Nothing beats the taste (or smell) of freshly baked bread, but working with proofing dough and live yeast every day, and taking into account moisture levels and altitude, can become a tedious pursuit—especially for a concept expanding across the country over several climates and terrains. For many quick-service restaurants, however, churning out exceptional burgers, sandwiches, and authentic ethnic cuisines means starting with fresh-baked bread, so they make the time and monetary sacrifices to develop extensive recipes and procedures.
Some brands, like Manresa Bread in California, go as far as ensuring the flour is milled that morning to achieve ultimate freshness. Others, like 1,500-unit chain Jersey Mike’s, ship dough to achieve an exact taste that is mass-produced in one place but finished off through fresh proofing and baking in-store. Both routes require careful logistics, especially as brands scale.
When Jersey Mike’s began franchising, the brand was unable to replicate the bread it had become accustomed to from New Jersey bakers. So it decided to start shipping the dough to each location and baking it fully in the store after a proof. Today, Jersey Mike’s serves the same bread that it’s served since day one, but about 75 million feet of it per year.
Manresa, which just opened its third Northern California location, mills, shapes, and bakes breads and pastries in a process that Avery Ruzicka, partner and head baker, calls a 24/7 operation. “It’s an endless loop where we are constantly focusing on developing skill sets within our bakers, while also focusing on creative and consistent execution of our products,” she says. In 2015, the fast-casual bakery-café was born out of the kitchen of full-service restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California, where Ruzicka learned to develop menu items for optimum tastiness. Following course, Manresa Bread mills more than 90 percent of its in-house flours to produce 3,500 loaves per week between the first two storefronts. “Not a lot of people are milling flour at the volume that we are producing,” she says.
Kneaders Bakery & Café, a 59-unit chain based in Orem, Utah, doesn’t mill its flour in-house, but the brand has partnered with Utah’s Lehi Roller Mills since 1997. In fact, Kneaders has its own wheat fields that are grown specifically for the brand to create a proprietary flour that is used to bake bread for locations across eight states. “Our customers never have to wonder if we are adding preservatives, because we aren’t,” says James Worthington, CEO. “Being transparent with our hearth bread ingredients is the engine that has built brand trust for the last 20 years.”
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To create its upscale sandwiches, Schlotzsky’s 374 locations bake the brand’s signature sourdough buns in-store every day. “The fresh, authentic ingredients give our sandwich bread a light and airy middle with a crisp outer layer to capture all the uniquely bold flavors packed inside,” says Jason Moore, executive chef. “Our bread has always set us apart from other fast-casual sandwich shops.”
Likewise, Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh—with 27 locations and six more in development—hand rolls, kneads, and proofs scratch-made pita dough throughout the day to stuff with a range of proteins, veggies, and salads. Devin Handler, director of marketing, says the company rejected more than 135 pita recipes before it landed on the “pillowy” pita found on Garbanzo menus today. The concept has baked and served more than 60 million pitas since its inception a decade ago, and it recently started building stand-alone bakery areas for new locations where guests can see the pita-making process from the front of the house.
Looking to the future, these bread-focused brands see specialty flours trending to accommodate different diets, as well as consumers demanding more taste from their breads. Guests will also become more knowledgeable about the breadmaking process and varieties of wheats and flours, experts predict. Even 2,000-unit Panera Bread has begun putting an emphasis on heritage grains with its Food Interrupted Facebook Watch series.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar, a Texas-based chain that makes its own buns, is banking on the growth of specialty diet-specific breads. “I think alternative-flour, gluten-free, low-carb, low-glycemic-index accommodations will be made with bread, offering things like veggie-based buns or sweet potato rolls,” says Matt Schweitzer, Hopdoddy’s director of food and beverage. Jersey Mike’s sees this trend, too. Based on customer interest, the sandwich chain introduced Udi’s gluten-free sub rolls nationwide in December 2017.
Madruga Bakery out of Coral Gables, Florida, sees interest in the where and how of wheat sourcing and breadmaking, mimicking that of the craft-brewing industry. “We’re at a point where the culinary IQ, the vocabulary of people’s knowledge, will really start to change,” says Larry Harris, co-owner. “Who knew what an IPA was a few years ago? The same thing, I think, will be happening in bread, with consumers being able to know the style of bread and grains.”
Ruzicka at Manresa shares Harris’s sentiment. She sees the quality of breads improving over the next few seasons as the average customer’s knowledge increases. “‘Whole grain’ and ‘naturally fermented’ are becoming terms that are a part of a well-informed customer, so the demand is increasing,” she says. “In the bread world, knowing where your grains come from is a new shift that people are beginning to care about and pay attention to.”
Moore at Schlotzsky’s says that even in the sandwich business, consumers are going to demand those authentic, less-processed breads. “We also see a trend in personalization, which is why we invite our guests to make their sandwich original by adding seasonings and toppings,” he says.
Leaders at Kneaders watched as 2018’s bread sales trended toward lighter, artisanal menu options, more ingredient transparency, and a desire for whole grains—things Kneaders has offered for the past two decades. Worthington says that, moving forward, the brand will continue to offer customers options that are interesting and that reflect the integrity of Kneaders’ products. But the brand will also give consumers honest and unique ways to indulge, he says, like with the Jalapeño Cheddar bread from summer 2018 and the Chocolate Babka bread from the fall.