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Upper-crust offerings

16 August 2005

This article first appeared in the 1 July issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website at www.foodservice411.com

By James P. DeWan, Special to R&I

Where has plain white bread gone?

From bagel shops and fast-casual eateries to family dining and clubby steakhouses, many chains have ditched bland loaves in favor of artisan-style breads filled with flavor and character. Their customers quickly are learning a whole new lingo, asking for the likes of ciabatta, ficelle and focaccia as easily as they used to opt for wheat or rye.

"Artisan bread basically means Old World and traditional recipes," says Jim Fisher, vice president of marketing for Au Bon Pain, the Boston-based bakery/cafe chain with more than 230 locations worldwide. "But it also means handmade, so the loaves [often] are shaped by hand."

Few chains have their own culinary institutes, though, and making a commitment to a new trend is not always an easy call.

After nearly three decades selling its namesake "good bread," it was only last year that Au Bon Pain began marketing true artisan-style products. "Over the years, people have gotten more interested in great bread," Fisher says. "With our customers' expectations rising, it was right for us to match those expectations."

Au Bon Pain introduced its artisan line with baguettes and slender loaves called ficelles. New breads are added every few weeks. "The response has been strong," Fisher says. "Our whole loaf sales have tripled in the last year, and our sandwich sales have improved too."

A further incentive to menu artisan bread is price point. "With higher-quality bread you can get a higher ticket," says Scott Hughes, vice president of marketing for Bruegger's, a Burlington, Vt.-based chain with 250 locations. Offering artisan-style bread with an accompanying bump in topping options can add 90 cents to the price of Bruegger's sandwiches. "It's an important thing to do if you're going to be in the sandwich business right now," Hughes says of the specialty-breads addition.

Bread, of course, is more than just a frame for a sandwich. Giving a boost to bread can raise the customer's perception of an entire operation.

"Bread is very often the first thing your guest touches when he comes into the restaurant," says Dave Johnson, vice president of purchasing and distribution for Restaurants Unlimited, a Seattle-based multiconcept operator. "We've found that if you do something distinctive, it can be a big hook."

At Palomino Restaurant Rotisseria Bar, Restaurant Unlimited's 11-unit contemporary American concept, guests sit down to a basket of rustic rosemary bread with a relish of tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta cheese, basil and olive oil.

Palomino's bruschetta sampler is built on baguettes, putting a French twist on the Italian classic. The $10.95 appetizer includes Traditional (roasted garlic, vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, fresh garlic and extra-virgin olive oil), Roasted Mushroom (seasonal mushrooms, white Cheddar cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, white-bean purée and garlic) and Smoked Salmon (goat cheese, fresh herbs, roasted red peppers and rotisserie salmon).

Many operations, including Palomino and Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, utilize commercial bakers, even for their artisan breads. Rock Bottom's vendor par-bakes focaccia and ciabatta and ships them frozen. Baking then is completed in-house. "We're about handcrafted products, with our craft beer brewed on site and our kitchens 90% made-from-scratch," says Marilyn Davenport, director of marketing for the 30-unit concept. "From a brand perspective, it makes sense to finish our breads on site too."

Rock Bottom serves house-made beer bread with salads and with its Asiago Cheese Dip. The $6.99 appetizer combines Asiago cheese, green onions, mushrooms and dried tomatoes.

With no outside vendor or staff baker, some operators reconfigure existing ingredients. Panini sandwich bread at Mill Valley, Calif.-based Piatti Ristorante Bar locations is made from handcrafted pizza dough that is folded to make pocket bread. "We brush it with roasted-garlic olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano and parsley and pop it in the wood-burning oven where [its aroma] fills the air," says Doc Miles, Piatti director of operations.

Finished bread is pulled open and filled, creating several sandwich options including sliced chicken breast with melted mozzarella and pesto, and applewood-smoked bacon, arugula and tomato.

Menued at $9.95 with a side green salad or hand-cut crispy potatoes, the panini were a surprise hit for an operation that previously had no guidelines for sandwiches. "It was the brainchild of our chef in Montecito, Calif.," says Miles. When the panini began to dominate lunch sales at that location, Piatti took the sandwich companywide.

As consumers become more knowledgeable about bread, operators are challenged to supply increasingly better products. "Strategically, in terms of a five-year plan, we need to execute," says Au Bon Pain's Fisher, "and that means dialing up the quality across the board."

James P. DeWan is a Chicago-based freelance writer

Any Way You Slice It

Chain operators are building profitable menu items for diners who know the difference between a bagel and a baguette.

  • Italian cheeses melted between crunchy focaccia served with roasted-tomato sauce and crumbled feta cheese
    Bertucci's Brick Oven Ristorante

  • Ham, turkey breast, bacon and provolone with sun-dried-tomato dressing, pepperoncini and oregano on ciabatta Cousins Subs
    Marinated portobello mushrooms, roasted zucchini, squash and red bell peppers served hot on ciabatta with savory pesto mayonnaise La Madeleine

  • Fresh tomatoes tossed in olive oil, garlic, fresh basil and crushed red pepper served atop warm caramelized onion and four-cheese focaccia bread
    99 Restaurant & Pub

  • Smoked turkey breast, bacon, smoked Cheddar and a sun-dried tomato ale mustard, grilled hot on artisan three-cheese bread
    Panera Bread

  • Caesar dressing spread over two grilled chicken breasts, topped with romaine lettuce and served on warm baguette
    Pollo Tropical

  • Street Tortas: Slow-roasted pork or char-grilled chicken or steak topped with guacamole, Jack and Cheddar cheeses, creamy chipotle sauce and salsa fresca on grilled hearth-baked roll
    Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill

  • Grilled beef tenderloin with garlic-blue-cheese butter and sautéed mushrooms on ciabatta roll
    Stuart Anderson's Black Angus & Cattle Company

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