Restaurants investing in locally sourced artisanal breads find heightened product, but also heightened costs.

When John des Rosiers opened Inovasi nearly a decade ago, he spent years refining the menu to get the quality just right at the upscale American bistro located in Chicago’s northern suburb of Lake Bluff.

There was, however, one vital piece to the menu that eluded a solution for years, and a seemingly simplistic one at that: bread.

That all changed when des Rosiers found Hewn five years ago, an upstart artisanal bakery in nearby Evanston, Illinois that works with locally sourced, sustainably grown, and organic grains. Des Rosiers was so captivated by Hewn that he drove to the bakery nearly every day to grab items such as brioche buns, flatbread dough, and heritage grain bread. He invested about $2,000 monthly in Hewn’s products, nearly double what he would have paid a traditional commercial bakery.

“But this was the last piece of the restaurant we needed to get right, and Hewn’s commitment to quality matched what we were doing in our restaurant,” des Rosiers says.

Other Chicago-area restaurants, including noteworthy spots like Peckish Pig, Booth One, and Valor, have similarly turned to Hewn for their bakery needs, making the conscious—albeit costly—decision to put five-star quality bread on the table. For top restaurants with local sourcing sensibilities in particular, taking bread to a higher level is a way to complete the dining experience and cement an establishment’s commitment to quality and the still-swelling farm-to-table trend.

“These restaurants are often making a sizable investment in meat, chicken, vegetables, and other high-quality ingredients, so to serve generic bread alongside those items just doesn’t fit,” Hewn co-owner Ellen King says. “It deflates the whole meal and opens diners to question if the restaurant is being true to its word of sourcing the best local ingredients they can find.”

Higher-quality bread, however, comes at an elevated price. Given that King pays about double the cost of conventional flour for each 50-pound bag she brings into her kitchen and the handcrafted nature of Hewn’s breads, wholesale prices sit well beyond traditional bakeries and even above like-minded competitors in the Chicago area. Even so, Hewn has about three dozen local wholesale accounts embracing—and paying for—the bakery’s uber-quality orientation.

Like des Rosiers, Amy Morton, owner of Evanston eateries The Barn and Found, began sourcing bread from Hewn upon the bakery’s 2013 opening. Morton, who sees great synergy between Hewn’s products and her menus, uses the bakery’s sourdough rolls for bread-and-butter service at The Barn, as well as Hewn’s baguettes, whole-grain breads, and potato rolls.

Given the premium price of Hewn’s breads, Morton is mindful of the investment. She says she makes other choices when bread doesn’t sit front and center on a particular dish, croutons being one such example. Otherwise she accounts for the added expense in her pricing.

“If we ever get to the point where we don’t feel it’s offering value for our guests, then we’ll explore different options,” Morton says.

At first, des Rosiers balked at the expense of sourcing from Hewn. Knowing the quality, though, he continued digging into the numbers.

“The truth is that there is no such thing as a high-quality product that’s exceptionally cheap,” he says.

In time, des Rosiers created a workaround. He developed a bread-and-butter starter basket that paired Hewn’s bread with handmade butter from Wisconsin’s Pine River Dairy, sea salt, and cracked pepper. The basket costs $3, which covers des Rosiers’ $2.75 investment. Servers, meanwhile, are trained to communicate the basket’s unique products and provide a no-risk guarantee.

“If guests don’t like it, then they don’t have to pay,” des Rosiers says, adding that he is now using 35 percent less bread and has significantly minimized waste compared to the complimentary bread-and-butter baskets he offered guests previously. “Our primary goal is to do something better. If the customer wants high quality, then we’ll get it, and they’ll support it.”

Feature, Finance, Menu Innovations