Turkey can be found on many menus in a variety of different preparations, but most restaurateurs would agree that none are more popular than offering turkey in the form of a sandwich.

The turkey sandwich is a staple of the American foodservice scene. According to research conducted by the NPD Group, 1.2 billion turkey sandwich servings were sold in 2013, a figure that largely held steady when compared with 2012 results. “That's a lot of turkey sandwiches … and they're holding their own in a market that's not growing in terms of the number of visits,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD.

Consumption, she continues, “is holding steady. But we are seeing more activity in terms of menu innovation.”

Part of the attraction of turkey stems from its perceived health halo, says Riggs, who notes that turkey appeals to consumers looking to purchase menu items that are lighter and can boast a leaner protein profile. The increase in the number of turkey burgers on foodservice menus is a clear demonstration of that trend as chains like Burger King, CKE Restaurants, Hardee's, Carl's Jr. and The Counter enter into the highly competitive sandwich marketplace with their own take on the turkey burger.

But as more restaurateurs opt to showcase turkey sandwiches on their menus, they also must look for ways to differentiate their selections from those of the competition. Not surprisingly, turkey's versatility lends itself to a wide variety of accompaniments, including toppings, dressings and breads, allowing menumakers to unleash their creativity and devise sandwiches that stand apart from others in the market.

Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop, a four-unit fast-casual chain based in Los Angeles, was recognized by Restaurant Hospitality in 2013 for menuing the Best Turkey Sandwich in America with its Turkey Melt Sandwich. The judges called it “a sandwich that demonstrates just how exciting this protein can be.”

To prepare the top-selling sandwich, Greenleaf first roasts turkey breast with a blend of seasonings. The roasted turkey is then thinly sliced and arranged on a homemade pretzel roll with aged white cheddar, caramelized onions, sautéed spinach, sofrito and chili flakes. Once the cheese has been melted, it is drizzled with white truffle oil and served closed on a plate with a side of whole-grain mustard aioli.

According to Greenleaf's executive chef Christi Ritchey, the aioli is prepared with tofu, so there is no egg and no oil. “It saves on fat and calorie content,” Ritchey says. “It has a mouth-feel like aioli, but it's healthier.”

In addition, Greenleaf's catering menu offers a turkey sandwich with blue cheese, apple and arugula with a cranberry aioil.

Ritchey observes that turkey appeals to people who want to consume leaner proteins. “Now, people who ate red meat are opting for turkey instead,” she says. However, part of the appeal also stems from the fact that “restaurants are treating turkey a lot better, too,” she continues. “Chefs have gotten a lot more creative with it. They're treating it like a nice chicken breast.”

Handled correctly, turkey can easily become a signature item for a restaurant or a chain, as demonstrated by the 104-unit Capriotti's Sandwich Shop based in Las Vegas. Founded in 1976, the brand has a long-standing tradition of slow-roasting whole turkeys in-house every night and then hand-pulling the meat from the bones the following morning.

“It's a very labor-intensive process,” says Vinnie Calcagni, Capriotti's vice president of operations. “The turkeys go through a 10- to 12-hour cook cycle. Then the meat is pulled off [the carcass] and shredded by hand.”

He estimates the chain uses some 68,000 whole turkeys a year.

Capriotti's most popular turkey sandwich, The Bobbie, is anchored squarely in the Thanksgiving comfort food zone, Calcagni says. Served on a freshly baked roll, shredded turkey is accompanied by stuffing made daily, cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. The sandwich, which is available in 9-inch, 12-inch and 20-inch sizes, accounts for upwards of 40 percent of the chain's menu mix. While it is traditionally served cold, the Bobbie also is available hot.

“The Bobbie put us on the map,” he says. “It conjures up great memories of family times.”

Capriotti's also offers a Cole Turkey sandwich with turkey, cole slaw and Russian dressing served on a fresh baked roll; the Cran-Slam Club, turkey and ham with stuffing, cranberries, mayo and lettuce served as a triple decker on three slices of bread; and traditional turkey, turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions and mayonnaise.

Turkey also is playing a key role at Schlotzsky's Bakery Cafe, the hot sandwich specialist owned by Focus Brands, as it transitions over from a quick-service sandwich chain to a bakery-cafe concept. According to Mark Mears, chief marketing officer for the Austin, Texas-based brand, Schlotzsky's is seeking to compete with higher-end bakery-cafe operators like Corner Bakery Cafe. To accomplish that, he says, “We have to push the envelope from a culinary perspective. Customers want something more flavorful ... more creative menu offerings. To steal share from [other brands like] Corner Bakery, we are working on a whole menu optimization approach.”

As part of Schlotzsky's new bakery-cafe initiative, the brand recently completed a spring LTO that featured thicker, hand-carved cuts of meat. The top-selling sandwich was turkey, accompanied by smoked Gouda, avocado slices, lettuce and tomato, served on a made-from-scratch sourdough bread. All of the hand-carved selections—which included ham and braised beef—were served hot.

Meanwhile, turkey remains Schlotzsky's top-selling protein for all sandwiches, led by the popular turkey bacon club, with smoked turkey breast, bacon, melted cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, with lettuce, tomato, light mayonnaise on toasted sourdough bread. Other turkey selections include Albuquerque Turkey, Turkey & Guacamole, and Smoked Turkey Breast.

“To say that turkey is an important component of the menu is an understatement,” Mears says. “Schlotzsky's has always had a good mix of turkey based sandwiches, but we're definitely seeing an uptick in sales. It's a healthful protein that you can dress up or down. It's very versatile and lends itself to carrying different flavor profiles.”