Table bread is coming under close scrutiny and transformation. In many cases, restaurant guests find that the bread basket is no longer a given.
Thanks to the recent recession, some operators have rethought and tossed the dinner roll, made it available only upon request, or started charging for it. But operators not so quick to give up have renovated to keep up, aiming for a memorable experience with the beginning bread, says Doug Petruzzi, executive chef and director of marketing for Pocono ProFoods, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Many are opting for a variety basket, including the likes of pretzel bread, artisan rolls, flatbread lavash, and bread sticks.
One of Pocono ProFoods' customers operates a 50-seat restaurant, and the chef/owner makes interesting breads every day, such as rye roll with caraway seeds, a multigrain roll with dried fruit, and fresh pumpernickel bread.
Ever-changing dietary trends are another cause for variety baskets. Many consumers are shunning white bread in favor of multigrain bread, Petruzzi says. Some are staying away from leaven, and thus lavash has become popular. “To make the bread memorable, you want to be sure to hit everybody.”
Cornbread made with fresh corn, spices, and jalapeno peppers as well as fresh focaccia are among the variety served at 701 Restaurant in Washington. Good bread at the beginning of the meal is akin to good coffee at the end, says Ashok Bajaj, owner of restaurant group Knightsbridge Management, which operates eight restaurants including 701.
He notices more restaurants beginning to charge for bread. “It does cost us money, which can be a problem, but if you want to please people and provide a good dining experience, then it's important and justifies the cost,” he says.
With the rise of the artisan movement and unique sandwich bread types popping up at quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants, it's never been easier for full-service restaurants to source quality bread. “Ten to 15 years ago, there was little bread available for operators to buy. Now, we sell all kinds of bread. Availability is wonderful,” says Petruzzi.
Increasingly, operators are partnering with bakeries, including the signature sourdough bread served at several of the five concepts owned and operated by Cunningham Restaurant Group, Indianapolis. President and CEO Mike Cunningham has used a Chicago bakery for years to produce the proprietary bread, which arrives at the restaurants 90 percent par-baked. “We have 7 minutes cooking time in a convection oven to finish it off,” he says. It is served with restaurant-made sundried tomato jalapeno dipping oil. "It's been very popular. We bottle and sell the oil," he says.
Upscale restaurants are beginning to bring in more sophisticated breads, often sourced from local artisan bakeries, says Kathy Lehr, a bread consultant and teacher based in Bath, Ohio.
This nod to artisan bakeries means that the type of bread appearing in fine-dining restaurants often is "good, classic European crusted breads. We’re back to eating healthy and eating locally," she says.
Lehr encourages operators to look at the rise in the quality of pizza in pizzerias around the country. The fact that consumers increasingly are gravitating to good quality pizza, shows their expectation of bread in general.
And in the future, table bread could evolve in several directions including following pizza trends. As restaurants continue to incorporate wood-fired ovens on premises, the door is open for wood-fired table breads. "The flavor is so different. You get a bigger spring with it," Lehr says. "The crust has more chew. Water evaporation occurs nicely with that oven. The color on the exterior is wonderful, and it caramelizes wonderfully."
Bakers will continue to go back to the way bread was baked historically. "We're constantly regressing and progressing at the same time, trying new techniques. Bread-baking won't stand still. It will keep progressing," she says.
The question is whether table bread will live long enough to see the changes.
Cunningham Restaurant Group still offers bread because it is expected, Cunningham says. However, he recognizes that many people opt out of bread. His restaurants offer it only after guests order drinks and appetizers, and he is developing a new restaurant concept in which he doesn't envision offering dinner bread.
The majority of restaurants served by Pocono ProFoods are removing table bread, says Petruzzi. A lot are moving to a la carte dining for cost-savings because they can’t continue to offer free bread. Add to that the trend toward reduced carbs and gluten-free diets, and fewer customers want the bread.
“However, I think putting time, effort, and thought into the bread basket is a great way for operators to set themselves apart. It's hard to be unique and competitive. Offering a great bread basket is one way to do that,” Petruzzi says.
By Jody Shee