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Flour power: Operators find they knead bread to cut costs and stand out

Flour power: Operators find they knead bread to cut costs and stand out

Bread has at times been treated as an afterthought by restaurateurs, but as operators look for new ways to manage costs and distinguish themselves from competitors, this table staple has come under scrutiny.

In this post-Atkins, recessionary yet cosmopolitan era, when customers want to indulge in a way that’s inexpensive and seems like it’s good for them, bread is being pulled in a lot of directions.

Consumers are gravitating away from traditional white bread, and chefs are responding with artisanal varieties that feature different grains, spices and shapes.

Togo’s Sandwiches, a chain based in Walnut Creek, Calif., just added sourdough bread bowls to the menus at its more than 240 units and is planning to add sourdough and whole-grain sandwich rolls during the first quarter of next year in response to an online survey of core customers.

Togo’s Sandwiches, a chain based in Walnut Creek, Calif., asked more than 300 core customers to rate bread flavors and types based on likelihood of purchase. In order of popularity they chose:




The rolls will join their current set of classic white, honey whole-wheat, onion herb, Parmesan herb and Dutch crunch.

That last roll is a white roll made crunchy by drizzling the top with a rice flour slurry before baking, according to Renae Scott, Togo’s vice president of branding and marketing.

The company asked more than 300 customers to rate bread flavors and types based on likelihood of purchase and whether such offerings would get them to eat at their restaurants more often.

Scott says sourdough was requested most often, and she attributes that to the fact that the chain is based in the San Francisco Bay area, the home of sourdough bread.

Whole-grain bread was the next frequently requested item, followed by rye.

“We found overwhelmingly that our customers are looking for hearty, whole-grain bread,” as well as sourdough, she says.

The response to rye was more tentative, says Scott, noting the company would have to “manage the numbers,” before deciding whether to introduce it.

The chain operates mostly in California, with some units in Oregon and Washington. Togo’s also asked customers if they wanted the option of lower-calorie, lighter sliced bread, instead of rolls.

“We found that our customers weren’t interested in seeing sliced bread at Togo’s,” she says.

But the customers at Tropical Smoothie Café have responded well to lighter fare, according to marketing and communications vice president Barbara Valentino.

The chain, which operates in 34 states, just launched a line of six flatbread sandwiches for around $3.99, compared to around $6.99, depending on the location, for sandwiches served on either ciabatta or multigrain bread.

She says the new items were offered not primarily as a lighter option, although there’s a demand for that, but for less expensive items that the chain hoped would encourage guests to visit more often.

The flatbread is shipped to each unit with grill marks, and each piece of flatbread is folded to make a sandwich. The grill marks are on the outside for most sandwiches, but children rejected those sandwiches in test because they looked burnt to them, so flatbread sandwiches on the kids’ menu are served with the grill marks on the inside.

The flatbreads were introduced about a year after Tropical Smoothie Café did away with its focaccia sandwiches.

That bread was shipped to each restaurant in large sheets, which had to be cut to order and then sliced horizontally to make the sandwiches, so it was labor intensive and created considerable waste.

“[Customers] didn’t know and they didn’t care that it cost more in product and was more labor intensive” than other breads, Valentino says.

They did, however, say the foccacia sandwiches had too much bread and not enough meat, she added.

Now the chain uses either nine-grain bread or grilled ciabatta, depending on the sandwich. Both are shipped to the restaurant already portioned, cutting down on both waste and labor.

The owners of Cleveland-based bread supplier Orlando Baking Company say that their customers are looking for bread in more homey styles.

“Restaurant owners used to look at bread as a giveaway almost,” says co-president Sonny Orlando. Now he says they see it as a selling point—a sign of a delicious meal to come.

“Anything rustic looking is very popular,” he says.

Orlando adds that overall white bread consumption never fully recovered from the low-carb craze of 2004-2005.

Indeed, Scott of Togo’s says the chain’s white rolls were the resounding favorite until about five years ago, when customers started responding more to the honey wheat, which now is neck-and-neck with white as the most popular roll.

Orlando says dinner rolls are getting smaller, too, and more varied—with restaurateurs offering guests a wider variety in one basket.

“They want to see more colors, shapes and flavors,” he says.

At Andina, a Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Ore., owner Doris Rodriguez de Platt uses bread to extend the restaurant’s theme by making it with quinoa, a high-protein grain praised for its health qualities that’s indigenous to Peru.

She doesn’t use much quinoa, just 18 ounces of cooked black quinoa to 221 ounces of white bread flour, since it doesn’t contain gluten, which is necessary for bread to hold together while rising. But she says the resulting black flecks in the bread are attractive and help educate customers about the grain. It’s baked into baguettes and comes with three Peruvian sauces—one made with toasted peanuts, olive oil, garlic, onions, cilantro, fresh cheese and a little habanero pepper, another with passion fruit purée, habanero, bread-crumbs and salt, and a third with jalapeño, water, garlic, salt, cumin and mint.

She says customers say the bread is one reason they come to the restaurant.

At Town House, a fine dining restaurant in Chilhowie, Va., the bread that customers get depend on what other food they order. The house bread is a salt-and-pepper potato ciabatta made by adding mashed local boiled potatoes, with the skin on, to flour and “a fair amount of oil,” says executive pastry chef Karen Urie Shields.

There’s a thin crust, and the inside is soft and tender. The bread isn’t necessarily sent out at the beginning of the meal, but whenever bread might be a nice compliment to the food—such as with braised meat or anything with a broth or sauce that might need sopping up.

“We let the guest order, and then decide what course the bread would be best with. We serve it with a purpose,” Shields says.

And if salt-and-pepper potato ciabatta isn’t the best fit for a course, Shields makes something else.

For example, she made mini challahs to go with a dish of white asparagus with egg yolk vinaigrette and lavender.

She also made bread to look like twigs by running proofed baguette dough through their pasta machine, set on the spaghetti setting.

“So it cut into very fine grissini,” Shields says. She bakes them until they’re very dark. Her husband, executive chef John Shields, asked her to make the twigs, but it hasn’t been served to customers yet.— [email protected]

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