March 15, 2010
Written by: Vince McConeghy
Local, sustainable, artisanal, these are big worlds in the food service industry, but not in the bread business.
Been there, done that.
If you want to know where some of this is going, consider the bread industry back in the mid-nineties. Then, an explosion of young, talented bakers across the country sought to re-invent the way Americans perceived bread.
Artisan bread was born.
It was the first 'local' product to gain mass acceptance and reshape the way bread was delivered in the food service industry. Once traditional bakeries started losing market share, they ramped up their "Artisan" production lines, or had purchased smaller artisan bakeries, and by 2003 were distributing Artisan par bake lines directly to food service operators.
Some of the biggest names in the initial Artisan bread movement, such as La Brea and Ecce Panis, mechanized their production and went national with frozen distribution. The standard for the food service industry had become frozen, par-baked Artisan breads.
The issue, as it always has been for bread, was price.
Frozen, par-baked bread from large industrial bakeries had become acceptable in quality, lower in price, and food service distributors (national and regional) began regularly stocking it and selling-in to their customers.
Wegmans scrapped their scratch,-baked Artisan program and went the frozen par-bake route, further confirmation by industry observers that this was the path to profitability. If Wegmans couldn't do scratch bake Artisan breads, nobody could.
This was a valid argument.
For restaurants that seek to brand themselves around the 'local' and 'sustainable' movements, getting rid of frozen, par-bake bread should be imperative.
The solution: bake your own.
If not, buy from a local baker and work with them. I realize that bread service cannot be monetized in the way European restaurants charge for bread. But why can't it be offered as an option? Give your customers the choice. Pay for premium bread service that includes great local breads and a signature accompaniment, or serve them bread on demand with a less expensive side.
You can't get any more local than bread. And you can't get around it.
Full disclosure: For a better part of my food service career, I ran a local, artisan bread bakery and have lived through the developments of the bread industry. The price of bread has been historically depressed for over 500 years. I don't expect things to change any time soon.