The bread stakes have been rising for some time now, prompted by better quality and a wider choice at the top end of the market and improvements in the retail sector. Both have raised diners' expectations.
Some operators believe baking bread on the premises is the only way to ensure high quality, but this is simply not feasible for many small restaurants and cafés. And now a growing selection of good-quality fresh and part-baked breads is available from catering suppliers to satisfy demand.
John Page, operations manager and co-owner of Bankside restaurant near London's Tate Modern which serves traditional English food at £7 for a main course, believes bread is one of the most important components of his business.
"It's the first impression that people get of the restaurant," he says. "We make sure as soon as people are settled at their table they have some fresh bread placed in front of them. It gives them something good to eat while they look at the menu. It means they have food straight away - and that's why they have come to a restaurant."
Page also feels strongly that bread should be complimentary. "I think people resent paying extra for bread," he says. "I serve around 150 covers on a weekday lunchtime, so it's not hard to absorb the £200 bread bill. But it's all part of creating the right impression."
Page sources his bread part-baked from Delice de France. "This means the bread can be baked at the last minute and is always served fresh," he says. Bankside customers are offered three types - multigrain, farmhouse white, and onion - and Page is convinced that the quality of the bread and the fact that it's free help bring customers back.
His philosophy is shared by David Berry, joint owner of Annie Bailey's, a 60-seat restaurant in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. "Good bread, like good coffee, is something that customers remember about eating out," he says. "That's why it's important for our restaurant to make sure the whole dining experience, from start to finish, is top notch - and that includes the bread we serve."
Create a talking point Annie Bailey's recently started using a range of frozen bake-off breads - Pavé Polka, Walnut Navette, Rosemary and Raisin Navette and Organic Multi-cereal - from Bakehouse through local wholesaler Windrush Frozen Foods. "Using bake-off means we can offer customers some really interesting breads that can create a talking point at the start or finish of the meal," says Berry. "For instance, we serve Bakehouse's walnut bread with cheese. We just bake off when required, so the bread is at its freshest and of course there are no problems with shelf life or wastage, which is a real plus for us."
It was the desire to offer quality breads and something different from the competition that led Tom Goodwin to look for a specialist supplier for his Stones Restaurant and Delicatessen in Leicester.
"We wanted to offer sandwiches and breads that were a break from the norm," says Goodwin, who, on finding a lack of speciality bread bakers in Leicester, opted for the Pains De France range of speciality breads from Délifrance. "This is the first time we've used thaw-and-serve products, but Pains De France is the nearest we can get to authentic, freshly-baked French speciality bread in Leicester," he says.
Tear and Share Toursade Nature bread has proved particularly popular with Stones restaurant customers. Toursade is a rustic bread made with sourdough traditionally found in the Limousin region of France. Goodwin was impressed by its flavour and easy-to-tear shape and felt it made an attractive bread accompaniment to soups and starters. "It looks interesting and has an authentic sourdough taste," he says. "It's no use having a great soup served with mediocre bread. We needed something that would add to the whole dining experience."
When Stones opened its delicatessen serving freshly prepared, wholesome snacks in Leicester's fashionable St Martin's Square, Goodwin wanted to maintain the standards set at the restaurant. Fougasse, a bread made with olive oil and a hint of rye sourdough, is used for some of Stones' more exotic sandwich recipes, such as grilled vegetables with rocket, pesto and spinach. "A number of customers have complimented us on our sandwiches and visit us again and again because they want something they can't buy elsewhere on the high street or make easily at home," he says. "Fougasse lends itself to exciting fillings, especially Mediterranean flavours; and it's good to experiment to keep the menu fresh."
Big opportunities are opening up for operators offering a food-to-go service, says Darrell Greenwood, sales and marketing director of specialist supplier Le Pain Croustillant. "Reports indicate that there has been a trend away from home preparation of a sandwich lunch towards consumption of ready-filled sandwiches, rolls or other forms of bread," he says. "The out-of-home sandwich market is worth nearly £3b and is growing at 8-10% a year."
Greenwood says the key to success in such an operation is to offer variety, not just in fillings, but also in bread. "A willingness to try non-traditional British food is now a well-established driver in many food markets, and bread is no exception," he says. Greenwood claims his company's speciality range caters for this trend by offering a vast portfolio of products, not only for the traditional French bread market but also the growing sectors of speciality and organic bread, and is meeting an increased demand for more adventurous bread types.
The willingness of consumers to experiment has been taken on board by wholesaler 3663, which offers various brands including Délifrance, Fletchers, Banquet d'Or and Speedibake in addition to its own Smart Choice range, which includes dough balls in cheese and garlic and garlic and herb varieties. "Although the sector is dominated by French breads, other Continental breads are showing strong growth year on year," says Penny Moore, director of marketing at 3663.
The trend towards speciality products is also reflected in bread sales through Brakes, whose range includes green olive ciabatta, cracked black pepper panini, and a folded flatbread.
"While Brakes did show a healthy overall growth rate for its bread range during 2002, the types of bread that were the most successful tended to be the speciality breads, appealing to broad sectors of the marketplace," says Dr Stephen Bates, Brakes's customer insight manager. "According to the data we have, this trend is largely reflected elsewhere. While English bread still predominates in the sector, it's not the key driver of growth. You only have to look at the types of sandwiches now available in bars and workplace canteens. The huge amount of innovation in the sector has led to an explosion of choice."
* Recently introduced by Le Pain Croustillant is the Pain Rustique range of part-baked rustic breads, and varieties include Spring Onion, Tomato and Basil, Fruit and Nut, and Roasted Onion.
* A successful trial launch of Bakerie Brinker's German-made bakery products in East Anglia has led it to consider making the range available nationally. Brinker's product range includes rolls, baguettes and speciality bread such as ciabatta, old rye and potato loaf.
* A traditional Italian panini has been added to Speedibake's range, which includes baguettes, demi-baguettes, petits pains and a calzone sandwich wrap.
* As a variation on the plain baguette, Delice de France has developed a 175g pre-sliced baguette with baked-in onion pieces and an onion butter filling.
Bakehouse 0800 234034
Brinker 01787 472048
Brakes 01276 850500
Delice de France 020 8917 9600
Délifrance 01162 571871
Le Pain Croustillant 020 8571 6111
Speedibake 0870 830 7494
3663 0870 3663 000