Restaurateurs may have once taken bread for granted, but no more. They’ve discovered that bread, as humble and relatively inexpensive as it may be, can be a powerful menu differentiator. Proof: Eight out of 10 consumers say the quality of the bread is key to creating a great sandwich. Operators are paying new attention to artisan preparations, health issues, and opportunities to surprise and please consumers with new bread varieties, flavors and textures. Let’s look at a few key trends.
1. Artisan breads
“Artisan,” like “natural” or “homestyle,” is one of those menu terms that doesn’t have a technical definition — yet everyone has a general idea of what it promises. An artisan bread has an open cell structure, thick crust, intense flavor and chewy texture — and no two loaves look exactly alike. Café Express, for instance, just rolled out a line of breakfast sandwiches on a variety of artisanal breads such as brioche, ciabatta and croissants.
2. In-house baking
Dining out is a multisensory experience. Consumer research shows that the mouthwatering aroma of bread baking is a powerful signal to consumers that a restaurant offers menu quality, freshness and excitement. Subway learned this long ago, but now more restaurants are getting in on the act — either by baking bread from scratch or using parbaked breads that can be finished in-store. For instance, convenience store chain Mapco Express is planning a new in-store quick-service sub sandwich concept, with breads baked fresh in each store.
Some of today’s hottest breads aren’t full of hot air; instead, they’re dense flatbreads. Restaurants across the price spectrum are getting in on the trend. McDonald’s tested a Chicken Flatbread, fast-casual Quiznos introduced whole-grain flatbread wraps, casual-dining leader T.G.I. Friday’s unveiled a line of appetizer flatbreads, and polished-casual trendsetter Seasons 52 is known for its signature flatbreads — like Spicy Chipotle Shrimp Flatbread with grilled pineapple, feta cheese and roasted poblano peppers.
Almost a flatbread, Italian-style focaccia is a large, flat round of bread brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and perhaps spiked with rosemary. California Pizza Kitchen recently added herbed cheese focaccia served with Mediterranean olive oil and Parmesan, and Souplantation Express offers garlic Asiago focaccia.
5. Whole grains
Whole-grain and multigrain bread products are proliferating, not only for their health benefits but also for their depth of flavor and hearty textures. Moe’s Southwest Grill offers its burritos and quesadillas in whole-grain tortillas; Arby’s new Cool Deli Sandwiches are available as whole-grain wraps; and Panera Bread Company’s new Breakfast Power Sandwich gets some of its power from whole-grain bread.
6. Gluten-free breads
This year’s most common introductions are gluten-free pizza crusts, but sandwich menus are being tinkered with, too. Cheeseburger in Paradise, for instance, recently introduced a gluten-free burger bun as part of a new gluten-free menu.
The Italian word for “slipper” fittingly describes a long, wide loaf with a soft interior and a thin, crisp crust. Ciabatta turns ordinary sandwiches into something special. Ninety-Nine Restaurants, for instance, recently introduced a line of ciabatta sandwiches, including Roast Beef & Asiago. Ciabatta bread is often used for sandwiches that are grilled in a panini press, such as the new Turkey, Artichoke and Mozz panini at Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery.
8. Breads from the East
Some of the flatbreads showing up on menus include Middle Eastern pitas and lavosh and East Indian naan and chapatis. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro last year introduced bai sa bing, Mandarin-style flatbreads with toppings such as Manchu duck with hoisin, smoked bacon, Asian cress, radish sprouts and honey-peanut vinaigrette.
9. Latin-American influences
Grilled, pressed Cuban sandwiches — ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard in a dense ciabatta-style bun — are appearing on more and more mainstream restaurant menus. Colombian and Venezuelan arepas are small, cornmeal breads that can be stuffed with ingredients ranging from eggs, meats, seafood, chicken, cheeses and salads to fruit preserves. A more mainstream Latin-style cornbread sandwich: Friendly’s introduced a SuperMelt Southwest Turkey sandwich with sautéed vegetables, bacon, chipotle sauce and cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses on grilled jalapeno cornbread.
10. Seasonal breads
Breads are easy to add to and remove from menus, and more operators are discovering that interesting breads tied to the season are perfect limited-time offers. Wildflower Bread Company celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with Irish soda bread in Original and Currant Caraway variations, and Atlanta Bread Company marks the winter holidays with sweet breads such as pumpkin, banana nut, cranberry orange and blueberry.
Hilltop Hearth Artisan Breads from US Foods allow independent operators to cash in on the latest bread trends.
Breads are made with natural Italian biga starter and long fermentation time (24 to 48 hours); they have the thick crust and moist interior of true artisan bread; and they’re hand-scored so no two loaves look alike. They’re parbaked so they can be finished on-premise to create the excitement of house-baked bread. Available varieties include French rolls, wheat breads, ciabatta in several styles, sourdough loaves and breads flavored with rosemary or garlic. For more information, contact your US Foods representative.