Is Your Bread Worth the Dough?

Go ahead and charge for bread—but it better be really good

Tired of snacking on unfulfilling baskets of cold bread and hard butter, Chef Stephanie Izard decided to take the dough into her own hands.

While plotting her highly anticipated Chicago-based restaurant, Girl & the Goat, the Top Chef winner opted to implement an in-house artisanal bread program using higher quality products.

“More people are starting to bake their own bread or serve better quality bread,” she says. “But it costs money to have a bread baker in-house, as well as the ingredients.”

Charging for bread may seem outrageous—even offensive—but executed smartly with a bit of verve, it can add to the bottom line and strengthen a restaurant’s brand.

For Izard, her bread program complements the flavors on her menu. “You put so much time and care into every other dish that we wanted to treat the bread as a dish,” she says. 

Izard has two bakers kneading bread daily. Paired with thoughtful condiments like carrot sage and tomato soup oils, the fresh baked bread comes at a cost—$4—which customers readily pay. Girl & the Goat offers three seasonal bread choices, and the most popular one is  typically among the top four  best-selling dishes of the night.

“It’s not our hugest profit margin,” she says. “It’s just taking that extra step and going above and beyond.”

Quality is the primary reason a restaurant charges for bread, but waste reduction is partly why Chef John Gorham asks $1 for it at his restaurants, Toro Bravo and Tasty ‘n’ Sons, in Portland, Ore. Sourcing bread from local artisanal bakeries like Grand Central Bakery and Fleur de Lis, and using premium olive oil and butter comes at a higher price than run-of-the-mill bread baskets. The minimal charge only supplements about 30 percent of the bread cost, but Gorham says it helps ensure that every bit is used.

“We’re getting really high-end, quality stuff at a pretty competitive price, so we really couldn’t afford to give it away,” Gorham says, adding that only the occasional diner asks for an explanation. “I’m paying for it; why wouldn’t the customer?”

Challenging restaurant norms didn’t work for Chef Carl Thorne-Thomsen, who tried to charge for a plate of bread, olives, prosciutto and olive oil when he opened his Kansas City restaurant, Story. “Our guests were aghast that they had to pay for bread,” Thomsen says. “We now serve bread complimentary, with the exception of the guest who wants to take a loaf home for $8.”

Restaurateurs who charge for bread and butter agree that the cost must be justifiable. “Everyone who charges for it definitely uses much better bread,” Gorham says. “It really comes down to the price point of the menu.”

But Gorham says the model is feasible—and growing.

Public Kitchen & Bar in Los Angeles and Peels in New York both charge $5 for freshly baked Parker House rolls accompanied by Vermont creamery butter, while The Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis offer popovers with honey butter for $4.

At Foreign & Domestic in Austin, Texas, a pair of black pepper and gruyère popovers are $8. They’ve become so popular since the restaurant opened two years ago that owners Ned and Jodi Elliott branded a popover pan and sell it online with the recipe for $38.

Says Gorham of bread offerings, “I think it would work for any restaurant. I don’t see why a restaurant has to give something away for free.”

YOU CHARGE WHAAAAT?

Euclid Hall, Denver Bretzel bun, $2.50

The Walrus & the Carpenter, Seattle Bread and butter in sea salt and olive oil, $3

Eat Street Social, Minneapolis French baguette with garlic butter, $3

Back Bay, Boston Bread with eggplant and goat cheese puree, $4

Sotto, Los Angeles Housemade bread with olive oil, $3; with lardo pestato, $7;with burrata, $9

Momofuku Ssäm Bar, New York Bread with Vermont sea salt butter and whipped lard $8

Magnolia, Charleston, N.C. Housemade pimento cheese with Charleston flatbread $9