pairLab Finds America's Favorite Sandwich

America’s Favorite Sandwich Is …

The club sandwich: A bacon-infused, turkey-laced double-decker with lettuce and tomato, glued together with mayonnaise and fastened with what always appears to be vaguely dangerous but nonetheless charismatic plastic cocktail swords.

The club sandwich was preferred by participants 10 times over the last-place sandwich. I’ll get to that one in a moment. Right now put your hunger aside because there’s a lot more to this story. First the methodology ...

Methodology

In homage to National Sandwich Month, pairLab sponsored a public poll on Facebook to find our collective favorite sandwich.

How does pairLab figure it out? pairLab uses pairwise comparisons to find preferences in a group of people. Participants cast votes for the better of two ideas (sandwiches in this case) as each sandwich is pitted against every other sandwich. Once a vote is cast, the participant tells pairLab how strongly they feel about their choice. pairLab’s algorithm crunches the numbers, and voila: we find how much Americans prefer one sandwich over others. 

What sandwiches were tested? Based on an internet search of top sandwiches, this pairLab expairiment was seeded with 12 classics:

  • bacon, lettuce & tomato (BLT)
  • chicken
  • club
  • egg salad
  • French dip
  • grilled cheese
  • ham & cheese
  • peanut butter & jelly
  • reuben
  • roast beef
  • tuna
  • turkey

Eligible sandwiches had to be available in any deli or sandwich shop. Excluded were regional favorites that one part of the country might value or have interpreted locally. So, for example, the club was in while the lobster roll was out. 

Also, sandwich descriptions were generic: I might want lettuce, tomato and onion on my roast beef, you might want hot peppers with oil and vinegar. This expairiment allowed each participant to imagine sandwiches their way. 

Of course, being a pairLab expairiment, which crowdsources ideas, participants were invited to suggest their own sandwiches which would be fed back into the survey to be voted on by subsequent participants. No suggestion met the inclusion criteria.

The survey was posted on Facebook to attract participants over the course of four days. The post targeted: 

  • Geography: United States
  • Audience targeting: “Food” and “Education Level: College grad”
  • Gender: All
  • Age range: 27 - 56

In all, 44 participants provided data within acceptable parameters and voted on 2,204 theoretical sandwich matchups.

Segments

pairLab buckets survey participants into segments. Segmenting participant data allows us to see priorities for each segment and compare segment results. Comparing segments shows how each one prioritizes ideas differently, leading to deep insights.

Two segment questions were asked of the participants:

  • What is your gender?
  • In what region of the country do you live?

For the gender segment, 57% of participants self-identified as men and 43% self-identified as women.

For residency, participants self-identified as:

  • Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT) -- 22%
  • South (AL, AR, DE, DC, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV) -- 27%
  • Midwest (IA, IL, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, NE, ND, OH, SD, WI) -- 27%
  • Mountain West (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, UT, WY) -- 5%
  • Pacific West (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA) -- 18%

Results

Survey participants overall preferred the club sandwich above all others. In second place was the club’s close cousin: bacon, lettuce and tomato (BLT). Rounding out the top-five were French dip, reuben and grilled cheese.

And what sandwich came in last? Childhood favorite peanut butter and jelly (PB&J).

Here’s how survey participants ranked them all:

pairLab find America's favorite sandwich is the club sandwich.

How to read this chart: pairLab shows rankings in two dimensions. The first is an ordinal ranking (“survey participants rank grilled cheese as their fifth favorite sandwich”). The second dimension reflects preference and is expressed as a “pair score” (the number assigned to each sandwich). A pair score is a unitless measure that shows how strongly participants prefer that sandwich as compared to any other. We can use pair scores to compare two sandwiches. For example, we can say that “participants prefer grilled cheese 1.5 times over an egg-salad sandwich.” (8.5/5.6 = 1.5). Green bars show rankings above the mean for all sandwiches, gray bars show rankings below the mean.

Men vs. Women

Do the sexes have their own unique preferences? 

They do. Guys like their roast beef. In fact, men ranked roast beef in fifth place, while women ranked it in 10th place. For their part, women elevated the turkey sandwich to sixth place while men ranked it in eighth place. 

PB&J was ranked dead last for both genders. I guess we outgrow it.

Regions of the Country

Do we live in a single sandwich nation or are our lunch-time preferences fractured? 

  • Eaters in the Northeast, value egg salad more than other regions (sixth place)
  • Southerners don't love grilled cheese as much as the rest of the country (demoted to eighth place)
  • Midwesterners value their ham and cheese higher than other regions do, putting it in fifth place.
  • Please, give your Mountain West friends a chicken sandwich. They ranked chicken as the number three sandwich

And then there's the Pacific West. The BLT, which competed with the club for the top spot elsewhere, was decisively done-in among participants in the Pacific West, who put it in fourth place. In fact, beefy sandwiches (roast beef and French dip) rose to the number two and three spot in the Pacific West. The Pacific West gave more love to PB&J, ranking it above tuna and last place egg salad.

We could look at this another way. Imagine you're in the Portland airport, staring into a refrigerated case of grab-and-go sandwiches. Your return flight home to New Jersey is about to board, and man are you hungry. Being from the Northeast, that egg-salad sandwich is calling your name. Do not heed its siren song! You know that people from the Pacific West ranked egg salad last among sandwich preferences. Choose the roast beef -- since it's preferred 2.8 times more than egg salad by the locals, just maybe it's turning over faster than all those lonely egg salads you're jonesing for.

Lessons for Would-Be Restaurateurs

Can pairLab’s results about America’s favorite sandwich help you craft a successful menu for your new restaurant?

Aside from leaving peanut butter and jelly off the menu, yes. If we look at the characteristics of sandwiches that were preferred above the others, patterns appear.

Americans prefer complex sandwiches over simple ones. The top sandwiches -- club, BLT, French dip, reuben and grilled cheese -- have more intricate layers, textures and flavors than sandwiches that were ranked lower. Does that mean the humble chicken sandwich is doomed, forever overshadowed by the likes of a gooey, sweet, sour and smokey reuben? pairLab results suggest that ramping up chicken’s complexity with other ingredients will make it a more enticing choice.

We love our bacon. We probably don’t need a fancy algorithm to tell us that bacon makes everything better (I am skeptical that PB&J’s ranking would improve with a couple of slices gratuitously added as enticement). But still, participants ranked sandwiches with bacon at or near the top.

Be mindful of regional favorites. A nationally focused company's marketing may have to be tweaked according to local tastes. In other words, don't push your egg salad in the Pacific West, but a club will pretty much work everywhere.

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Posted by Christian
on October 7, 2021