Leigh Ann Gosney in her kitchen

How To Create A Winning Sandwich

The 2012 Panera Bread Sandwich Showdown winner Leigh Ann Gosney turned a childhood memory into a flavorful sandwich coming soon to a Panera near you.

Leigh Ann Gosney, 29, of Nuevo, California, never suspected a TV commercial could change her life. It was September 2012 when she saw a spot for the Sandwich Showdown contest offered by Panera Bread. At the time, Leigh Ann didn’t realize that the grand prize was $10,000, a $500 Panera Bread gift certificate, and a year’s supply of our bagels. She also didn’t know that the contest was Panera’s first nationwide sandwich competition.

“I just thought it would be so awesome to make a sandwich that would be on Panera’s menu,” Leigh Ann says. “I literally am that woman who wants to feed people. When you come to my house, I’m, like, ‘Are you hungry?’”

After logging on to the contest website and using the online sandwich builder to create her White Cheddar, Turkey & Apple Sandwich, Leigh Ann says she didn’t give the contest a second thought. “My husband, Brett, said, ‘No one ever wins those things!’ And I said, ‘Yes they do—just not me. I’ve never won anything!’” Then in October, Leigh Ann received an e-mail notifying her that she’d earned a spot in the top 20.

That was just the beginning of her journey to the winning sandwich. Here’s what inspired Leigh Ann’s flavor combination—and what she learned from her time as a contestant.

What was the most difficult part of creating this sandwich?
Leigh Ann:
 At first I didn’t know where to begin. My husband saw me struggling and said, “You’re from Washington. Why don’t you put apples on your sandwich?” I instantly thought of my mum giving me a snack of apple slices and Cheddar cheese when I was a little girl. That was when I knew I wanted to start with those two ingredients.

How did you choose what else to include?
Leigh Ann:
 First, I looked through the Panera menu so I wouldn’t make something similar to what the bakery-cafes already offer. Then I started thinking about what flavors work well together. I thought about how people make sandwiches with cranberries and turkey, so I figured, Why not apples and turkey? Also, I was leaning toward grilling the sandwich to make the cheese kind of melt, so I thought that baby spinach and caramelized onions would work well instead of lettuce and raw onion. The hardest part was choosing a condiment. I knew I needed one that took well to heat and wouldn’t overpower the other flavors, so I was really excited when I saw pesto listed. The easy part was deciding to use Panera’s Asiago Cheese bread and to grill the sandwich in a panini press.

What did you think when you first tried the sandwich?
Leigh Ann:
 When I made it at home, I really liked it. My husband took a bite and said, “Are you going to finish that?” He’s one of my worst critics, so I knew it must have been good. Then in December, the Panera in Hemet, California, invited me to come there and share my sandwich with other customers. One guy told me, “You need to do this for a living!”

How did you find out you were the winner?
Leigh Ann:
 I knew when the contest ended, so I was sitting at the computer at 9 o’clock on November 12. The page refreshed: “Boom! The winner is…” When I saw that I’d won, I screamed and started crying. My husband started crying too.

What advice would you give people who are considering entering a food-related contest?
Leigh Ann:
 Be willing to try something new. Who would have thought of putting chocolate and cinnamon into chili? But that’s Cincinnati chili, and it’s really delicious. Also, try to avoid reading negative posts. Sometimes people don’t realize how much their comments can hurt. Try to focus on the positive.

Did everyone want to know what you’d do with the prize money?
Leigh Ann:
 Yes! At first I put it in the bank. I just wanted to look at it for a while. My husband and I were really, really poor when we first got married, so to have a savings account is really great for us. I did use some of the money to pay off one of my student loans. [Both Leigh Ann and her husband were in the Air Force. He still is, and she’s now a reservist and pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in nursing through the GI Bill.] We were also able to fly up to Montana for my mum’s 50th birthday. I even got to bake the layer cake for her surprise party. It was very exciting and emotional!

What has been the best part of the overall experience?
Leigh Ann:
 Winning this contest has probably been one of the most humbling experiences of my life—to have so many people rally for me. People who don’t even know me voted for this. We figured out there were people in at least 30 different states voting for my sandwich. How great is that? Now I’m looking forward to the sandwich being available for all of them. Finally they’ll get to taste it!