullman white bread) only sold a modest amount of units—enough that it was worth the effort invested, but was still able to stay within the demand for it.

September—NO SPECIAL

We took a break from Sandwich Lab specials, in hopes of finding the best local apples for the final sandwich.

Read about last year’s permanent menu addition: The Adisalad.

October—The G.O.A.T.

October is a much better time for apples. By waiting until this month, we were able to a.) get amazing Cortland apples from Washburn, WI (the remainder of which Patricia has been using in apple hand pies. So yum!) and b.) run my sandwich during my favorite month. While I consider this sandwich the Greatest of All Time, hence the name, others did not share my fervor. Points against this sandwich: neither Smoked Andouille (toasted, to boot), chèvre, nor apples are a regular part of our sandwich line. Additionally, the construction of this sandwich is rather involved—the andouille required several cycles in the oven to achieve perfect toastiness.

All things considered, I’ll still be bringing in my own apples and making this sandwich all the time.

Monthlong specials are tough.

Between training the workforce, developing marketing ideas, putting marketing ideas into practice, sourcing ingredients not ordinarily found at NWS, perfecting sauce recipes, keeping new ingredients in-stock, cultivating demand among our customers, and Flo creating detailed and accurate individual signs(!), a lot of resources went into these specials, which deserved more time to shine than we could practically allot them.

This is just to say, the upcoming Sandwich Lab probably won’t turn out the same way. We’re leaving our options open, and making no promises.

These are the actual numbers.

Your blogger is neither a statistics- nor a mathematics-oriented individual, but I have access to one particular set of data which offers a small insight into the relative success of each sandwich: percentage of units sold. Basically, during the Special’s time on the menu, how many were sold versus how many sandwiches/salads were sold overall. Since I don’t have access to the whole year’s data at this time, I won’t be “sharing my work.” You’re just going to have to trust me. Early results seem to be skewed to the nearest percent, while later results are slightly more accurate.

The Breakfast Club: 56 sold / 1%

The Wagner: 132 sold / 3%

The Spinderella: 128 sold / 2%

The Bloody Mary: 117 sold / 2%

The Wallaby: 86 sold / 1%

The Sebu-chan: 110 sold / 1.5%

The Fish Schtick: 229 sold / 1.7%

The Lake Trout Situation: 92 sold / 0.96%

The G.O.A.T.: 100 sold / 1.46%

We find this percentage useful in determining the relative success of the sandwich since each one had a slightly different price (making total sales less useful) and we have definite slow and busy seasons, in which our overall sandwich sales drop and increase drastically. A “fun” “game” you can play with the numbers I’ve given you is to calculate how many sandwiches/salads we sold in a given month. I’ll leave that up to you, and move on, because I’m finishing up this blog on my day off and want to wrap things up.

Sandwich Lab is coming soon.

At our November 3rd All-Staff Meeting, we determined that the next Sandwich Lab will take place on Sunday, November 17th at 7pm. Goals for this Lab: get new employees and veterans on the same page for our entire huge sandwich menu, perhaps find a couple new sandwiches for the board, and begin development of the sandwich whose naming rights we put up for auction on behalf of Friends of the Boundary Waters. Yes, an individual has earned the right to name an as-of-yet-undeveloped smoked fish sandwich, which will be available in our deli during Spring 2020.

I don’t always ask for feedback…

…but when I do, I make a big deal out of it.

If you’ve had any/all of our 2019 Sandwich Lab specials, and you have any critiques/complaints/compliments that you’d like to share with us, or if you think that any of the specials deserves a victory lap or a slot on our permanent menu, shoot me an email at ned@nwsmokehaus.com

I can’t make any promises about what we’ll do with the information (though if I want to quote you in any future media, I will 100% ask your permission).

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

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5 Things: July 12th, 2019

5 Things™ is back from vacation. I had the best steak of my life (please pound your steaks thin and marinate them overnight before you ever consider cooking them), my very first experience with escargot, watched a Chicago-sized storm cloud travel over Chicago from a balcony at the epicenter of the cloudburst, and even got a wicked sunburn at a crowded beach, but didn’t manage to churn out a blog. Hopefully you just went about your lives and didn’t miss it too much.

Here’s a handful of things that I’ve learned about life at NWS since I’ve returned.

Andy has stepped into his role as Mail Order director.

I already knew about this one, but you may not have. Shipping our hand-crafted products around the nation is part of the foundation of our business, but the department has been without a leader for a couple months. In practice, perhaps you didn’t even notice, due to our staff’s ability to fill in the gaps.

We interviewed several candidates within our existing staff, and selected Andy to guide the future of this department. Training in as the director of this massive endeavor—December is one of our most profitable months, and that is in large part due to mail order—is no small, short, or easy task, so we wish Andy the best.

Tyler has evolved into his delivery/pickup assistant manager-form.

Tyler, who once told me he didn’t want any responsibility beyond being a good dishwasher—I’m paraphrasing—has now taken on more responsibility, seemingly of his own accord.

The delivery/pickup department, which has been going through its own evolution lately—simultaneously contracting its in-haus delivery hours and range, and expanding its hours and range through third-party delivery services Food Dudes and Bite Squad—welcomes Tyler’s affable leadership.

The Fish Schtick.

“Sandwich Lab” may be one of the most-oft repeated phrases in my blogging life. This month’s Sandwich Lab special (temporary addition to the sandwich menu) is a curious sandwich called the Fish Schtick.

Assembled on a haus ciabatta roll, it is composed of Traditional Smoked Atlantic Salmon, tomato, cornichon pickle, lettuce, mayo, and lemon pepper. It has a bright, complex, yet cohesive harmony of flavors tied together by the smoky goodness of our salmon.

The Fish Schtick accounts for about 2% of our sandwich sales during its time on the menu, which is nothing to shake a schtick at.

The months ahead will feature a Lake Superior Lake Trout-salad sandwich, and a smoked Andouille sausage, chevre, and green apple sandwich. Stay hungry, because all of these Sandwich Lab specials get you two stamps on your sandwich card. Now that’s value!

We have the hardest working production crew in town!

Okay, this may not be strictly true—I didn’t do any research—but hear me out: I checked in with our team of roughly five smokers about their life in the basement, and found out that they’ve been putting in hours—working double shifts, sometimes triples, and the occasional overnight—but that was only after some prying on my part.

Their first answer to my inquiry about life in the basement: “It’s pretty chill!”

How’s that for a winning attitude? This is the energy we need to take with us into the rest of 2019.

We had a span of 11 days that would have blown my mind when I started at NWS.

And I was on vacation the whole time.

When I began working at our humble deli, there was tangible excitement any time our daily sales were above $5,000. I’m pretty sure $9,000 in sales would have merited a pizza party, popping Champagne corks (or vigorously-shaken LaCroix cans), and maybe even some light screaming.

While I was out of town, our average daily sales were closing in on $10,000, even on days that we closed early, due to holidays and our Sunday hours. For eleven days.

We’re really glad you all like us so much.

We love you forever!

See you next time on 5 Things™.