So, this is something that I have been perplexed about for the past few months: more and more restaurants are beginning to charge for bread. At first, I was really put off by this. Come on – is this the way to address your food cost woes? But after I settled down, I started to think about it. What is the role of bread in a meal? Has bread, in the past, been relegated to condiment status?
Well, maybe, this is exactly the case when like salt, pepper, and butter, the rule of thumb has too often been – give it away but find the least expensive options to buy. Ah…but what if the restaurant takes bread seriously? What if they invest in either an in-house artisan baker or buy from a seriously talented Boulanger? What if the butter on the table is cultured from a high-end dairy or cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is poured tableside for dipping?
Now the formula changes, doesn’t it? Those beautiful, hard crusted, perfectly handled sour dough loaves or crunchy French baguettes with their fragrant artisan grain chew that make your jaw work overtime to experience the whole product just might deserve more attention. Should we elevate the bread to course status? Is it time for restaurants who take bread seriously to add breads to their appetizer menu, or a separate menu course all-together?
I wonder if menus from those serious restaurants should talk more about their bread, just like a chef might talk about the farm where beautiful organic produce is harvested, Angus steaks shipped directly to a restaurants’ salt lined rooms for 18-24 days of dry aging, or seafood that adheres to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. Why not?
If in the early morning bakeshop, a crew of passionate artisan bakers are nurturing a 12-hour proof for dough that will become incredible whole grain boules that smell rich, sweet, and nutty when peeled from a wood-fired oven, then how can we deny the bread superstar status? When a baker comes in on his or her day off to check on the status of a sour dough “mother”, feed it, and watch over it as if it were a child, then we might just need to re-think the status of bread on the menu. It’s not just bread, just like a sauce is not simply a coating, or incredible raw milk cheeses are not Kraft singles.
Ah, but here’s the kicker: what if that bread that you charge for is tasteless and untouched by human hands? What if it didn’t come from that bakeshop in the corner of your kitchen, but rather from the back of a full-service vendor’s delivery truck? What if you care about as much for the quality of that bread as you do the brand of ketchup you keep on a server’s station for young kids ordering chicken fingers for dinner? And, what if the butter you buy to accompany this bread is delivered in foil wrapped squares tossed in a wicker basket just before a bus person drops it at your table along with poured iceless water.
There again, I’m going off on a tangent. Where were we – oh, yes, now I remember – why are restaurants beginning to charge for bread? As long as I can remember – bread was relegated to condiment status or worse, thought to be better than it is because our bread palates just weren’t developed. “Waiter, can I have more bread?” Sure, why not – just open another plastic bag, tear off a few rolls, pass them through a microwave oven to warm them and suck all the moisture out, toss in a few of those foil wrapped butter pats and drop them off at the table without fanfare. No different than asking for sugar packets, more salt in the shaker, or added non-dairy creamers for that coffee you serve.
If restaurants want to charge for exceptional bread with a story, if they feel that artisan bread is part of their formula for success, and if they want to offer it to guests with the same pride exhibited when appetizers and entrees are presented to the table – then they should. Great bread is worth it, commercial, tasteless bread is not. Make a choice, but you can’t have it both ways without turning guests off. Make your bread a big deal, make it a signature for your restaurant, talk to your service staff about the bread: the flour used, the skill of the bread baker, the advantages of hearth baking, and the flavor profile of this exceptional product that you take care of. Then charge for it with a clear conscience.
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”
– M.F.K. Fischer
For decades I have judged restaurants by the quality of their bread and how it is presented. Bread is important to me; good bread is a celebrity in my mind. A great meal without great bread is, to me, always subpar. I will go out of my way to find and patronize a restaurant based on their bread and YES, I am happy to pay extra for it.
On the other hand, if you want to turn me off and keep me from returning, then continue to serve “bread like” product that was extruded from a machine, proofed without contact from a human being, pumped full of CO2 , conveyor baked in a tunnel oven, blast cooled or frozen, packaged by machine and shipped to your restaurant in the deep freeze section of a 18-wheel truck alongside those breaded chicken fingers, and curly fries. Go ahead and charge for it on your menu, just don’t expect me or anyone else who appreciates the bread baker and his or her product that is filled with heart and soul to return for another meal.
Sorry folks, that’s my opinion. Let’s get it right. CHARGE FOR GREAT BREAD, just make sure that it is great.
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
– James Beard
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
Deepest appreciation for the passionate artisan bread bakers of the world. Bread is the staff of life, something to revere, something to embrace, and something to support.
As a professional cook, and hobbyist baker, I totally agree. Good pizza is in this listing. Is the dough made in house, daily; or is it frozen shape and bake? I find better flavor in fresh house made dough.