Menu Innovations | October 2017 | By Amelia Levin

Savory Baked Goods Heat Up Restaurant Sales

How operators are leveraging new flavor ideas with savory baked goods to boost business across the dayparts.
Einstein Bros. recently released Shmearfuls, which are mini bagels filled with cream cheese. Einstein Bros.
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There’s always room for sweet treats, but savory baked goods continue to inch out the competition at quick serves and fast casuals looking to develop the next best breakfast, lunch, snack, or even dinner menu.

From house-baked breads and bagels to savory pastries and other carriers filled with cheese, meat, fruits, and more, consumers these days are looking for unique, bold flavor combinations; hand-held convenience; and fresh, clean ingredients when it comes to their non-sweet baked goods.

All of this comes as the gluten-free craze seems to be winding down—and bakery-café concepts couldn’t be happier. Still, many continue to address the issue with seriousness, offering gluten-free options here and there with a larger focus on “cleaning up” their ingredients, making more foods from scratch and focusing on authenticity in an effort to play to consumers’ more general search for wholesomeness and balance.

Here’s a look at some of the top consumer preferences influencing the fleet of savory baked goods on today’s limited-service-restaurant menus.

Ethnic influences

As global flavors heat up, quick-serve operators are jumping on board with new menu innovations, including those operators in the baked-goods category.

The National Restaurant Association’s 2017 What’s Hot survey listed ethnic-inspired breakfast as the top-trending item in that daypart category and the No. 6 top food trend overall.

Culinary innovators at Au Bon Pain realized this, which is why they recently made changes to their croissant-filled sandwiches and introduced a line of savory kolaches, inspired by the Czech pastry popular throughout Texas and other urban markets around the country. While kolaches are traditionally filled with fruity jams and sweet creams and enjoyed in the morning or as an afternoon treat, Au Bon Pain instead infuses the slightly sweet and buttery, Parker House roll–type dough with more savory ingredients, like bacon and cheese, smoked turkey, and vegetables.

“Kolaches in Texas, where our CEO enjoys them, are often sweet, but we wanted to make them savory based on current trends, and to elevate the filling,” says vice president of culinary Katherine See, noting Houston-based CEO Ray Blanchette, who joined Au Bon Pain last year.

The chain has also used its popular line of croissant sandwiches baked on-site to test other ethnic-inspired fillings, like curried chicken and potato.

“We like to introduce global flavors this way so it’s in recognizable form and in smaller portions, so you’re not committing to an entire entrée,” See says.

Wise Sons is an authentic boiled bagel and artisan deli fast-casual concept in San Francisco. Cofounder Evan Bloom says the Wise Sons team added harissa—the North African chile paste rivaling the more mainstream sriracha for ethnic condiment supremacy—to a cream cheese shmear for an extra kick when paired with roasted brisket on a bagel.

“We also have a spicy egg sandwich with harissa schmear, which has become extremely popular,” he says.

Bolder flavors

In searching for a good balance between sweet and savory, Au Bon Pain’s See has been developing a line of stuffed croissants that pair ingredients like peach or dried apricots with smoked turkey and fontina cheese.

“We’re seeing the use of smoked meats along with the trend of barbecue, as well as more interesting cheese choices like Gruyere or herb-infused cheddars,” she says.

Einstein Bros. has also played with new and bolder savory pairings, like the Bacon Brewhouse sandwich pairing the chain’s popular pretzel bagel with beer cheese, cage-free eggs, and thick-cut, nitrate-free Applewood bacon, says Kerry Coyne, senior vice president of marketing, culinary/R&D, and catering at Einstein Noah Restaurant Group.

And piggybacking on a growing trend toward using the “everything spice” mixture of garlic, onion, black pepper, and salt most commonly associated with bagels, Wise Sons has expanded its use of that seasoning to pump up scrambled eggs, meat, and more.

Perfect for snacking

In the wake of the ongoing snacking and mini-meal phenomenon, quick serves have looked to smaller and portable baked-good carriers as a way to pack a flavor punch into just a few bites.

Einstein Bros. recently introduced Shmearfuls, a line that includes six mini bagels filled with mix-and-match flavored cream cheeses for on-the-go noshing, Coyne says.

At Au Bon Pain, See says she’s been doing more tests with the stuffed croissants and kolaches, which are consumed as snacks or mini meals as often as they are enjoyed at breakfast.

“This is an area where people are allowing themselves to be indulgent,” she says. “They have already committed to the calories; they just want a smaller portion of something delicious made with real butter and caramelized onions or good-quality bacon and cheese.”

Smaller portions like these allow consumers to diversify what they eat at each meal by pairing more indulgent items with fresh fruit or a salad.

Functional foods

Research firm Datassential has pointed out the increasing menu frequency of “functional foods,” which include superfoods like chia seeds and goji berries, or foods that add extra healthy fats and antioxidants to dishes and meals.

In May, Einstein Bros. launched a line of “Boosted Bagels” to play off consumer trends toward these foods with nutritional benefits. The bagels, baked fresh in-house within four hours, are infused with omega-3 fatty acids, extra protein and fiber, antioxidants, and even caffeine.

The chain has also made changes to its ingredient sourcing to make sure there are no artificial flavors, preservatives, nitrates, nitrites, or hormones added to the bagels, cream cheeses, cage-free eggs, bacon, and other ingredients it uses.

“We were looking to serve our guests the functional food they craved in savory flavors with elevated ingredients while giving them something new and exciting that they will enjoy,” Coyne says. “We have been fighting the good-food fight for a couple of years now, and are proud to offer the changes on our menu.”

Mike Lassiter, CEO of Atlanta-based soup-and-sandwich chain Rising Roll, also sees growth potential for functional foods.

“There is a growing focus on superfoods, including grain bowls and açai bowls, but hummus and avocado are still strong additions to sandwiches,” he says.

The company, which has locations throughout the Southeast, Texas, and Virginia, offers a variety of sandwiches, with bread options including a French roll, multi-grain roll, croissant, honey-wheat bread, and wrap. There are several sandwich and wrap options under 400 calories, with many “gluten-reduced” and vegan-friendly selections “that are attractive to a younger demographic, including millennials,” Lassiter says.

Sprouted grains

A new wave of baked goods goes beyond simply whole wheat to include sprouted grains, which are thought to ease digestion and add a flavor and nutrient punch. This falls in line with the growing crop of consumers (25 percent) who would pay more for a healthier sandwich carrier, according to Datassential.

Wise Sons introduced a sprouted, seeded wheat bread for its healthier, vegetable-laden sandwiches.

“The seeds are soaked in water, and once they begin to sprout, are rolled into the dough for extra flavor and texture,” Bloom says.

Au Bon Pain also rolled out a sprouted-grain bagel as an enhancement to multigrain, and it “has great protein, a lower glycemic index, and is not as hard to digest as whole wheat, but it adds more moisture and flavor,” says See, who’s also been experimenting with adding sprouted seeds to laminated baked goods (in which dough is layered with butter).

Clean and fresh

Following along the lines of healthier sandwich options, Wise Sons expanded its use of clean, fresh, and plant-based ingredients, playing off the traditional alfalfa sprouts once popular on sandwiches in the ’90s with its “hippie green” mix of arugula, radish, and other sprouts, along with pickled dill and parsley bits.

This fall, the shop is serving a vegan-friendly bagel sandwich that swaps meat with hearty squash roasted with “schwarma spice,” a Middle East–inspired blend. Wise Sons also offers a dairy-free smashed avocado spread with lemon and salt.

“These sandwiches are also very beautiful when you see the layers of color, which is really important as more people post what they’re eating on Instagram and other social media channels,” Bloom says.

As the gluten-free craze winds down and artisan bread–baking heats up again, limited-service operators who play to growing consumer preferences for bolder flavors and authenticity can get ahead of the savory baked-goods game.