Specialty of the House

For some chefs and bakers, making specialty breads is a way to showcase culinary talent and win over customers.

Many breads are made in house at the University of
Colorado, including these ciabatta rolls.

With the farm-to-table trend sweeping the nation, people care more about where their food comes from today. This includes the bread category; selling only frozen from a vendor is no longer sufficient. Customers are looking for made-in-house, from-scratch options.

At the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Executive Pastry Chef Jim Okerson makes a variety of specialty breads in house for the university’s dining center, retail operations and catering department. On his menu: lavosh for the Persia station, Parker House rolls, kaiser rolls for the deli bar, hoagies for sandwiches, ciabattas and stuffed focaccias, and flavored breads like chocolate chip, Wisconsin cheddar and kalamata olive. Okerson uses natural starters, like biga sponge, for nearly half of the bread he makes.

“Freshness and uniqueness is key for a successful bakery program,” says Okerson, who strives to take something familiar and recognizable and add his own unique twist. “My saying is old-style baking with new world ideas.” Take his chocolate chip bread, for example, which is made with a European sourdough base and chocolate chips. “It’s a new version of sweet and sour; crazy but good.”

Creating Comfort: Best sellers at the university are those that comfort customers, says Okerson. The Parker House roll order gets larger each time, and the kaiser rolls are popular with the East Coast students because “it reminds them of home.” Okerson’s advice: “Bake the breads as close as you can to the time of service or sale, not days before or frozen as if you were buying from a vendor. The smell of freshly baked bread is irresistible.”

Anna Fisher, director of food and nutrition services at Mount Diablo (Calif.) Unified School District, agrees: “The aroma and taste of bread fresh out of the oven is very inviting to our customers,” she says. “Baked bread touches something very basic in all of us; it warms both body and soul.”

Fisher has had to change the district’s bread offerings as a result of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new meal regulations, which mandated a reduction in the servings of grains on the menu. (Editor’s Note: Those regulations have since changed.) As a result, she developed a whole-grain bread dough recipe to use for breakfast items such as cinnamon rolls, cheese bread and Zombies, her department’s signature cheese-stuffed bread.

“Before the new meal pattern we baked bread at the high schools every day and it was offered as an extra to the lunch meal; with the new meal pattern we include it when we can with menu items and use it for breakfast items,” says Fisher, adding that proper training is paramount. “We send our employees through an in-district training program to teach them our recipes, which has been crucial to making a consistent product.”

Considering Cost: While making breads in house may be the goal, it’s not always feasible when it comes to the cost of ingredients and labor, as well as skills.

“If it’s cheaper for us to make it and we’re going to get a better quality product, we will bake it in house, but we have to have the skill to produce a consistent product and it can’t be cost prohibitive,” says Michelle McClurg, director of food and nutrition services at Reid Hospital, Richmond, Ind. McClurg outsources some bread items but makes many in house, like a focaccia bread for chicken bruschetta, which patients can choose from the room service menu.

In the hospital’s catering department, McClurg has developed Pate Choux,
an offering that is “cheap and easy to make, yet it makes a big impression to the customer, so we’re making a good profit margin on it.” Pate Choux, she explains, is made by piping egg, flour and boiling water onto baking sheets. McClurg makes a savory version by adding a lemon almond chicken stuffing and a sweet version by filling swan-shaped dough with whipped cream and raspberry preserves.

McClurg has also found success with muffins and quick breads.

“Every morning we use leftover ingredients and bake varying flavors, like cranberry orange or raspberry white chocolate,” she says. McClurg suggests always having a standard blueberry option but then also offering specialty flavors for customers who seek variety.

Bob Reich, executive pastry chef for Cal Dining at the University of California at Berkeley, is also not able to make all breads in house, as the workspace on campus is too small to make enough bread for the entire campus. But he makes brioche in house because “it is such a rich, flavorful bread that has so many applications, like cinnamon rolls, sticky buns and bread puddings.” Reich says they sell out of brioche at Sunday brunch every time it’s served, and though retail and restaurant sales started at just a couple dozen a day, his team now produces 50 or more on a daily basis.

Getting the word out: In addition to word of mouth, which chefs say is always the best advertisement, successful operations use a variety of ways to make customers aware of specialty breads.” Okerson has custom bags with each bread shown in a display window at the retail facility, with the stuffed focaccia sitting center stage. When he launches a new bread product, Okerson cuts up samples for people to taste and puts a supervisor at each dining station to encourage customers to try the bread. Additionally, university dining features its new bakery breads and items on electronic menu boards.

Operators who are not able to offer only made-in-house breads should not call attention to that fact, says McClurg. “Since all of our breads are not made in house, we try to be careful to not insult the ones we’re bringing in,” she says. “The most important thing is to keep things fresh, new and exciting.” 

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