Melbourne seeing a ‘great sandwich renaissance’


Moss Doerksen

The humble and wildly popular sandwich. Photo: Moss (CC BY-NC 2.0)

They have arguably been around since before the BC’s rolled over into the AD’s and like a living organism they’ve adapted and evolved to still be around today – bigger, better and badder than ever.

Over the years they’ve been cause of much debate, with arguments about what does and does not constitute one actually ending up in the courts – several times – and laws being drafted in order to determine what officially counts as one.

I’m of course talking about the sandwich – which Merriam-Webster, a leading publisher of reference books and dictionaries, defines as “two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling between”.

The humble sandwich at this point in time seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance, with fast-food chains and sandwich only cafes and deli’s popping up seemingly on every corner.

Melbourne itself is experiencing the sandwich boom with establishments like Nico’s Sandwich Deli, Kelso’s Sandwich Shoppe and Hector’s Deli constantly spotted with a stream of people lined-up out the front.

One of the three owners of Nico’s Deli, Leo Thompson, is amazed by what he’s seeing at the moment regarding the popularity of the sanger and has his own theory behind the recent spike.

“It’s wild. 10 years ago, it was burgers, then pizza, now it’s sandwiches,” he says.

“During lockdown people really enjoyed using their time to go get some takeaway food and enjoy it in a park or on the couch, and sandwiches made for that perfect takeaway food – quick, easy, and there’s something so familial about it.”

Mr Thompson says sandwich creations were also a part of the hospitality industry’s adaptation in the face of the pandemic.

“There were heaps of restaurants and chefs who also got super creative and needed to change their business model to survive the lockdowns,” he says.

“Some amazing sandwich shops were born out of this. ”

The name of the sandwich was officially penned all the way back in 1762, in England, by none other than the Earl of Sandwich himself, John Montagu the 4th.


Montagu reportedly told his cook to chuck some roast meat in between two pieces of toast, so he and his company wouldn’t have to get up from playing cards.

The dish was a hit with the guests and word got out – and “sandwiches” were everywhere.

The first ever recorded sandwich – keeping in mind the Merriam-Websters definition – appears to go all the way back in the BC’s when a rabbi, Hillel the Elder, started a Passover custom of placing wine-soaked nuts and fruit in between two pieces of Matzah, a Jewish flatbread.

In the 2000 plus years since, sandwiches have been a mainstay of many diets and for some like Leo Thompson even a bit of a passion.

He’s now one of many who make their living from the dish, after becoming inspired to open his own sandwich shop with mates.

“Opening a sandwich deli was something we’d talked about plenty of times over coffee months before opening Nico’s,” he says.

“We love the New York style deli sandwich – the bodega style deli that offers fresh made sandwiches 24/7,” he says.

When the perfect location became available the plan was there ready to hatch.

“[Fellow deli owner] Marc found the site in the CBD and we thought it would make the perfect sandwich shop right near the courts, where we felt a fresh made sandwich was lacking,” he says.

Sandwiches were popping off, and we opened in a suburb that really celebrated what we were doing

— Nico's Deli owner Leo Thompson

Nico’s Sandwich Deli opened in two other locations, in the inner north suburbs of Brunswick East and Fitzroy and both are as wildly popular as the CBD original.

“Sandwiches were popping off, and we opened in a suburb that really celebrated what we were doing,” he says.

The success of the deli is not something Mr Thompson, or his partners, could have ever envisioned, especially with COVID19 interfering with their initial plans.

“Never [imagined this]…I knew that the branding was good, and that we had the right formula to make something work, but I don’t think any of the three of us, who own Nico’s together, could ever have thought it would do as well as it has,” he says.

“Particularly considering we had originally planned to open March 30, 2020, smack bang at the beginning of lockdown number one – we opened the Fitzroy store later that year due to not being able to open the CBD front and it worked in our favour…Sandwiches were popping off, and we opened in a suburb that really celebrated what we were doing.”

Over the years there have been some big name sandwich creations, ranging from the BLT to the Philly Cheese Steak, or the Club sandwich to the Po ‘Boy.

But Mr Thompson says he isn’t about inventing the next big thing in sandwiches, saying that people love the basics, and the success of Nico’s is a testament to that.

“We continue to learn and grow as the shop continues to gain more and more in popularity,” he says.

“I just think we have stuck to the basics, as we’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s about good service and good food, providing a fun vibe with coffee to match and I think people will keep coming back – at least I hope they do.”

The sandwich deli owners have apparently struck gold at the start of a gold rush; considering the sandwich has been around for a couple of millennia it’s likely the deli chain’s future is pretty safe.

The sandwich isn’t going anywhere.

For the time being, Mr Thompson is just enjoying the ride and looks forward to what the future holds for Nico’s Deli

“It’s fun to be apart of this wild popularity surge that it’s on, and I think it’s really cool to see the support the shops have for one another and the ways in which community support them too…I think it’ll stick around for some time to come,” he says.