Bread is rising again on menus and in emerging concepts

State of the Plate: Once shunned by carb-cutters, bread baskets, baguettes, rolls and other yeast-raised items —especially higher-quality baked goods —are proving to be a hit with customers.
Bread basket
Bread is finding new life on restaurant menus and in emerging concepts. | Photo: Shutterstock

State of the Plate

It appears that bread is making a comeback on menus. It never actually disappeared, of course, and beyond the bread basket, it remains a necessary component in burgers, sandwiches and other items.

But over the past decade or so, it seems to have lost some of its luster as a promotable signature item, falling victim to gluten intolerants, lifestyle dieters, protein seekers and carb avoiders, not to mention succumbing to corporate cost cutters.

A quick menu scan makes the point. Twenty years ago, the sandwich listing at Rock Bottom Brewery touted ciabatta, onion kaiser rolls and multi-grain buns among other tasty varieties. Save for the availability of a gluten-free bun, the current bill of fare is silent on options, a pattern typical of most chains.

Recent developments, however, signal that both operator and diner attention may be turning back to bread.

Multiple drivers. The emergence on these shores of attractive and sophisticated French-Asian bakery cafes is shaking up the category and driving consumer interest.

A recent report from Placer.ai notes that few things are as universally beloved as freshly baked bread and analyzes the appeal of chains like South-Korea based Paris Baguette, which has seen visits soar at its 150 locations here and which plans to open 1,000 stores by 2030.

Competitor Tous les Jours, or Every Day in French, is also headquartered in South Korea and has been growing at a steady clip, with over 100 stores in operation in the US that serve over 300 different pastries, gourmet cakes, desserts and bread items, all made fresh daily and impeccably showcased in store.

Dubbed the “Starbucks of Taiwan” in its native country, 85C Bakery Cafe is named for the ideal temperature at which to brew the coffee that accompanies its bakery fare and is currently expanding operations throughout the West and Southwest.

Tous Les Jours bread

Plant-based, multi-grain loaf from Tous Les Jours | Photo courtesy: Tous Les Jours

What these and other nascent bakery chains have in common is an emphasis on picture-perfect, classic French breads and pastries that are beautifully presented, along with a generous assortment of equally enticing Asian items, like the pillowy milk bread featured at the above brands. There’s also a typically robust menu of coffee and tea beverages.

Sandwich upgrades. While next-gen bakery cafes have been luring customers, breads and buns also been getting a second look at some major US chains.

Early this year, McDonald’s launched its “best burgers ever,” a menu revamp that included enhancements to the core product line. Preparation changes loomed large, but the signal ingredient shift involved new, “softer” buns that are romanced as more “aromatic,” with a buttery, yeasty fragrance.

Part of Red Robin’s recent initiative to reclaim its status as a dominant gourmet-burger brand is an upgraded brioche bun with enhanced seasoning to better showcase the operation’s new smash-style burger patties.

Speaking of brioche, RB reports that makes up half of the new, hybrid potato-brioche bun at Jack in the Box, developed specifically to complement the chain’s smash-hit Smashed Jack burger.

And last year, Panera launched a line of Toasted Baguette Sandwiches, which moved that bread from the side of soups, salads and entrées into the spotlight. The three original varieties, which included Green Goddess Caprese Melt, Pepperoni Mozzarella Melt and Smoky Buffalo Chicken Melt, have since been joined by the Black Forest Ham and Gouda Melt.

Ready promotability. Smart operators lean in to bread’s menu merchandising potential, as at First Watch, where the promotional copy proclaims that the Brooklyn Breakfast Sandwich is served up on a grilled, Everything-seasoned brioche bun.

Shake Shack’s special Korean Style Fried Chicken Sandwich and Korean BBQ Burger utilize the chain’s toasted potato bun, touted on the website for its ability to absorb juices and cradle the meat. And toasting the bun with butter on the grill, the site says, imparts a pleasing, crispy texture.

Speaking of texture, burgers on offer at Eureka restaurants benefit from Parmesan-crusted brioche and Havarti-crusted buns that add an additional layer of both flavor and crunch.

Better brands. Some chains promote the provenance of their breads to forge a customer connection and enhance their value perception. The Farmer’s Club at Farmer Boys, for example, boasts locally baked ciabatta from the iconic La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, a pioneer in the artisanal bread movement.

Equally iconic is the King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe Sandwich, the return of a popular limited-time offer from Arby’s that utilizes the fluffy, fan-favorite bread from the islands. It’s the latest in a series of branding collaborations between the two that also includes the new trio of Brown Sugar Bacon handhelds, all stacked on King’s Hawaiian buns.

Then there’s Joe & the Juice, the coffee and juicery expanding to the US out of Denmark and bringing along its Scandinavian take on ciabatta that uses whole wheat and rye flours made in partnership with Kohberg Bakery Group there.

Mendocino Farms invites patrons to “eat happy’ with its line of Cheffy Sandwiches that includes The Happy Hippie Sandwich made with a plethora of produce like Kumato tomatoes and beet caviar along with hummus and Cheddar, all sandwiched by Mom’s Seeded Honey Whole Wheat Bread.

Take home. There’s no question that proprietary breads can be a customer draw. Think of Red Lobster’s irresistible Cheddar Bay Biscuits. They’ve proved so popular that the chain sells them online and at supermarkets and, in a savvy move, has released a recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing that calls for a dozen of the little guys.

The Cheesecake Factory is prized for more than its titular desserts. Patrons also love the complimentary bread basket that’s loaded with Famous “Brown Bread.” Sold by more than 22,000 retailers, it is now the third best-selling bread in the in-store bakery segment per company reports, growing a hefty 152% over the past five years.

Cheesecake Factory bread

The Cheesecake Factory's brown bread, for retail | Photo courtesy: The Cheesecake Factory

Arguably no bread course is a stronger customer magnet than the bread sticks at Olive Garden, and patrons who just can’t get enough during dinner can buy them by the half dozen or dozen to consume in their own homes.

Back to basics. All the foregoing suggests significant upside for amped-up innovation around breads and buns.

During the pandemic shutdown, comfort-seeking, housebound Americans turned to baking their own bread in record numbers. Sales of yeast reportedly soared 647% during late March of 2020, thereby causing nationwide supply shortages; while retailer Crate & Barrel reported selling more bread machines in one week in April 2020 than they’d sold in all of the prior year.

There’s no telling how many of those appliances are currently gathering dust in pantries around the country, but in their short life span, they served to remind consumers of the basic appeal of a most basic food and created a major opportunity for restaurateurs to step up with style.  

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