Raybern Foods serves a wide range of retailers with its pre-made, heat-and-eat lines of Raybern’s sandwiches. From c-stores and supermarkets to club stores and other convenience channels, the San Ramon, California-based company has been shipping a variety of sandwiches to a variety of customers for 40 years.

In short, Raybern’s must be a different supplier for each of its partners.

“We work with retailers in a lot of different channels,” says Marissa Gomes, senior marketing director for Raybern’s. “We’re working with grocery, we’re working with mass, we’re working with club stores and convenience stores. All of our customers, all of those retailers, need something a little bit different. Our sales teams go out and meet with them and really try to understand what they need.”

While their exact needs may differ, all those customers share a common demand: dependable, quality sandwiches.

It starts with the bread

Raybern’s got its start in 1978, the story goes, when two guys named Ray and Bernie decided to convert their beloved New York style deli sandwiches into a freezable product that was good enough to share nationwide.

While sauces, meats and toppings were taste-tested and critiqued, the process really all started with the bread. For years, the company worked to fully develop its bread recipe that emerges from a microwave or oven just right, or “Bakery Soft” as Raybern’s puts it.

The proprietary recipe and method aren’t discussed, but the company will gladly talk about their importance.

“The bread is huge. I didn’t realize how special our bread truly was until we were doing competitive analysis and looking at some other breads that claimed to be microwave-ready,” Gomes says. “There’s really no comparison. Our flavor, our texture in our bread is really something that is special to Raybern’s.”

The bread — which has gone through years of research and development — is produced in its own bakery within the Raybern’s production facility, which has been just south of Tupelo, Mississippi, since 2015.

“We make millions and millions of loaves of our hoagie bread every year. It really is something that our consumers recognize,” Gomes says. “They’re pleasantly surprised when they try our bread and realize how soft and nice it is. It’s an unexpected delight.”

That high-quality bread is even more important in today’s market, where consumers are increasingly moving toward artisan baked goods.

“Grocery stores have been seeing a rise in sales in that part of the store. I think people really do appreciate artisanal breads and are exploring a lot of new kinds of breads,” Gomes says. “I think given that kind of appreciation that’s going on from the consumer, they really recognize that we have something special with bread that tastes as good as it does coming out of the microwave.”

In half of the 146,000-square-foot facility — which was part of a $10 million investment — the bread is baked and prepared. In the other half, meats are cooked and sliced, cheeses are sliced, and then the sandwiches are assembled and packaged by hand.

“When we say it’s hand-crafted, there’s a lot of work that we’re doing to make these sandwiches in our factory,” Gomes says, pointing out the importance of the finishing touches. “We still have to hand-wrap all our sandwiches, so there’s a lot of manual labor on that side. We have a lot of people who are working on the line, taking each sandwich, hand-wrapping it in the butcher wrap. It’s that kind of finishing touch that gives it that authentic deli style feel.”

Remaining flexible

While the hand-crafted touch of the sandwiches is key, the simple fact is that Raybern’s produces so many of its sandwiches — more than 35 million if you’re counting — that a fast, steady production speed is vital.

Even more important is finding ways to fine-tune the process, which is what the company did with high-speed slicers from Weber.

“We’re vertically integrated and are making everything ourselves,” Gomes says. “We found that the high-speed slicers really help us thinly slice and shave our meats and then automatically weigh out the portions we need on the sandwich. We want to make sure we have great consistency across all our sandwiches. That’s something that has helped a lot  in getting a nice slice on the meat.”

Raybern Foods was acquired by Canadian company Premium Brands Holding Corp. in November 2017 in a combined purchase that also included Buddy’s Kitchen and Shaw Bakers for $115 million. Raybern’s now sits under the umbrella of SK Food Group, another Premium Brands company that operates six production and warehousing facilities across the country.

“We just have the one facility, but SK Food Group has six,” Gomes says. “If we have certain things that we need to do, we can definitely leverage the strength of the SK Food Group network to produce it.”

That helps with the need for flexibility, which is continually tested by changing consumer demands. Lately, Gomes says, it has been the rise in popularity of bold, ethnic and unique flavors that has spurred Raybern’s into development mode.

“What we see a lot today is that consumers are looking to explore more with the types of sandwiches they’re eating. When we first started, more than 30 years ago, and even 10 years ago, we had a smaller portfolio. People were eating the standard kind of deli flavors,” she says. “Now we’re seeing that consumers are looking for more diversity in what they’re eating. If they’re going to buy a grab-and-go sandwich, they want something a little different than what they can make at home.”

That has caused Raybern’s to complement its famous Philly Cheesteak — which the company says is the top-selling cheesesteak sandwich in the U.S. — with flvors like Southwest Steak, Chicken Bacon & Ranch, and Ham and Cheese on Pretzel Bread.

But the research and development team is still cooking up ideas. “We’re also seeing a lot of trends in international or regional flavors,” Gomes says. “We’ve been trying to address that with our product development, coming out with new proteins, new toppings, new sauces that kind of keep the sandwiches interesting for the consumers these days.”

In October, Raybern’s introduced its Grilled Melts line of grilled cheese sandwiches that cash in on the bold, unique flavor trend. The line consists of six flavors, including: 3 Amigos, The Scapegoat, The BMC, Stay Cheesy!, Mr. Italiano and Let There Be Pork.

The line — launched exclusively in Walmart’s deli and frozen sections — is inspired by food truck culture, both in its flavors and its light-hearted names. Early returns have shown that the BMC, or Bacon Mac’n’Cheese, has been perhaps an unexpected favorite, Gomes says.

“It takes two things that people love — you’ve got bacon mac’n’cheese and you’ve got a grilled cheese sandwich — and you put them together,” she says. “At first people kind of think ‘Is that going to be good?’ As soon as they try it they’re shocked. It’s very indulgent, very different. We’ve gotten good feedback on that one.”

Additions on the horizon might include an expanded pretzel bread line, new breads such as rye, and new sauce and flavor combinations that tap into regional trends — think Nashville hot chicken and Asian-inspired flavors, Gomes says.

“Going forward, we’re looking at a couple different things in terms of our core hoagie line,” she says. “We’re trying to deliver on that need that people have to expand their horizons and taste something different and exciting.”

But Walmart isn’t the only retailer that has relied on its work with Raybern’s. The company serves other retailers nationwide, emphasizing that need for flexibility.

The company’s sandwiches can also be found on a regional basis in Costco and Sam’s Club, as well as supermarket grab-and-go sections. Gomes says the company is currently increasing its focus on c-store foodservice departments.

That increases the need for customization and a clear understanding of what each retailer needs.

“It’s working with the retailer to understand what area of the store our sandwiches work best in for them,” Gomes says. “We do have some retailers who are looking at taking our sandwiches and heating them up in the back of the deli and serving them as a nice, hot sandwich. It kind of depends on the retailer needs: where they’re going to put it in the store and what they’re looking to do to serve their shopper.”