Ahead of Its Time
Popular food trends catch up to the artisan bread industry, boosting its market potential.
BakingBusiness.com, July 1, 2011
by Charlotte Atchley
Previously a niche specialty product, artisan bread has continuously made its way to the mainstream consumer for the past 20 years. Although supermarket sales of artisan bread remain stable, according to the International Deli-Dairy-Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) “Consumers in the Bakery” report, current trends driving bread sales suggest that this category may be perfectly positioned for a boost. Despite IDDBA’s numbers, many wholesale artisan bakeries see their businesses growing and have plenty of answers to the question of how to meet growing demand and still keep the handmade look and feel that make their products artisan.

NEW DEFINITION.

Traditionally, for a bread to be called “artisan,” bakers had to mix, cut and form the loaf by hand, allow a long fermentation time for the dough and bake it on a solid hearth. This can be a challenge in a time of mass production. As smaller wholesale artisan bakeries try to fill larger orders or are bought by larger corporations, automation and speedy production demands begin to blur the line between artisan and
artisan-like.

For artisan bakers wanting to maintain their traditions but keep up with demand, automation is only acceptable in their processes for one purpose: to handle volume.

“The tools that we use assist us in terms of efficiency, but they don’t have a noticeable effect on the quality of the bread when you’re ignoring production volume,” said Randy George, co-owner
of Red Hen Baking Co., Middlesex, VT. “If you were going to make 12 loaves of our ciabatta, you could do it by hand, and it should be no better, no worse than our ciabatta when we make 200 loaves using our machinery.”

The remaining standards of artisan seem to stay intact, at least unofficially because no regulation of the term “artisan” exists. Bakers are left to decide for themselves what constitutes artisan bread. While many disagree on the acceptable level of automation, several key production elements distinguish artisan breads: a long fermentation time, no preservatives or conditioners, and hearth baking. If a compromise is made on any of those elements, the product will cross the line into artisan-like in someone’s eyes. Italian Home Bakery, Toronto, ON, with its highly automated lines, still calls its bread artisan because the company gives its doughs the appropriate time to ferment and rest.

“I think where you have to draw the line is in time,” said Dennis Rossetti, president and COO, Italian Home Bakery. “When you start short-cutting time, you start short-cutting the process, and at that point, you start short-cutting the whole term ‘artisan.’ And then, the banner ‘artisan-like bread’ should be applied.”

For some, as soon as bakers compromise on the ingredient list, however, they undermine the foundation of the bread from the beginning. Josh Allen, owner, Companion Baking Co., St. Louis, MO, said he believes that using a dough conditioner or preservatives crosses the line into artisan-like territory. For Mr. Allen, artisan bread’s production methods can be fully automated as long as its ingredient list is simple and all-natural.

According to Gillian Allen-White, general manager of Grand Central Bakery, Seattle, WA, moving away from the best raw ingredients or using a mix is unacceptable. Artisan bread’s emphasis on all-natural ingredients and simplicity primes this segment of the bread industry to take advantage of the current consumer trends toward all-natural ingredients, whole grains, and locally made and sourced products and ingredients. Although supermarket sales have remained steady, what bakers are sensing from these trends suggests artisan might get a boost in the future.

ALL-NATURAL INGREDIENTS.

Renewed interest among consumers in all-natural products with simple ingredient lists plays right into the hands of artisan breads, which consumers and bakers widely expect to be made from such ingredients.

“When you have problems like dough strength and shelf life, some [bakers] have solved them by adding chemicals, but with artisan breads, we find solutions with natural methods,” said Mark Friend, owner of Farm to Market Bread Co., Kansas City, MO. “There can’t be any chemical additives. We try for all-natural ingredients.”

The fact that artisan breads are wholesome and all natural and have no chemicals or preservatives is why Lonnie Williard, vice-president, marketing and sales, Tribeca Oven,
Carlstadt, NJ, said she believes these products fit today’s food trends. “[Artisan bread] was a bit ahead of its time,” she said. “Now the consumers are getting savvier to that. They do want more pure, simpler ingredient statements, and artisan breads are already sitting there with that exact claim to fame. So the trends have caught up to [artisan breads], but we are broadening our offerings and our varieties. We are very aware of the level of whole grains that we are putting in the bread.”

WHOLE AND ANCIENT GRAINS.

While artisan bread lends itself inherently to the all-natural trend, bakers are intentionally using whole grains to take full advantage of the whole-grain wave. Tribeca Oven has incorporated the whole-grain trend into its business strategy. “The products naturally lend themselves to [integrating whole grains], but that wasn’t an internal objective until the trends pushed us there. Now it’s a key strategy for us,” Ms. Williard said. “We joined the Whole Grains Council about a year ago and have really accelerated the number of products that are whole-grain certified.” She estimated that one-quarter of Tribeca Oven’s artisan products carry the Whole Grains Council stamp.

Mr. Friend said he sees the whole grain trend as the biggest influence in artisan bread right now but also paired with a renewed interest in ancient grains. Farm to Market Bread was ahead of the whole grain game with two sliced loaves: its Grains Galore and 8-Grain products. The bakery also just added a hearth-baked whole-grain bread to its product line called 6-Seed loaf, which includes pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseeds, among others.

Italian Home Bakery is also responding to other health trends by developing products lower in sodium to meet Canada’s health guidelines and products made with a variety of whole grains such as kamut and quinoa.

LOVACORE MOVEMENT.

Artisan bakeries also are benefiting from the locavore movement, in which consumers prefer to buy locally made products and want a personal connection with businesses. Because artisan breads do not contain preservatives, they must be made fresh and delivered daily. This limits even a wholesale artisan bakery to a local distribution, making artisan bread an obvious choice for food service and consumers wanting to buy local.

In the past two years, Red Hen Baking Co. introduced two breads made from wheat and whole rye grown only in Vermont. According to Mr. George, these locally sourced products have been very popular with customers.

Companion Baking focuses much of its marketing strategy on positioning itself as a St. Louis artisan bakery. For Mr. Allen, this means giving his customers a connection to the person making their bread and the ingredient suppliers for that bread, as well as showing the company’s involvement in the community such as the bread donations it makes. Mr. Allen has also pushed this local marketing strategy to its food service customers by building relationships with the chefs who buy the bread.

Grand Central Bakery also strives to create a connection with its customers by telling its story on bread bags and its website. “[Bread is] the cornerstone of so many tables and saves people a lot of cooking,” Ms. Allen-White said. “Frankly, telling them a story about just the product is not enough. It’s obviously very important, but a lot of our story is who we are as a company, who we support, who we care about.” Ms. Allen-White also said that supporting local charities through bread donations and partial-profit programs is a critical part of the bakery’s marketing strategy.

Despite the new marketing trends, tried-and-true methods still hold sway: the bread has to look and taste good. For artisan bread, outer beauty separates it from typical wholesale bread. Bakeries often use bags with windows to show off the product or do not bag the loaves at all.

“In a lot of cases with mass-produced bread, you package it in colored polyethylene covering up the entire product because it doesn’t matter what the product looks like,” said John Rossetti, vice-president, CFO, Italian Home Bakery. “When it comes to an artisan product, the more you show the bread, the more enhanced your sales are going to become because it’s a visual purchase; it’s a reactionary purchase.”

Although appearance is a consumer’s first clue that a loaf is artisan, taste separates artisan from artisan-like. Artisan bakers will pound the pavement at supermarkets, farmers markets and trade shows letting potential customers taste the bread.

As Ms. Allen-White said, “That’s the oldest trick in the book: Just get people to try it, and they’re yours.”