Cinnabon plays wingman for Schlotzsky's in a not-too-sweet deal

I spotted the Schlotzsky's sandwich shop as I was driving up Colorado Boulevard, but the stand-alone Cinnabon next door was the reason I stopped. Turns out, the cinnamon-roll store is connected to, and has partnered with, Schlotzsky's -- an arrangement that has to be far more favorable on the sammie shop's side. Poor Schlotzsky's isn't anyone's first choice for a sandwich -- it's like the Burger King of fast-food burger joints or the Taco John's of Mexican fast food -- and now it's resorted to using a wingman to woo customers.

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The Schlotzsky's at 2720 South Colorado Boulevard is stuck on the outskirts of a strip mall, hidden in plain sight; the nearby Cinnabon sign is the most attractive part of this location. The Schlotzsky's chain got its start in Austin, where Don and Dolores Dissman opened the first store in 1971; ten years later, they sold the burgeoning chain of a hundred shops for under $3 million to John and Jeff Wooley and Gary Bradley. The latter soon split, and the Wooleys kept the chain, expanding the menu and taking the company public in 1995. By 2001, there were close to 800 fast-casual stores, but the company was losing sales, and the board gave the Wooley brothers the boot in 2004. Finally, seven years ago, Focus Brands (parent company of Cinnabon, Auntie Anne's, Moe's Southwest Grill and Carvel) bought Schlotzsky's; it's been working on rebranding and reimaging ever since, making menu changes, test-driving some cute text-speaky slogans and, of course, infusing the deli with delicious Cinnabon products.

Cinnabon was born in the Sea Tac Mall in 1985, and became a fast-and-furious pedestrian hit even though it only had the Classic Cinnabon roll at the time -- but Cinnabon soon became half the reason you go to malls. The company was purchased by Focus Brands in 2004 for a cool $30.3 million, and is now doing its best to make a stop at Schlotzsky's seem like a sweet idea.

When I stopped, of course I wanted a cinnamon roll first, so I ordered the Cinnabon Classic roll ($3.49) and one of those new "center of the roll" mini Pecanbons ($2.49) while I took my sweet time ordering a couple of sandwiches. I had eaten at Schlotzsky's before -- many times out of necessity, since there was one on my way to work -- but it had been well over a decade, and I remembered little but the piles of black olives on everything. I decided to go with the ham & cheese original style ($10.49) and a fresh veggie ($10.49), despite the threat of more black olives.

Every time I eat a Cinnabon cinnamon roll of any kind, it's like the first time. Somehow Cinnabon manages to cram actual, emotional feelings into each bun that leak out with each smushy, gooey, sugary-butter filled nibble, so it's impossible to feel bad when you're eating one -- even though you know you should be suffering serious guilt and shame over the calorie counts of each of these treats. Although the classic was bigger and slathered with horrible, wonderful cream-cheese goop, the smaller pecan had both cream cheese AND caramel goop, as well as a liberal cram-and-sprinkle of buttery chopped nuts. But I didn't care; I quickly ate half of each.

When I got home, I went to the website to search the nutritional information, and kept getting a "server error: file or directory not found" -- well played, Cinnabon. After several tries, I finally got what I was looking for: the Cinnabon Classic Roll has 880 calories, 320 calories from fat, 36 grams of fat [17 from saturated fat], 20 milligrams of cholesterol and 59 grams of sugar. And the Caramel Pecanbon Center of the Roll contains 840 calories, 360 calories from fat, 42 grams of fat [16 grams saturated fat], 20 milligrams of cholesterol, 60 grams of sugar.)

No sandwiches could compare to these, but Schlotzsky's at least bakes an interesting sort of bread -- it's round, flat, bubbly with air holes and light as an air mattress. Unfortunately, it's also light on flavor: The signature sourdough is buoyant but lacks the un-subtle sourdough tanginess; the wheat bun has the same airy texture but is virtually taste-free. The filling has to provide the flavor -- but neither of my sammies were up to the task.

The bread was like a loofah sponge around my ham & cheese original-style. Good lean ham, extra-thin sliced and not overwhelmingly smoke-flavored, was stacked in that curly, television commercial way, and the cheddar and mozzarella had been toasted into the holes of the bread. So far, so good. But the mustard and signature dressing were so light I didn't taste them, and there was way too much shredded iceberg lettuce -- ew -- hiding the thin tomato slices and really thin red onion slices.

The toasted wheat bun for the fresh veggie held cheddar cheese, cucumber slices, red onion, tomato, lettuce, cucumbers and black olives -- lots of black olives -- with a fat-free, spicy ranch dressing that tasted almost like a creamy vinaigrette. Like the ham & cheese, it was thoroughly forgettable. So forgettable, in fact, that I forgot the leftovers in my car. But I made sure the uneaten halves of Cinnabon were nestled in their containers, warm and safe in my backpack.

Schlotzsky's is the geek who gets to date the prom queen -- for ten minutes -- in high-school movies. It's an afterthought in the pairing with Cinnabon, a corporate fix-up. The only way Schlotzsky's and Cinnabon could become equal partners would be if the sandwiches improved drastically or the cinnamon rolls became far less enchanting -- and I don't think anyone would be okay with that.

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