Breaking Bread (Traditions)

 
Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits are an inextricable part of the dining experience.
Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits are an inextricable part of the dining experience. RED LOBSTER

Over the past few years, you may have noticed something missing from restaurant dinner tables.

No, someone didn’t steal the silverware. It’s the breadbasket. During the economic downtown, an increasing number of eateries have excised free bread in order to cut costs, while others have begun charging for it. 

Restaurateurs may want to rethink this move though, because a good bread program can help set an establishment apart from its competitors and help form its identity. 

There are plenty of practical reasons why proprietors originally began offering a crusty kickoff to meals, which are still worthwhile incentives to keep it today.

A small high glycemic index snack like a roll can get the salivary glands working, which makes customers hungrier and likely to order more food than they originally intended.

It can also soothe an irritable patron before they take their dissatisfaction out on the waitstaff.

The hit of salt in the butter can make diners thirsty, so they might order high mark-up drinks from the bar.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, starting off a meal with a free item can help create a halo effect around the entire dining experience, which leads to a more positive overall impression of the restaurant.

Tiffany MacIsaac, pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) is a longtime believer in offering complimentary housemade bread as a starter.

At NRG’s Evening Star Café in Alexandria, Virginia, she puts out a breadboard sporting piping hot cornbread and sweet potato biscuits along with homemade honey whipped butter.

“Oftentimes when we put it down, people say, ‘I didn’t order this,’” says MacIsaac. “It’s great, because then servers can say, ‘Nope, this is compliments of the chef.’ It puts people in a great mood at the beginning of their meal.”

She recognizes that this free item does affect the restaurant’s budget, so she and the staff designed a deployment plan to minimize requests for seconds. “We don’t send out the bread until the orders have been placed,” says MacIsaac. “This way people don’t eat the entire breadboard before they get their food, and then ask for more. That being said, when people do ask for more, we always give it to them.”

It’s not just boutique restaurants that are turning bread into a hallmark of their dining experience; several chain restaurants make a complimentary breadbasket a cornerstone of their concept.

Just think of Olive Garden’s endless breadsticks and Outback Steakhouse’s Honey Wheat Bushman Bread.

And since 1992, Red Lobster has offered free Cheddar Bay Biscuits, which are fresh-baked every 15 minutes. Nearly 1.1 million of them are served daily across all the company’s locations, which means that approximately 395 million are produced annually.

The restaurant decided on these savory baked goods for two main reasons. “The distinctive, savory flavor pairs well with our fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster,” says Red Lobster’s executive chef Michael LaDuke.

“Biscuits also are a comfort food and can trigger warm memories spent with family and friends, something we strive to give our guests each time they dine.”

Cheddar Bay Biscuits are now deeply intertwined with the public’s perception of Red Lobster.

“They’ve become so popular that they’re now an iconic part of the brand’s identity,” says LaDuke, who points out that the biscuits have their own Facebook page with more than one million fans. 

If you are considering adding or bringing back a bread program, MacIsaac has one piece of advice: “You have to do it 100 percent or not do it at all,” she says.

“Sometimes when I go out to dinner, I wonder why they’re even bothering to give me that boring sliced baguette with the cold, hard butter. I’m about to have this great meal, but I’m starting it off in a really neutral or negative way.”

By Nevin Martell