School Lunch Heroes

- by

Sad sandwiches? Not with these expert tips

WITH SOME 300 MILLION SANDWICHES consumed each day, it’s no wonder(bread) that by this time in the school year, all of us — and our kids — could use a little shake-up. 

We asked some of the city’s favorite sandwich-makers to share their top tips for banishing the soggy PB&J from school lunches forever.

KRISTEN RUSSELL // Brighter Day Natural Foods Market


All meals should start with good, wholesome ingredients. The other secret is a good mix of textures and flavors. It’s been a long time since I packed school lunches, but I was a pro back in the day and prided myself on lunches for which all the kids wanted to trade. Leftovers are your best friend: they can go on a sandwich, on a salad or just be eaten cold. The trick to making a school lunch special is to put a lot of little flavors and dishes. Fresh veggies are a must, like radishes at this time of year. 

Fruit is an overlooked but amazing and interesting ingredient on sandwiches. Try some figs with your turkey, or apples with your hummus, or a cherry jam with your ham.  Mixing salty and sweet makes a great sandwich, as long as it,s fructose and not a lot of added sugar. 

At Brighter Day, the avocado and baked cheese sandwich is for sure our most popular. It’s got the chewy, meaty flavor of the baked cheese (people say it tastes like bacon) with the smooth, healthy fat of the avocado and the crunch of fresh sprouts on good bread. It’s a great balance, and you can replicate it at home with all manner of similar ingredients. Use whole-wheat bread made with organic flour, so there aren’t all those gross additives. Hummus or other bean or nut spreads are a great way to replace cheese or meat on a sandwich to keep it light and vegan. And the best way to stay on an in-season, local diet is to shop the farmers, market! 

photo courtesy of BLACK RABBIT SAVANNAH


It’s all about matching flavors. My pepper jelly is nothing fancy. It works because the turkey is smoked. Sweet and savory. For our Van Gogh sandwich, we have a honey mustard with regular chicken and a cider-marinated sweet pepper. The aioli on our club sandwich is what makes it great. When it comes to sandwiches, it’s the small touches that make a difference — fewer than two minutes of effort will do. Our pickled veggies, we keep them extremely simple: a gallon of vinegar, a gallon of water, a half-cup of sugar and salt. We have a spicy and a regular every day, depending on what’s in season. Watermelon and pineapple surprise people a lot. 

Also, you can’t chintz on meats. Cheese, you can kind of chintz on. But meats? You can’t. For instance, I recently offered a pizza sandwich for the sole reason that the stick pepperoni we got was great by itself — and it was really great with a marina and provolone. So, if you’ve been out to eat recently and brought home leftovers, you can dress them up with a nice sauce to make something special. 

As for my favorite sandwich? Hard salami, ketchup, aioli, potato chips, pickles, provolone, lettuce, and tomato smashed on cheap white bread. Smashed. I’ll stand by that.

MILES MATTHEWS // Finches Sandwiches & Sundries

The same rule applies to school lunches as to any type of entree: You need something fatty, something crunchy, something salty, something acidic. Then I like to add something herbaceous like the thyme on our grilled cheese, or tarragon with mushrooms. For kids, keep it simple, and add one extra little thing. I have three grown kids, but I know they would have been really stoked to have some potato chips layered in their egg salads, or a peanut butter and banana souped up with maple syrup. I pre-season veggies, like a sprinkle of salt on cucumbers and letting them sit for 20 minutes, or dunking carrots in water before dusting with salt so when lunchtime came around, the seasoning would be there — that was one of the things they liked. 

photo courtesy of FINCHES

At Finches, the grilled cheese is the perfect example of what keeps selling. It’s been on the menu since day 1. There are a million ways you can riff on it. We’ve paired a fancier cheddar cheese with the American cheese for extra ooey-gooey-ness. Or you could add Old Bay to your butter and brush your bread with it. For our thyme butter, let a pound of butter get soft, add 25 grams of chopped garlic, another 15 grams of picked thyme with a nice little chop, and 8 grams of salt. There’s no cooking involved in that, and it’s a good flavor enhancer to spread on bread.

“For a school or desk lunch, I wouldn’t put it in a plastic bag. I’ve eaten way too many smushed PB&Js. Try a little sandwich box instead to keep things fresh until lunchtime.”  — Chris Smith, Zunzi’s

KAY HERITAGE // Big Bon Bodega

You gotta have a good foundation, which is a great bread. And fresh ingredients, always. All the sandwiches here are created by our house chefs Juan Stevenson and Paul Dempsey. They took the heart of our core values and applied at Big Bon sandwiches. Our sandwiches taste great because they care about the food they make. And I think that’s one ingredient you can’t omit in any kind of sandwich, or food in general. 


Sixty percent of our sandwich sales is the 912, which is bacon, egg and cheese smeared in herb butter on a toasty, chewy, yummy wood-fired bagel. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Our chefs are always coming up with great cream cheeses and Korean- or Asian-inspired sandwiches. Kimchi cream cheese anyone? It,s delicious. Bon Mi, a word play on Bahn Mi, shows that sandwiches can be so fun.

Try different combinations, like pickled red onions (adding acid and crunch is always a win) or with our Donna Sauce, named after Donna Parrish, a Canadian by birth and long-time Savannah resident. She’s the one who inspired me to start Montreal-style, wood-fired bagels here in Savannah. Take four cups of mayo, 1/2 cup of whole grain mustard, 1/2 cupsof pureed confit garlic, and add salt and pepper to taste. The secret’s out! 

CHRIS SMITH // Zunzi’s

What’s the secret to a great sandwich? You’ve got to put care into it. We always say you eat with your eyes first. If it doesn’t look good, you’re not going to want to eat it. That’s why we make our sandwiches split down the middle and facing up — we don’t wrap them. For a school or desk lunch, I wouldn’t put it in a plastic bag. I’ve eaten way too many smushed PB&Js. Try a little sandwich box instead to keep things fresh until lunchtime. 

photo courtesy of ZUNZI’S

I always say a recipe is only as good as its lowest-quality ingredient. For us, the sauce makes the sandwich. We’re known for our sauces. We don’t shred the lettuce — we use a whole leaf lettuce so it makes a waterproof barrier with the bread. And you can always put the sauce on the side. You want to respect the sauce.

What are you trying to get the end user to feel? You’re not just trying to fill their tummy. For us, we want them to leave saying our motto, which we modify to “Shoot yeah!” for those under 13 and over 100. That’s our goal. That’s a feeling, a little note, a heart, a star, something that gives it a personal touch or says, “Have a great day” — that’s the difference between just giving them something to eat and making them feel special. And when all else fails, I like peanut butter, banana and honey on a good white bread.