Today, however, top chefs are creating sandwiches made with artisan breads, imported meats and cheeses and a range of uncommon condiments that offer distinctive tastes. Retailers and home cooks as well are embracing the notion of an upgraded sandwich and are looking for toppers to boost flavor and complement the other high-quality ingredients. The solution? Specialty condiments that truly deliver much more.

Unconventional Classics

Perhaps more so than the other standards, mustard has expanded its versatility on the sandwich with an expanse of added flavors. "Upgraded versions of classics, such as our Garlic Aioli mustard, spark interest from customers," explains Tom Ratcliff, of San Francisco's Restaurant LuLu.

"Unfortunately," he continues, "when it comes to preparing sandwiches at home, many consumers still have tunnel vision when it comes to what condiment they will put on their sandwich, so they reach for their usual mustard." That means that retailers will need to do more education around these reworked toppers.

Ratcliff recommends the company's Mustard with Harissa, which adds a spicy fire to whatever it is paired with, as well as a Meyer Lemon and Garlic Mustard, which has pieces of finely ground lemon. "It's a flavor that screams spring," he says.

At DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine in Seattle's Pike Place Market, "we've got everything from standard Dijon to Pommery Moutard de Meaux, a very seedy mustard with green peppercorn flecks, to a Cassis mustard. In fact, a Maille mustard is for everyday consumption, and a Pommery is something special," says Matt Snyder, co-owner.

"Mustards are definitely the strongest seller in the sandwich topping category," explains Cynthia Maranhas, marketing assistant, copywriter for Maine-based Stonewall Kitchen. "Garlic, blue cheese and horseradish are popular flavors, and when blended with mustard, we have created some of our most successful varieties."

It is also critical to look at long-term mustard sellers to see what customers are responding to. At Katzinger's Delicatessen in Columbus, Ohio, Honeycup Mustard has been one of the biggest sellers for 23 years. "It is a thick, sweet, spicy and sassy mustard that is so different from the honey mustard you see everywhere from fast food restaurants to fine dining," says Owner Diane Warren. "Our customers have enjoyed this unique mustard on sandwiches for many years, just as they have our homemade pesto mayo and our tapenades."

Aside from mustard, other categories are putting a fresh take on standards, such as Wholemato's Original Organic Agave Ketchup made with organic tomatoes, spices and sweetened with agave nectar, or flavored mayonnaises such as Restaurant LuLu's Saffron & Garlic Rouille.

But some retailers, such as Chef Mick Rosacci of Tony's Meats & Specialty Foods in Denver, believe it is essential to keep topper flavors simple. "The classic combinations are always going to work and please the customer," notes Rosacci, who suggests a cranberry chutney with turkey, or a horseradish sauce with roast beef. "You can't go wrong with them. These old-world classics pair well together and have satisfied sandwich eaters for some time," he adds.

One forgotten sandwich element, according to Nathan Plutko, grocery buyer at DeLaurenti, is olive oil. "Not just as a base for a dressing on a sandwich," he explains, "but as a condiment on a fish sandwich, for example." The retailer creates a classic Italian sandwich by pairing mortadella with pistachio bread and extra virgin olive oil. "We also use truffle oil, which is ideal with Prosciutto di Parma, baby arugula and shavings of Reggiano," he adds.

Flavors and Textures That Jump

What makes many sandwich condiments popular with customers are "jump-at-you flavors," explains Plutko, "much like the mango and raisin combination found in [Jamaica's] Pickapeppa Sauce, which makes it an almost complete all-around condiment for sandwiches."

At Stonewall Kitchen, Horseradish sauces, Sun-Dried Tomato & Olive Relish and the Roasted Garlic Onion Jam are favorites, according to Maranhas. "Also, many of our grill sauces, such as Maple Chipotle or Roasted Apple, make great toppings for chicken or pork sandwiches."

Another favorite is Pomodoraccio Semi Sun Dried Tomato Antipasto, distributed by American Gourmet Foods in Washington, D.C. "It is softly marinated in sunflower oil with oregano and garlic, giving it a fantastic flavor when it is on a sandwich. It is more flavorful and less acidic than a sun-dried tomato," Plutko explains.

Antipasto items, pickles, relishes or sauce ingredients can also add texture, which is as key to an interesting condiment as creative flavor profiles. "It is important that beyond flavor, which the classic creamy toppers like mustard and mayo may offer, you have texture," explains Ron Johnson of Encore Specialty Food Importers, Hingham, Mass. The crunch of a pickle is a familiar texture in nearly every deli sandwich found in New York, he notes, "but once you experience a tzatziki from Greece, a French olive tapenade or an Indian pickled eggplant curry sauce, you're borrowing flavors and textures from around the world, and that changes the whole texture of a sandwich."

Surprising Toppers

Experimentation is essential to breaking the old habits—as Barbara Macaluso, founder of Delicaé Gourmet, found out when she introduced new glazes. By mixing the Fig Francesca Balsamic Glaze with whipped cream cheese, then spreading it on Focaccia bread and pairing it with salty prosciutto, the glaze became a delicious sandwich topper.

"The glazes offer a distinctive combination of flavors that really burst on the tongue when experienced," she explains. "They give the sandwich a flavor profile that is completely different from what is out there."

It is experimentation that allows consumers to truly transform a sandwich. According to Bonnie Frese, president of Private Harvest Gourmet Specialties, Lakeport, Calif., her line of Bread Spreads were developed to spread on French bread, grill in the oven, then serve like garlic bread. "But, we soon found out through consumer letters, that they were being used for so much more," she explains. "They were used as a sandwich spread, a dip for vegetables or in a potato salad." The line has expanded from the original Smoky Mozzarella to 11 flavors including the newest, Asiago Cheese.

And, anything with cheese, according to Frese is a big seller. "Our most popular items are those with cheese in them. For instance, the Cheddar Horseradish Dip is great as a dip, but is also an ideal choice to use on a steak sandwich," she notes.

At Portsmouth, N.H.'s The Lollipop Tree, a line of pepper jellies has helped consumers "bring a sandwich to another level," explains Laurie Lynch, founder. "They're great on grilled cheese, Reubens or paninis, and they can add flavor to sautéed vegetables that then top the sandwich, hamburger or hotdog, giving an unexpected flavor sensation."

The line, which was reformulated to be made with organic ingredients, "can be used in many different ways on a sandwich," adds Lynch. "The Vidalia® Onion Cranberry Pepper Jelly is wonderful on a roast turkey and avocado sandwich, and the Mango Ginger Pepper Jelly spread on a baguette with Virginia baked ham and sharp Cheddar, then placed under the broiler, is ideal."

Education and Merchandising

James Beard once said, "Too few people understand a really good sandwich." But retailers can go a long way to rectifying this. To get customers to switch their topping, teaching is required and most retailers recommend sampling.

Johnson believes the best way to sell toppers is to have an ongoing educational program. "There is a lot of habit when it comes to sandwiches, and trying to get the consumer to imagine which condiment to buy can be hard to do, even if the label suggests to 'drizzle' this, or 'spread' that," he explains.

"Without a doubt it is cross merchandising that helps build sales in this category," says Warren. "While we make some of our condiments ourselves, what we use in the deli is also sold on our shelves." At Katzinger's, it's not just the corned beef sandwich that receives accolades, "but the perfect pairing of the condiment with other high-quality ingredients that inspires customers to want to recreate it at home," she adds.

According to Snyder at DeLaurenti, "everything used in the café as a condiment or ingredient can be found on the shelves," with the exception of produce, a category not carried at the store. For example, the popular sweet Hungarian Pickled Goathorn Peppers from Seattle's Mama Lil's are readily available in prepared foods and in jars. "The sweet heat of Mama Lil's peppers pairs nicely with cured meats, sauces and salamis," explains Snyder. "The vibrantly red Goathorn Peppers also go well with Asiago fresco. And, we use it on pizza."

"It is extremely important to taste and talk about the food you offer to customers," says Ratcliff, who notes that sales at LuLu Petit, in San Francisco's Ferry Building, "improved immensely once the manager took to describing the sandwich ingredients to customers."

Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market, also in San Francisco, has grown his sandwich department nearly 40 percent from 2006 to 2007 with a menu that changes seasonally, which he says drives interest in the category. However, Mogannam does note that the jarred condiments aren't particularly a good category for them, perhaps, he hypothesizes, "because we make so many condiments ourselves, such as Chipotle-Lime Aioli and Dried Fig and Apple Chutney."

The Ultimate Goal

Creating a great sandwich is what this is all about. Whether the topper is homemade or jarred, "what is essential for a perfect sandwich," explains Warren, "is that condiments are used correctly. They must be used judiciously. They can't be overdone or they can ruin the sandwich." Additionally, she adds, "they must be properly married to the other ingredients in order to create a masterpiece."

Laura Everage is a regular contributor to Specialty Food Magazine.

Specialty Sandwich Toppers
Here are just a few specialty condiments that can be used to create extraordinary sandwiches. Hundreds more can be found in the Product Finder on specialtyfood.com:
* ALOHA FROM OREGON, Mango Pepper Jelly and Plum Ginger Thai Pepper Jelly, alohafromoregon.com
* BARHYTE SPECIALTY FOODS, Aviator Ale Mustards, barhyte.com
* BELLA CUCINA ARTFUL FOOD, Artichoke Lemon, Walnut Sage, Arugula & Pine Nut, Porcini &  Parmesan and Roasted Eggplant pestos, bellacucina.com
* DELICAÉ GOURMET, Fig Francesca Balsamic Glaze, delicaegourmet.com
* THE LOLLIPOP TREE, Vidalia® Onion Cranberry Pepper Jelly or Mango Ginger Pepper Jelly, lollipoptree.com
* MADE IN NAPA VALLEY, Tomato Vodka with Celery Seeds Mustard, madeinnapavalley.com
* MAMA LIL'S, Pickled Goathorn Peppers or PeppaLilli Chow Chow, mamalils.com
* METZGER SPECIALTY BRANDS, Europeenne de Condiments' Temeraire and Bornier Mustards,  tillenfarms.com
* THE OJAI COOK, Lemonaise, ojaicook.com
* PICKAPEPPA CO. LTD., Pickapeppa Sauce, pickapeppa.com
* PRIVATE HARVEST, Asiago Cheese Bread Spread, privateharvest.com
* RESTAURANT LULU, Mustard with Harissa and Saffron & Garlic Rouille, restaurantlulugourmet.com
* STONEWALL KITCHEN, Garlic, Blue Cheese or Horseradish Mustards and Maple Chipotle or Roasted  Apple Grille Sauces, stonewallkitchen.com
* THATS A NICE!, Olivetta, thatsanice.com
* WHOLEMATO, Original Organic Agave Ketchup, wholemato.com
* WINE COUNTRY KITCHENS, Caramelized Red Onion & Fig Dip, winecountrykitchens.com