Breaking out of the round pie box

Flatbreads aren’t just trending at national chains—they’re healthy, versatile and convenient options satisfying customers in non-commercial operations as well.

Hummus Supreme flatbread from the University of Oklahoma

The Hummus Supreme flatbread from the University of Oklahoma uses hummus as the sauce. 

Sub sandwiches used to be all the rage. Today, the thinner the bread, the better, says Irene Regala, recipe development chef at UCSF Medical Center, in San Francisco, who offers an array of flatbreads. “It’s a healthier, lower calorie and lower carb option that’s convenient and portable,” Regala says. “[And for operators], they’re a great opportunity to offer quick specials, add variety and excitement to your menu and utilize excess ingredients.”

No wonder everyone from Dunkin Donuts to The Laughing Tomato (an original University of Oklahoma restaurant concept, in Norman) now offers flatbreads. “Don’t be afraid to use your imagination—some of our best-selling flatbreads happened when we were thinking out of the box,” says T.J. Carter, manager at The Laughing Tomato, who added Thai, Mediterranean and Mexican-inspired flatbreads in 2011. Car-
ter’s ethnic variations have had much success, particularly The Mediterranean Supreme, which is made with basil pesto, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, as well as a flatbread smothered in housemade hummus.

The bread

Getting the bread part of flatbread right is half the battle. Two operators have found success with naan (hand-stretched Indian bread). “Naan is just the right size for a single serving and provides a sturdy base that holds up best to the toppings,” says Regala, who sources a premade naan due to space and time constraints. Similarly, Karen Kourkoulis, chef/manager at the Passport Café at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, sources a premade, trans-fat-free naan bread. “The flavor is great and versatile, as it works equally well with savory and sweet toppings, and they toast up perfectly in the oven” Kour-koulis says. Flatbreads are one of the university’s best-sellers, even though they’re only offered as specials. Oklahoma’s Carter suggests sourcing bread locally. He purchases pita for his flatbreads from a local company.

The toppings

Flatbreads are versatile, healthy alternatives for paninis, wraps and pizza, often infused with ethnic flavors that push the envelope, Regala says. She’s found success using popular pizza toppings such as pepperoni, sausage and cheese. But she also offers unique combinations like barbecue chicken, hummus topped with Greek salad and a breakfast-style bacon, egg and cheese flatbread. Likewise Jason Morse, executive chef for Douglas County School District, in Castle Rock, plans to add flatbreads in fun flavors like roasted veggie balsamic and caramelized onion and sausage. “[Flatbreads are a great way for us to] offer more variety and cool specials that keep our program fresh and exciting,” Morse says.

Kourkoulis also tops her flatbreads with innovative combinations, like prosciutto and fig, arugula pesto, and black beans with beef barbacoa and corn. “It’s important to anticipate how ingredients will pair with each other,” Kourkoulis notes. “For example, arugula has a nice peppery bite to it and an earthy bitterness, so I added a little fresh basil and spinach to the pesto to help mellow those powerful notes, along with caramelized onions to sweeten and balance.”

Fresh ingredients are key to adding flatbread flavor at Florida Hospital Orlando, where Neal Lavender is the director of food and nutrition services. Lavender offers a range of flatbreads for breakfast and lunch in flavors such as traditional margarita (tomato and basil), German (potato, apple, rosemary and caramelized onions) and Southwestern (cilantro, cheddar and black beans). Flatbreads make up nearly 30% of Lavender’s daily sales—that’s more than 100 flatbread sales a day.

The oven

Like many operators, Lavender doesn’t make his dough in house in order to provide the quickest possible service, which is further expedited by a powerful oven. Lavender recommends wood-burning ovens. Not only are they a great focal point, but wood-burning ovens impart smoky flavor to the flatbreads, Lavender adds. Other operators have opted for countertop ovens, like Carter and Regala, who cook their flatbreads at 600°F. Whichever oven you choose, one thing’s for certain, Lavender says: “Flatbreads are trendy, easy to make and have a great ROI.” 

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