The booming artisan bread category is generating a lot more than just profits these days at supermarkets. It's also sparking controversy.
One decision that caught the bakery industry's attention earlier this year sums up the current debate: Charlotte, N.C.-based Harris Teeter opted to significantly scale back its relationship with two local suppliers of fully baked artisan breads. Taking their place in the chain's stores are artisan breads from La Brea Bakery, the emerging Van Nuys, Calif.-based bread manufacturer that's capturing more of the market with partially baked products that are finding favor with retailers and consumers.
Harris Teeter's move, however, created a public relations problem. Some customers balked, complaining that the chain not only was eliminating a favorite handcrafted bread in favor of a mass-produced product, but also that it was deserting two local and loyal Charlotte businesses. In the end, the retailer relented a bit, agreeing to continue carrying one supplier's loaves in a few select stores.
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, Kowalski's Markets added La Brea to its par-baked artisan lineup, providing competition for another local supplier that's had a long relationship with the eight-store chain and was its sole supplier of artisan-style bread, said bakery director Steve Beaird.
Such moves are hardly isolated these days. A growing roster of supermarkets is adding frozen, par-baked breads from large national and regional suppliers to their shelves as they seek to take advantage of the efficiencies and uniformity that bake-off products offer. But in addition to stepping on some toes, the act of moving more upscale bread business to national suppliers has helped rekindle a smoldering debate over what constitutes artisan bread, and whether retailers need to exercise more care in crafting the line.
As might be expected, small, local bakeries that are being displaced by par-baked powerhouses, and their advocates, say the sky is falling. Fran Scibelli, owner of Metropolitan Bakery, one of the casualties of the Harris Teeter decision, said bakers that adhere to more traditional artisan baking practices are losing out to those that may cut corners.
"People have spent a lot of time and money building artisan baking facilities because they feel passionate about such a fundamental product," Scibelli told SN. "Now it appears that grocers who initially embraced these products are moving away from it and the local artisan bakeries that first provided the product. Companies like La Brea are crushing traditional artisan bakeries."
Even some large par-baked artisan suppliers worry that the growth of the artisan bread category is opening the door to pretenders, and that the industry and retailers need to be cautious. Bob Kulpinski, president of Concept 2 Bakers, a Minneapolis-based regional supplier of par-baked breads, said quality and integrity could be a casualty as artisan bread suppliers seek to cost-cut their way onto retailers' shrinking vendor lists.
"It's a temptation for those of us who deal with supermarkets that dangle volume in front of us in return for lower prices to try to cut costs," he said. "But when you're talking about artisan breads there's only so much you can strip out and keep it close to true artisan. If the pressure is there, there are more and more companies out there that will take the shorter road, and that would be unfortunate for the category. One way to ruin what we have today is to cave into this low-cost mentality."
An absence of any true standards for what qualifies as artisan breads -- particularly enforceable ones -- has complicated the picture. The terms "artisan-like" and "artisan-style" have emerged as sales in the category have grown, evidence that some may at least be holding to some kind of loose standard. Still, artisan purists maintain there's now too much opportunity for artisan bread manufacturers to put preservatives and other additives into artisan breads billed as authentic.
"When shortcuts are taken using preservatives, mold inhibitors, emulsifiers, dough conditioners and the like, it's no longer artisan in my mind," said Peter Franklin, a bakery industry consultant and former chairman of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. ''My definition of artisan is one where the baker has been mindful of three things: ingredients, process and quality. When you're using those [other] things, I believe it's no longer artisan."
Up-and-coming national par-baked artisan suppliers, however, insist they pass the artisan test with flying colors because the quality of their products sustains the artisan image, and makes the category available to a wide audience, at a more affordable price point.
"We're doing it the old-fashioned, traditional way, but we can't say the same about some of our competitors," said Russ Chapman, president and chief executive officer of Ecce Panis, Carlstadt, N.J. "If you invest the time, labor and capital in these products, like we do, the result is breads that, at the consumer level, will be noticeably different."
Likewise, La Brea officials insist the company shuns additives or any other processes that stray from all but the most conservative definitions of artisan bread.
"Our breads have all of the qualities that the consumer is looking for in artisan breads: all-natural with no preservatives or dough conditioners; crunchy crusts and soft, chewy interiors; rustic shapes and irregular hole structure; and most of all, great flavors," said spokesman Wayne Selness.
While steadily gravitating toward par-baked breads supplied by the likes of La Brea and Ecce Panis and away from both scratch and fully baked, some retailers are conceding a need to be cautious about ensuring that the artisan concept isn't watered down. Richard Draeger, owner of Draeger's Super Markets, Palo Alto, Calif., said as customers grow more sophisticated with respect to breads, they'll work to help keep retailers and bread suppliers honest.
"I think there's already some skepticism in the minds of some consumers as far as what's needed to happen to some par-baked breads to allow them to be distributed such great distances," he said.
Before moving to handle the La Brea product, Kowalski's Beaird noted he and others with the chain considered the pros and cons of handling artisan bread from a national supplier. To some degree, the jury's still out, he said.
"In our minds it's still open as to whether it's a plus that we're dealing with a national supplier, or a drawback," he said. "But with the way they seem to be running their facilities now, we feel confident."