It’s hard to believe that a mere five years ago, menu developers, purchasing agents, food manufacturers and restaurant customers were in the grip of the low-carb craze. Today, breads and sandwiches are on everyone’s “must-have” list and eateries specializing in these products are growing rapidly. The numbers tell the story, says David Henkes of Technomic in Chicago. “Other than beverages and doughnuts, sandwiches are the fastest growing segment in quickservice,” he notes. His company tracked the growth of sandwich concepts and bakery cafes in its Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
• In the sandwich category, 61,224 units were operating in 2006, a 4.3 percent increase over 2005.
• Sandwich sales are growing twice as fast as units are opening. Consumer spending totaled $20 billion in 2006, an 8.6 percent increase from the year before.
• Emerging sandwich chains with notable growth include Jimmy Johns, McAlister’s Deli, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Jason’s Deli, Firehouse Subs and Cosi.
• Bakery cafes represent a $3.6 billion segment of chain restaurant. In 2006, they numbered 2,652 units—a jump of 5.6 percent from 2005. But sales were up 13.3 percent from the year before.
Filling the bread basket
As both breads and sandwiches have gained status and renewed popularity, there’s been an accompanying uptick in quality and variety. “Restaurants can no longer get away with serving lousy bread,” says Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea bakery, an artisan bread supplier. “Customers expect better quality and a greater assortment during bread service and on the sandwich menu.”
At first, higher end restaurants were baking breads in-house to feed patrons’ expectations, but some have abandoned that practice because it isn’t cost- or labor-efficient, Silverton claims. Purchasing bread from wholesale bakery operations is another way to go. But that means relying on daily deliveries and possibly stale goods gone to waste. While value-added products have long been available, manufacturers are stepping up to the plate with improvements that meet or exceed operator and customer standards. Frozen doughs, par-baked breads and thaw-and-serve fully baked products now boast artisanal touches, more distinctive flavor profiles and healthier components.
Choose your carrier
So what’s the best bread format to buy for your operation? It depends on your sales volume, storage space and menu. One of the ways competing specialty sandwich concepts are differentiating themselves is with their bread, often contracting with bakeries or suppliers for custom products that they finish baking in-house. But “a lot of QSRs don’t have ovens,” says Gary Duszynski, director of foodservice bakery marketing for Rich Products Corporation in Buffalo, New York. “Fully-finished breads and rolls are generally better for that segment.”
Duszynski outlines the main types of sandwich-ready bread and roll products.
Proof and bake dough comes in a variety sizes and shapes; it’s usually thawed in the cooler overnight, then proofed in a warm location for 45 to 60 minutes before baking. Mistakes can happen during proofing, Duszynski points out, so this format requires attention and skilled labor. “As operators demand more convenience, the days of proof and bake are declining,” he admits.
Par-baked refers to products that are 85 percent baked. The manufacturer bakes the bread or rolls just until they’re golden-brown, then immediately freezes them for delivery. “An operator can figure out how much they’ll need in the next time period, take that amount out of the freezer and bake up sandwich rolls in 3 to 5 minutes, enough to refresh the crumb and lightly crisp the crust,” says Tim Konacek, director of quality and R&D at Signature Breads in Chelsea, Massachusetts. This evolving category offers great flexibility and consistency of product—important benefits for fast-casual sandwich concepts. Plus, companies like Rich’s and Signature are constantly experimenting with new shapes, whole grains, ethnic varieties and seasonings to update and upgrade their offerings.
Fully finished breads and rolls are fully baked, ready to use. These can be sourced either fresh from a wholesale bakery or frozen from a manufacturer. The category includes pullman bread (often used in paninis), soft buns, sub and Kaiser rolls and ciabatta and focaccia buns.
It’s your roll
Sandwich concepts need to buy a lot of bread; these three operators found different sourcing solutions.
Rising Roll, an Atlanta-based sandwich chain with 13 locations, works with one supplier to source par-baked breads like boules, raisin pumpernickel, croissants and tandoori. “Changing up the bread offers our customers several variations on their favorite sandwiches,” says president Mike Lassiter. Each franchisee thaws and bakes the breads and rolls from mid-morning throughout lunch, so fresh product is always coming out of the oven and there’s little waste. “The par-baked items are convenient to use and the aroma creates a selling point,” Lassiter adds.
His supplier has also created some proprietary products for the concept. The 4.5-ounce French boule is Rising Roll’s signature; both its size and texture were custom made. “Our customers in the South like their bread a little softer, so we modified the classic recipe a little to make the crust less crispy,” Lassiter reports.
At Amato’s out of Portland, Maine, “it’s all about the bread,” says Jeff Perkins, director of marketing and franchising. Giovanni Amato started baking and selling rolls in 1902 from the Portland docks and his great-grandsons still produce the same roll at Amato’s Bakery. “It was originally formulated to be a sandwich roll with a soft center—the antithesis of the crusty, hard Italian bread,” Perkins reports. To control the quality and consistency of “the most important part of its ‘Real Italian’ sandwich,” Perkins explains, the regional chain continues to source that Italian roll from Amato’s Bakery, which it bought eight years ago. “The roll’s soft center absorbs and melds together the flavors of the sandwich ingredients—the meats, juices from the fresh vegetables, oil and seasonings,” he says. With the exception of wraps, the 31-unit concept purchases all its sandwich breads and rolls from its bakery.
Each of the 48 locations of Erbert & Gerbert’s based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, bakes its own bread. “We have proofers and ovens in every store to bake bread fresh all day,” says Doug Klunk, director of operations. “If the bread is older than five hours, we donate it to a food pantry.” The chain serves its sandwiches on 8-inch long white or honey wheat rolls.
Tapping the trends
Now that artisan breads are practically mainstream and wraps and paninis are standard fare, what’s next on the sandwich board?
•Whole grains. Bread producers are incorporating whole wheat flour, rye, millet, flax seed, oats and other hearty grains into their products to boost fiber and nutrition. Signature Breads’ multigrain mini-baguette and whole-grain ciabatta are both seeing a lot of activity. “The challenge is not to make the bread too dense,” says Konacek. “Our supplier came up with a dough conditioner to lighten it up.” Rich’s uses Conagra white whole wheat flour—a blend that balances white bread texture with whole wheat flavor and health—to formulate some of its products.
•Punched-up flavors. Cheeses, seasonings and ingredients like roasted garlic and sundried tomatoes are adding intrigue to ciabatta, focaccia and other sandwich carriers. Atlanta’s Rising Roll is currently testing a chipotle cheddar bread. But be cautious about overdoing the flavors—a handful of varieties is smarter than a dozen because you want the flexibility to mix and match breads and fillings, says Rich’s Duszynski. As “extras” he suggests marble rye, roasted garlic and toasted sunflower. “You can always sprinkle seeds or toppings on a dough or par-baked product to change the flavor profile.”
•Cool shapes. Signature Breads’ unique piegga (meaning “pleat” or “wallet” in Italian) really took off when it was launched last year. It’s a garlic-flavored focaccia-style bread that folds over the sandwich filling “soft taco-style,” Konacek explains. “We hope to expand the line with a whole grain version.”
•Gluten-free. About one in 125 consumers have celiac disease and are looking for breads made with gluten-free flour. Rich’s just introduced a 4¼-ounce round gluten-free sandwich carrier in January, baked and packaged in an entirely separate facility where no wheat flour products are made. Signature Breads is developing an ethnic-style wheat-free bread using a different starch. These products take more R&D to create a good flavor and texture.
Q & A with Nancy Silverton
Founder, LaBrea Bakery and co-owner Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Q. How have foodservice bread needs changed since you started LaBrea Bakery in 1989?
A. The artisanal bread movement upgraded bread service everywhere. Par-baked breads and rolls make it possible for operators to source premium products—down to the small mom-and-pop restaurant. The ciabatta roll is the most popular in the line now. Lately, requests for whole-grain breads have surged.
Q. How did the low-carb phase affect your product mix?
A. Artisan bread sales didn’t drop off, but customers who were limiting bread intake gravitated toward whole-grain products. We started doing more with whole grains, adding whole wheat, millet, triticale and other grains to the dough. In the end, it had a positive effect, because consumers are now eating more whole grains.
Q. What must an operator source to run a successful sandwich program?
A. Purchasing high-quality bread is number one. You also want to have a good variety. Some customers prefer crusty French bread, others want softer rolls; some ask for whole-grain, others order white. It’s important to have a range of fillings as well—a mix of approachable choices like egg salad with more creative options, such as prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. And I like to offer a few spreads, like tapenade, pesto and flavored mayonnaise. Just as much thought should be put into a sandwich as any other menu item.
Q. Do you have any tips for dealing with the high price of bread products and other sandwich ingredients?
A. People still equate bread as a cheap food source, but you have to pass part of the increase on to your customers. On the operations side, be more conscientious about waste. If you have leftovers from another meal service, cross utilize the ingredients in sandwiches. Grilled flank steak or braised short ribs make delicious sandwiches!