Bread may be the staff of life, but it’s really pretty basic: flour, water, yeast, and salt, or some sort of substitute for the latter two. However, the way these items are combined, as well as other ingredients that are added, can make a huge difference in taste and texture, as quick-service operators are increasingly discovering.

In 20th century America, enriched white bread and rolls filled the aisles at supermarkets and breadbaskets at various restaurants. They were typically made with refined white flour, which also was used to bake buns for sandwiches at quick-service eateries. Not many diners thought much about other types of breads, except perhaps cornbread, primarily in the South, or rye and pumpernickel at delicatessens. Whole-wheat bread often seemed to taste like cardboard.

In recent years, though, much of this has changed, driven by the nutritious attributes of whole grains and the ability of talented artisan bakers to create bread, rolls, and other products from various grains that feature rich flavors and textures.

Bread has become healthier at limited-service restaurants, too. Many operators feature whole-wheat and multigrain breads, while others have lower-calorie items like flatbread.

“Ten years ago, the bakers knew so little about making a good, whole-grain bread,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways, a food and nutrition education association, and its affiliated Whole Grains Council. “Today, the whole-grain breads are head and shoulders above what they used to be.”

The Whole Grains Council’s menu symbol, denoting an item containing at least half a serving of whole grains, appears on a number of menu items at limited-service restaurants, including some bread products at places like Arby’s, Jason’s Deli, and Subway.

But while the bakery-café and delicatessen segments have long featured whole grains in bread, the use of these ingredients in other limited-service restaurants lagged.

“For a long time, if you used the word healthy, people would go running for the exits,” Harriman says. But that changed as the items improved, and the percentage of people who ate multigrain items rose to 36 percent in 2009 from just 13 percent in 2006, according to the Whole Grains Council.

Whole grains are just one part of a consumer and operator shift toward healthier breads, a shift that also includes eliminating calories, salt, sugar, and allergens, like gluten.

“There are two opposing trends,” says Elizabeth Freier, a menu analysis editor for Technomic Inc., a Chicago market research firm. “Behind them both is the concept that consumers want to know a lot more about the products—not just bread, but everything.”

Multigrain and whole-grain items are on the rise at limited-service restaurants, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor menu tracking database. Two-year growth in multigrain items jumped 69 percent, while whole-grain mentions rose 12 percent. Much of the better-bread push into quick-service and fast-casual restaurants occurred after the U.S. Department of Agriculture published guidelines in the middle of the last decade that recommended at least three servings of whole grains daily.

Whole-grain items contain all of the essential parts of the grain kernel—the germ, bran, and endosperm—and all the nutrients of the entire grain, which far surpasses refined flour.

Bread typically hasn’t been the centerpiece of limited-service restaurants’ marketing, but that has changed, Freier says. “We talked a lot about upscaling ingredients like cheese and beef,” she says. “The next step was upscaling the bread.”

Last year, Wendy’s, for instance, launched and heavily promoted multigrain flatbread, pretzel rolls, and ciabatta. Others followed suit, and among the newer offerings were an organic wheat English muffin at Starbucks and sprouted-grain bread at Panera.

Subway’s advertising campaign in May highlighted the fact that its bread is baked daily in the stores and fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and an additive also found in plastics were eliminated. The company also reformulated its 9-Grain Wheat sub roll, which now contains 24 grams of whole grains per 6-inch serving, half of the Whole Grains Council’s daily recommendation, says Lanette Kovachi, senior dietician for Subway.

Breads with whole grains have been a hallmark of La Brea Bakery, which helped revolutionize the baking industry. The Los Angeles–based company became the largest artisan bakery in the country thanks to its par-baking process, in which the dough is 80 percent baked and then flash frozen to be finished off later, including at some limited-service restaurants.

Bakers need to make adjustments with whole-grain breads, says Jon Davis, senior vice president of innovation at La Brea Bakery.

“From mixing to shaping, the whole-grain breads are different and a lot less tolerant,” he says. “Whole grains don’t react the same as refined flour. It’s a weaker structure.”

Whole wheat is the most popular bread item chosen by La Brea clients, and there’s also great demand for multiple grains. The whole-grain loaf not only has wheat, barley, and rye flours, but also cracked grains including wheat, barley, rye, oats, millet, corn, and others.

Consumers are also increasingly seeking ancient grains such as quinoa and amaranth, both of which are in La Brea’s George’s Seeded Wheat Oval. “People want to see the whole grains and taste them, to verify they’re in there,” Davis says.

The top specialty bread at Jason’s Deli is the 9-Grain, and the company is testing a 12-Grain variety, as well.

“Whole grain is getting a lot of hype, but the fact is it tastes better,” says Pat Herring, director of research and development for Jason’s Deli. “It’s a richer-tasting bread. You even see parents ordering grilled cheese on it for children.”

Grilled-cheese concept Cheeseboy has featured multigrain bread as an option since the chain launched. It’s part of one of the signature Veggie Melts, along with Cheddar, spinach, red peppers, and red onions, and also included with the breakfast menu’s Morning Melt.


“We see an increasing number of guests choosing the multigrain bread,” says Jeremy Martin, director of procurement for the 11-unit, Boston-based company. “We also have a wheat option, but multigrain is usually the choice.”

The company’s original multigrain bread has been adjusted over the years to include additional grains and seed types.

“People are definitely looking for a healthier option, and multigrain has that overall perception of being a better choice,” Martin says. “When people try it, they come back for it.”

While ciabatta is the main sandwich carrier at Denver-based Modmarket, the 10-unit fast-casual restaurant expanded its use of multigrain bread, which is part of some special sandwiches and served with select soups and salads.

“We began using it as toast for breakfast,” says cofounder Anthony Pigliacampo. “We didn’t want boring wheat toast, and this is not your typical grocery-store multigrain. It’s got lots of seeds and nuts, so it’s a hardy piece of bread.”

Five years ago, featuring multigrain in so many items might have created a pushback from customers. “Today, healthier is moving to the top of guests’ requests,” Pigliacampo says.

The bread includes only flour, water, yeast, and salt, with no preservatives. The flour includes ancient grains.

The Salmon Club sandwich is one of Modmarket’s specialty menu items made with multigrain bread. Between the slices are citrus-grilled, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, bacon aioli, basil, tomato, and arugula, ingredients that “balance well with the bread,” Pigliacampo says.

Another way to get healthier bread is by offering less of it. Potbelly Sandwich Shop, for example, features thin-cut slices with one-third less bread, so it has fewer calories and carbohydrates.

A number of other limited-service companies have added flatbread, which also has fewer calories and carbs. Freshly baked flatbread has long been the signature—and only—bread at Così, which has more than 110 units in the U.S.

“Our original, 400-year-old, European-style flatbread is a very traditional, pure style of baking, made in-house,” says R.J. Dourney, president and chief executive. “Our multigrain flatbread is baked the same way.”

The multigrain version was introduced less than a decade ago, but it’s now being chosen by more than half of Così’s customers, many of them younger, he says.

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t know anything about nutrition, but today, young people really get it,” Dourney says. “It no longer can just be delicious. It has to be good for you.”

Increasingly, the healthier items taste great, he adds. “Until 10 or 15 years ago, healthy really had a negative halo, because a lot of the food tasted like twigs and stones. But our multigrain is spectacular.”

Pita is another low-calorie bread growing in popularity.

The menu at Chicago-based Roti Mediterranean Grill, which has 19 locations, features pita pockets used as sandwich-like carriers, and pita pieces that are served with salads and rice plates. Baked on the premises, the pita has about 100 calories for pieces and 200 calories for pockets. The salads and rice plates originally came with a large 200-calorie piece of pita bread, but that was reduced because it was too much for many guests.

“We decided to give them the first 100-calorie piece with the meal, and they could get the second one for free,” says Peter Nolan, Roti’s chief brand officer. “If you’re hungry, great, but we’ve made it easier to have a healthier option.”

Mediterranean-style restaurant Zoës Kitchen also has pita pockets—regular and wheat—in four menu items, as well as multigrain bread for regular sandwiches. “Our 12-grain bread, which we position with a lot of sandwiches, has 21 grams of whole grains per slice,” says Kyle Frederick, director of food and beverage for Zoës Kitchen, a Plano, Texas–based, 60-unit chain. “What you won’t find is artificial flavors and colors and high-fructose corn syrup. But we also have a lot of calorie-conscious customers, so our pita pockets have fewer calories but a lot of flavor.”

Nolan says Roti also features pitas in another health-conscious style: gluten free. The company is one of several operators to have gluten-free carriers; others include Jason’s Deli and Smashburger, which both use Udi’s gluten-free breads or buns.

“I had no idea there would be this kind of demand for gluten free,” says Jason’s Deli’s Herring. “It’s become very popular,” not only with diners who have allergic reactions to gluten, but also with many more guests who have a sensitivity to the ingredient, he says. Jason’s Deli takes extra steps to help prevent cross-contamination with items that have gluten by providing employees with kits that include a sterile knife, spatula, and gloves.

Gluten-free items have continued to improve with more flavor and textures that closely resemble breads with wheat.

“Many of them were gritty and dry and lacking flavor,” says Dana Spaeth, vice president and general manager of foodservice and industrial for Boulder Brands, Udi’s parent. “We have a special process, so we make a great bread product.”

Spaeth expects Udi’s to be in an increasing number of restaurants, as operators attempt to appeal to those diners seeking gluten-free items.

“We are engaged with most of the large quick-service restaurants in the country,” he says. “There is more and more interest in serving this large group of diners.”

Food, Menu Innovations, Story, La Brea, Modmarket, Panera Bread, Potbelly, Roti Modern Mediterranean, Subway, Wendy's