Menu Innovations | September 2010 | By Barney Wolf

Rolling in Dough

Consumer demand is growing for freshly baked bread, but advances in par-baked products are offering brands more options.

There’s something about the smell and taste of freshly baked bread that triggers powerful, positive emotional responses in most of us.

Psychologists have noted that the aroma of baked bread evokes happy childhood memories, comfort, and even tender feelings of being loved. One recent survey found the fragrance of freshly baked bread is a favorite smell of both men and women.

This lesson is not lost on supermarkets, which for years have used the distinct aroma of bread baking from in-store bakeries to lure customers to buy more items.

Restaurants have also increasingly discovered that consumers will pay a little more for sandwiches made with freshly baked breads, soups served with warm rolls, or salads that feature croutons made from richly textured artisan fare.

“There’s been an evolution in a sense developing in the bread world,” says Peter Reinhart, an acclaimed baker, teacher, and author. “As more folks are exposed to fresh bread, they have come to expect it both at home and out in restaurants.”

Once available only at small bakeries and fine-dining bistros, freshly baked artisan bread became accessible to many restaurants after La Brea Bakery and other companies expanded European-developed techniques to par bake bread.

“The quality of par-baked bread these days is unbelievable,” says Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage at Corner Bakery, a bakery-café chain. “You would have a difficult time distinguishing it from bread made from scratch on site.”

Par baking, short for partial baking, is a process in which about 80 percent of the bread-making process—largely until yeast activity stops—is completed at a factory or commissary. Controlling the fermentation and moisture is key, allowing the remaining steps, including final baking, to occur at the restaurant or other final location.

This saves operators time, space, and money while providing them with a consistent product that can be as good as breads baked from scratch on location.

Bread is not necessarily complex—it is mostly flour, water, salt, and yeast—but making it well is truly a skill, says Scicchitano, who was the original baker for Corner Bakery when it was founded in 1991 in Chicago.

Baking high-quality, artisan bread requires consistency, he says. “It’s easier to do in one location, but as you grow, it becomes more of a challenge.”

Relatively few quick-service or fast-casual restaurants can afford the space or skilled employees necessary to bake bread from scratch on site, says Reinhart, who teaches baking at Johnson & Wales University’s Charlotte, North Carolina, campus.

“But knowing you can still put a great par-baked product out there is a huge competitive advantage,” he says.

Factory-produced white-bread buns still dominate the quick-service world, because they are “good, inexpensive flavor carriers,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Chicago-based restaurant consulting and market research firm Technomic Inc.

Whether plain or with sesame seeds, these buns don’t muster much customer passion, unlike those at some sandwich shops that have embraced in-store bread baking for years and made it part of their healthful eating pitches.

Subway restaurants use thin, frozen dough sticks that are thawed, proofed (given time to rise), scored, and baked several times a day in most of the chain’s more than 23,000 U.S. units. There are up to 10 varieties of sandwich rolls available.

“We try to make it as foolproof as possible, but it still takes some skill,” says Les Winograd, a spokesman for the Milford, Connecticut–based company.

In terms of par baking, the biggest beneficiary of improved technology has been the fast-casual bakery-café segment, which experienced enormous growth as freshly baked artisan sandwich bread moved to the forefront.

According to Technomic, sales at bakery-café restaurants grew 4 percent last year.

“Consumers have discovered they can get very good, fresh-baked bread at restaurants that give you quick service,” Goldin says.

Nowhere has the growth been more evident than at Panera Bread, which dominates the bakery-café segment. As the company’s name implies, its focus is the bread.

Panera offers more than a dozen bread types that, including the popular tomato basil and asiago cheese varieties, are “made from scratch,” says Tom Gumpel, head baker and vice president of bakery research and development at the suburban St. Louis–based chain. “It just goes for a little ride along the way.”

Nineteen strategically located bread-making facilities serve Panera’s 1,400 company-owned and franchised restaurants in 40 states and Canada. Ingredients are mixed to form dough, which is fermented, molded into shapes, and refrigerated to slow fermentation. Temperature-controlled trucks ship the dough to restaurants for proofing and baking.

The process may seem a bit bulky, but it “grew like this organically,” says Gumpel, who was dean of the baking college at the Culinary Institute of America before joining Panera in 2005. “It also leverages our strength as bakers” and is reinforced by an in-house training program for its restaurant bakers, he says.

About 80 percent of Panera’s bread goes into menu items and the remainder is sold retail.

Corner Bakery, now based in Dallas, does par baking differently. Dough is mixed at a central location, and bread is partially baked before being cooled and flash frozen. It is then shipped to the chain’s 115-plus stores, where it is thawed and baking is completed.

Having a frozen product requires more freezer space, but it allows a restaurant to react more quickly to replenish its stock with warm, freshly baked bread or to meet large, last-minute catering orders, Scicchitano says.

Corner Bakery has upward of a dozen varieties of breads and rolls on its menu at any one time, all with different flavors and textures. Particularly popular is sourdough panini bread and Mom’s White Bread, which is key to several sandwiches, including the seasonal favorite BBLT (bacon, bacon, lettuce, and tomato).

Almost all par-baked breads arrive at restaurants in frozen form, says David Roth, director of national commercial chain sales for Rich Products Corp., a Buffalo, New York–based national baker that has an extensive line of par-baked products.

The most typical par-baked products are frozen proof-and-bake doughs that need to thaw and rise before baking, and the nearly completed frozen bread that is thawed and put in the oven for a final baking.

There is some dispute over what type of par baking is best and which reduces opportunity for moisture loss or ice crystal growth the best. Roth contends, however, that most processes “are very, very good if they’re done right.”

In reaction to the growing interest in par-baked products, oven manufacturers have increasingly produced more compact machinery for quick-service and fast-casual restaurants that want to offer freshly baked bread.

“Par baking has been a large influence on the market,” says Laura Barrentine, product line manager for bakery equipment provider Baxter Manufacturing Inc., in Orting, Washington. “You’re seeing fewer proofers and more small ovens to finish baking.”

Baxter, for instance, recently introduced a mini-oven that can evenly finish the baking for four 18-by-26-inch pans every 20 minutes to an hour.

A few traditional burger chains are even using fully baked frozen breads made by par bakers. At Jack in the Box, a new line of grilled sandwiches requires loaves of frozen artisan bread to be thawed and sliced in the restaurants.

The loaves do not conform to a pan, so “one of the challenges of having this versus a bun is not every slice is usable,” says LaVonne McAlicher, director of new product development for the company. “Part of the training is knowing what can be used” for the sandwiches.

Jack in the Box has featured sourdough bread in sandwiches for years, but the artisan bread in the grilled sandwiches—the Turkey, Bacon, and Cheddar and the Deli Trio with Genoa salami, sliced ham, and roasted turkey—has a special taste and crust.

Despite the move toward par baking, there are still quick-service and fast-casual eateries that do their own scratch baking in the restaurants.

At Schlotzsky’s, scratch-baked bread is “one of the things that sets us apart,” says Jim Villemaire, chef and director of research and development for the Austin, Texas–based sandwich chain that has more than 350 locations in 35 states and four foreign nations.

“It certainly adds to the intricacy of running a Schlotzsky’s,” he says.

Villemaire says bread has been the heart and soul of the company since it began in 1971. Franchisees must be aware that baking is key to each restaurant, and that a certain amount of time and floor space must be allocated for baking.

Round rolls—used in menu items that make up about 90 percent of the chain’s sales—and pizza crusts are made and baked daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Most stores have three bakers and employ 100 square feet of floor space for the baking process.

In addition to its original sourdough bread, Schlotzsky’s features wheat, jalapeño cheese, and dark rye varieties. In the past, the chain explored whether to have its bread provided by others, but “we have not found anyone who can take the product and commercialize it with the taste, texture, and appearance we want,” Villemaire says.

San Francisco–based Boudin Bakery went back to its roots by installing scratch baking in its Boudin SF units when the fast-casual chain was launched in 2006. The parent company already had bakery cafés that use bread baked at Boudin’s central bakeries.

“With the SF concept, we put the components of mixing, shaping, scoring, and baking bread into the restaurant,” says Gayle DeBrosse, executive vice president of business development and marketing.

The bread is made with flour, salt, water, and sourdough culture from the company’s original mother dough. The chain also has a baguette, ciabatta, and multigrain bread.

With seven California locations, Boudin SF “reinforces our brand heritage and allows us to grow outside San Francisco,” DeBrosse says. “It has a halo effect over the quality perception of consumers. The bread in your sandwich is made right there.”

There is some debate, however, over the cost effectiveness of in-store baking. Panera, for instance, tested in-store scratch baking in the Albany, New York, market, but units required thousands of dollars in incremental sales weekly to keep up with higher costs, says head baker Gumpel.

Nonetheless, most of Boudin SF’s sandwiches are in the range of $6–$8, similar to Panera, Corner Bakery, and most other fast-casual locations.

Solveig Tofte, head baker for Minneapolis’ Turtle Bread, says scratch-baking costs are manageable and that “once you taste real bread, it’s something you want every day. It is not a luxury.”

Turtle Bread’s three locations have in-store baking, along with deli and fast-casual dining during the breakfast and lunch hours. Two sites have full-service dinner.

Tofte, who studied artisan baking with Reinhart when he taught at the California Culinary Academy and serves on the board of directors of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, says in-house baking makes the best bread, but she doesn’t dismiss par baking.

“It has its place,” she says. “I would love everyone to have fresh-baked bread, but I fully understand that if you are running a restaurant, you may not have the space, equipment, and expertise to bake bread right there. I would rather see a quality par-baked bread than one laced with chemicals that can sit around for days.”