As the artisan-bread category matures, retailers are taking time to reassess their own programs, whether in-house or sourced from a manufacturer partner. Some stores have gone from third-party vendors to baking their bread in-house, while others have gone in the opposite direction -- and sometimes back again, retailers and industry observers told SN.
The past decade certainly holds lessons -- retailers must be careful not to sacrifice the image and reputation of earlier successes with lesser product just because it is easier to manage. With artisan breads, obstacles like intensive labor and higher-than-average shrink are all part of the formula, they said.
"The more 'stuff' you put in [to increase shelf life], the worse the bread gets," said Ed Weller, a partner in the consulting firm of Weller Co., North Hollywood, Calif. "The consumer has become sophisticated, knows good from bad, and so the stores have to go back to artisan bread being artisan bread -- expensive and still without shelf life."
Queen Anne Thriftway in Seattle is one of those retailers who made the difficult decision to protect quality at the expense of convenience. Chad Turnbull, lead baker, said its artisan-bread program began with an in-house French-bread program in the early '80s. The upscale clientele loved the variety of crisp baguettes and the program gre -- so much so the store couldn't offer enough variety to keep customers happy and the head baker at the time bought out the retailer's in-house production operation three years ago.
The spun-off entity, named Boulangerie, now supplies Queen Anne with 15 to 20 loaves of French bread every day, and sells as well to other stores. Macrina Baking Co. supplies another 20 loaves daily, chosen from eight varieties such as rustic potato or organic sourdough. Essential Baking Co. delivers another 50 to 70 loaves of its 20 bread varieties, while Grand Central Baking Co. brings the same amount of its 11 varieties. Crusty Loaf delivers at least 20 loaves selected from its 10 rotating daily flavors. A handful of smaller bakeries also supply breads.
So on any given day, Queen Anne could be offering more than five dozen varieties of freshly baked artisan breads.
"To get this variety would take us thousands of man-hours. We couldn't do it," said Turnbull. "If we are out of one kind of bread one day, our customers let us know about it."
On the flip side, the independent Holiday Market in Canton, Mich., has maintained its two-year-old artisan-bread program, in part because of the centerpiece: John Pardington, president, brought in a 40,000-pound Farjas French brick oven with a 4,000-pound rotating hearth. Pardington initially launched his program under an agreement with a high-quality bakery with an established name. But, soon after starting they were on their own.
"The [bakers] were five hours away. It got to be too much," said Pardington.
That was more than a year and a half ago. Now Holiday's own bakers turn out thousands of loaves every week, baked using purified water, sea salt and one of 10 types of organic flour grown by Mennonites in western Kansas that costs nearly three times that of regular flour.
"Those are the basic ingredients for all the loaves," said Pardington.
Some come in sourdough style, and others -- such as Sunny Oatmeal -- contain other grains, or seeds, or cheese, olives, garlic and scallions, for a total of 40 varieties.
"It takes us 24 hours to make a loaf of bread," Pardington explained. "And we bake seven days a week." Depending on the style, loaves are hand-molded in Belgian linen or German wooden bowls.
"We do it because we think it's better. We are dedicated to a great loaf of bread," said Pardington, recently chosen Canton's Businessman of the Year. "We don't just put a fancy name to the same old bread."
And while customers will never find Holiday's fancy breads on sale, Pardington says the most popular loaf -- the baguette -- costs only $1.79. Prices range up to $5 for the larger loaves that have premium ingredients.
The Dorothy Lane Bread Co. is the artisan label for the two Dorothy Lane Market units in Dayton, Ohio. Like Holiday, Dorothy Lane brought in a French builder to create an authentic brick oven. This one is a Frigane, the only one in the Dayton area, said Angie Clawson, production manager.
"We picked it because of the volume you get from it," explained Clawson, defining volume as only a retailer can: each loaf of bread reaches maximum loft, and quickly; and the oven will accommodate a couple of thousand loaves a day.
"We get a good crust, and a better taste. The bread, and the sales, just jumped up like crazy," she added, noting that sales have increased by 35% for the bakery after it brought in the Frigane. Saturdays the bakery sells an average of 1,800 loaves.
"We have about 8% of the store's distribution in the bakery," said Clawson. "That's kind of unheard of in store bakeries. We've been on a progressive upswing for three years."
Jerry's Foods in Edina, Minn., which operates a total of 15 stores under a number of banners, is easing into fresh-baked artisan breads, and is currently working to build sales around breads from scratch.
"We are working to replace parbaked. We started with the baguettes and petit pains," said master baker Darrell Mickschl. "Now we're working on the multigrains and dabbling with the 'extreme' varieties, such as those with calamata olives or bleu cheese."
Mickschl's best sellers so far are the crusty breads -- long, Vienna-style 1.5-pound loaves, or the mid-sized batard. His breads range from $1.49 for a 12-ounce baguette to a high of $2.99. He does bake some non-crusty breads, such as a brioche, which goes for $2.99. Although he doesn't sell a lot of them, he said, "it's enough so it's not a burden.
"As the breads get more exotic, some prices will go up," said Mickschl.
To ease the transition into in-house production, Mickschl is parbaking his own bread in-house and freezing it for baking off later in the "showplace upstairs."
Even the large chains aren't loafing when it comes to bread programs. Some started with vendor breads or began their own programs, and now seem to be finding a balance that relies on both sources, said industry observers.
Ecce Panis, Carlstadt, N.J., began as a bakery owned by an upscale New York City restaurant to exclusively supply its menu, but today is an independent company selling a line of fresh and parbaked product to supermarkets.
"Grand Union was one of our first customers," said Barbara Bacci, the company's director of marketing. The bakery delivered fresh breads daily to stores within reach, which limited sales. The newer frozen program has expanded the horizon. Stop & Shop was the first customer for the frozen breads, which are 80% baked by Ecce Panis, flash-frozen at -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and delivered to stores where they are thawed and baked off.
"Now we can control shrink," said Bacci. "Some customers think you can make artisan breads for 20 cents a loaf. They say it's just flour and water. It's nothing but profit. But that's not true. We do everything but the first mixing by hand. We have someone in here early every morning, cutting up fresh rosemary."
The Ecce Panis bake-off line will be rolled out in the Hannaford Bros. division of Shop 'n Save stores this month. Other retailers carrying either variety include Acme, King Kullen, A&P and Kings.
The Alvarado Street Bakery in Rohnert Park, Calif., is another specialty provider that is building connections with large regional retailers. Michael Girkout, president, said his breads are made entirely with sprouted grains, no flour and all-organic ingredients. They are sold sliced, frozen and in plastic bags.
"Our bread stays moist even after freezing because of the sprouted ingredients. So we work well in supermarkets," said Girkout.
Shaw's Supermarkets just started carrying Alvarado's products. Trader Joe's, Grand Union, Acme and A&P already stock the bread, as do natural-food chains Whole Foods Market/Fresh Fields and Wild Oats.