Consumers regaining interest in breaking bread

by Joanie Spencer
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American consumers have always had an affair with bread. Sometimes, it’s a love affair, sometimes, not so much. In recent years, though, people are feeling the love once again, thanks to their increased awareness of global and ethnic cuisine and an understanding of food on a deeper level than ever before.

Because of today’s more sophisticated culinary outlooks, consumers are recognizing premium and artisan breads — and even coming to expect them — on foodservice menus and in supermarket perimeters. “I think we’re in an environment where diners and consumers are really looking for quality and authenticity in a dining experience and in their entire food experience,” said Sandy Whann, owner, Leidenheimer Baking Co., New Orleans.

 As bread becomes beloved once again, it’s important to look at it as a critical player in the food experience, rather than just a delivery vehicle for the PB&J, so to speak.

Setting the stage

Whether offered as a component of a meal or menu item, bread is often responsible for setting the tone for the whole eating experience. In other words, a sandwich can be judged by the roll and a restaurant by the bread in the basket. “Bread that is placed on the table at the beginning of a meal really sends a message to diners about the quality level that the rest of the experience is going to be,” Mr. Whann said. “It establishes the bar.”

Because of this, many artisan bread bakers pair their products very strategically, based on the sandwich, entree or needs of the restaurant. Greg Acerra, owner, Fireking Baking Co., Braintree, MA, actually started baking bread after opening his second of three restaurants in the Boston suburb in the early 1990s. Mr. Acerra put extensive effort into starting up that establishment, which won an international restaurant award. “At that time, there was no high-quality bread in the area, so I bought a little four-deck oven and a 36-pod divider/rounder, a mixer and a two-door proof box and said, ‘I’m going to make my own bread.’ ”

Bread also plays an important role when selling a specific type of sandwich that calls for an equally specific type of carrier. In places such as Nantucket, Mr. Acerra pointed out, lobster rolls can go for anywhere from $15 to $30, and that means the bread must meet those standards. “The days of putting a $30 lobster roll on a regular white roll are gone,” he said.

Mr. Whann also recognized the importance of matching the bread to the product, especially when it comes to the po’ boy sandwich, for which most of his bakery’s French bread is used. “The traditional style of New Orleans French bread we make today was — and is — a response to the types of things people put on po’ boys,” Mr. Whann explained, referring to fillings such as fried oysters, shrimp, crab and fish. “When the idea was hatched to put these things on a sandwich, you had to have a certain type of bread that complemented the seafood, that didn’t compete with it but really provided the proper canvas for making this wonderful sandwich.”

Regardless of when bread makes its entrance to the meal, it’s often the most supporting role in the dining experience. But it’s also a main player in driving certain dining trends.

Artisan vs. premium

Consumers are certainly more informed than ever about their food, and bread producers can help them make educated choices, especially in terms of artisan and premium breads, two specific types of bread that consumers often confuse.

“Everyone has their own idea of what words like ‘premium,’ ‘artisan’ or ‘specialty baker’ mean,” Mr. Whann observed. “I’m not sure that even if we attempt to give our own definitions, consumers won’t still have their own definitions.” For example, he said, “When a typical consumer thinks of an ‘artisan’ baker, they think small batch, hand-made breads made by a baker with flour up to his elbows, working alone. While there’s certainly truth to that, I also think it’s part of the myth that’s out there.”

In reality, a baker doesn’t have to be — and most likely isn’t — working alone when producing an artisan bread. It does have to do with the process, such as starters and sours, longer fermentation times and cold proofing, which result in defined flavor, texture and crumb structure. “It’s that interruption of the manufacturing and letting the bread retard,” Mr. Acerra said. “We started out hand-making, hand-forming and shaping doughs, and as you grow, you have to graduate from that process. But if you buy the right equipment and adjust your recipes, you can get nearly the same results.”

When bakers talk about premium bread, they’re thinking less about the process and more about the ingredients being used. And while the terms “artisan” and “premium” are not necessarily interchangeable, they do often experience crossover, and bakers have an opportunity to educate consumers on the similarities and differences between the two.

“With premium breads, you can use premium ingredients without using the artisan process,” Mr. Acerra said. “You could make a ciabatta, focaccia or a baguette with premium ingredients without the retarding process.” Then again, bakers like Mr. Acerra himself, for example, will retard artisan doughs for anywhere from eight to 24 hours, also using premium ingredients including fresh, hand-stripped herbs in its herb focaccia or rosemary bread.

“There’s also an ironic relationship between artisan and premium,” Mr. Acerra said. While it might be an easy assumption that a product that’s both artisan and premium would give a customer the most bang for the buck, it might not actually be the case. “It’s great in terms of ingredients and flavor, but not great when it comes to shelf life,” he explained. “There’s an inverse relationship that with the more you pay, the less shelf life you get.” In today’s have-it-all world, consumers are often looking for high-quality ingredients and a clean label that’s also built to last.

So, how can bakers strike that balance? “I think it’s better to sell smaller and have people buy them more often,” Mr. Acerra suggested.

On the table, in the store

The demand for both artisan and premium breads is moving beyond the restaurant and into the supermarket perimeter. According to research published in What’s in Store 2016 by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, foodservice is the forerunner, and restaurant menu trends are making their way into the supermarket with demand for restaurant-quality foods and ethnic-inspired ingredients.

This presents bakers with an opportunity to serve shoppers who want to get that gourmet burger experience or set an upscale tone for mealtime at home. 

“Consumers are definitely interested in more exciting bread flavors and varieties at home, and the best place to get that is really in the in-store bakery,” said Scott Rosenberg, director of marketing and customer service for Lantmännen Unibake USA, Lisle, IL. Last year, Lantmännen Unibake’s Euro-Bake line introduced a jalapeño cheddar loaf and a date-and-cheese loaf, with a sweet-savory flavor combination.

When selling premium and artisan breads in the in-store bakery, retailers have options that can help them marry demand with shelf life. Lantmännen Unibake offers par-baked breads, which are baked at 80% and then cooled and flash frozen. “Operators can then bake them throughout the day as often as they need to, providing fresh breads to shoppers and minimizing waste,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “It allows the bread to have a longer shelf life without preservatives.”

Mr. Acerra also looks to the freezing process to provide supermarkets with artisan breads. “One benefit to buying frozen fully baked is that there’s little shrinkage on the manufacturing end, and you get a full five days out of the shelf life,” he said. “If you buy it fresh, the clock starts ticking right away.”

Whether it’s at a restaurant or in the store perimeter, inside a breadbasket or around a burger, on a plate or stacking a sandwich, breads are being broken in more ways than ever. By offering a variety of premium and artisan breads — and educating consumers about them — bakers can take advantage of people’s ever-growing desire to learn about food and expand their eating experiences.
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