With breakfast pastries, quality, freshness and variety separate the best from the rest.
This article first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
Not every operator finds the perfect confluence of a corner lot, a bustling residential neighborhood and a locally popular product to guarantee strong breakfast bread and pastry sales, but there are aspects of artisan bakery cafes such as St Honoré that can be found in every successful breakfast bread program. One of the main tenets lies in delivering authentic, quality-driven products.
"What has created changes over the years is travel. People spend time in Europe, appreciating what is available," says Geulin, whose baking skill comes in part from growing up above his parents' bakery in France. "Back home, their expectations become higher. That forces bakers to push themselves. You have to really bring that authenticity to the customer because the customer is educated."
While Geulin credits consumers for demanding better products from bakers, it's a two-way street. After exceeding expectations in years past, bakers now have raised expectations. Consumers want pastries made with high-quality ingredients and baked on premise. Presentation matters too. And while novelty items drive interest (Geulin is turning regulars onto his chouquettes, balls of pÁ¢te Á choux sprinkled with rock sugar that he sells by the dozen), steady demand remains for classic items such as croissants, muffins and scones.
Even while diners continue to accept new flavor profiles and cooking techniques, breakfast carries on as a bastion of the familiar.
"Danish, croissants, muffins, you have to have them, says Hartyoun Sarkees, pastry chef for Washington, D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (managed by New York City-based Restaurant Associates).
So it's no surprise that breakfast breads sidestep fast-moving culinary currents. In 2005, R&I's Menu Forecast found that less than 2% of operators surveyed felt that breads would be trendy. And not much has changed. Sales for breakfast pastries are expected to climb a modest, inflation-adjusted 2.5% annually through 2009, according to Chicago-based researcher Mintel International Group. Yet as demand for natural foods increases, freshly baked items made with quality ingredients will continue to resonate with customers.
There are the classics. "Blueberry is a mainstay," acknowledges Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery and Cafe in Boston. While she rotates other muffins depending upon the season, she never removes blueberry from the menu. Neither does Michelle Antonishek, pastry chef for the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, who sources fresh blueberries year-round for her muffins.
But while traditional items remain strong sellers, there is room to innovate within the confines of traditional breads and pastries.
Leslie Mackie, owner of Seattle's Macrina Bakery and Cafe, toys with tradition in at least one key area. "I like a little sweetness," she says. "Something that's too sweet gives too much of a sugar rush in the morning." She finds balance through ingredients-such as using naturally sweet dried apricots in a leavened apricot-nut bread-and techniques. For example, she ferments brioche dough for a full day to add complexity to the final product, a tactic that allows less sugar.
Mackie also added savory breads and pastries to breakfast offerings. "Once we got them out there, they continually sell out," she says. Popular among the savory offerings are biscuits flavored with Parmesan, ham and rosemary as well as a spinach dumpling and a ham-and-cheese dumpling.
Yet sweet still sells, admits Mackie, who sees loaves of her twisted cinnamon monkey bread practically fly out the door. "I've heard stories of people buying a loaf and eating it in one seating," she says.
Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin' Donuts plays to the morning sweet tooth with its French Toast Twist, a seasonal special introduced in October. The portable sticks of cinnamon French toast capitalize on the familiar breakfast spice, and the change in presentation may bring regulars back for more.
Beth Bowles learned from experience that change is necessary to retain business. More than a year ago, the retail and catering manager of Elkhart General Hospital in Elkhart, Ind., (managed by Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho) introduced a house-made coffeecake to her breakfast offerings. The cake, baked in a bundt pan and served in generous slices, was immediately popular, but sales waned as the novelty wore off.
Meanwhile, the hospital introduced new weight-loss initiatives. Bowles pulled the cake, but is considering serving various quick breads. "It's important to offer variety and keep it fresh for customers so that it seems new and exciting," she says.
Making It Work
Sure, flavor is important, but for many customers so are freshness and appearance; Flour's Chang plays to that. "You know that the food you're eating has been made on premise and not delivered in a plastic bag," she says.
Not all operations have kitchen capacity for in-house production. Some are supplementing house-made quick breads and muffins with purchased products that can be proofed and baked on site for more labor-intensive items.
With limited space and labor, Antonishek cedes responsibility for making croissants to a manufacturer. She purchases frozen shaped dough that her staff bakes off daily. "There are such great products we can buy," she says, noting that the purchased product is more consistent than house-made croissant dough.
Baking on premise with purchased products is a tactic that Bowles is turning to. At Elkhart General Hospital, she has keen interest in frozen shaped items that she can bake before service; she also is considering some parbaked items that she can finish off at the hospital. And what she can't do on premise she buys from local bakeries.
Great products deserve to be showcased in ways that enhance the guest experience. At Flour, Chang trains staff to come from behind the counter and look at the pastry display from a customer's perspective. When an item sells out, employees once again consider the visual aspects. "It's a lot of attention and a lot of work," Chang says. "But people come in and are blown away."
Breads Worth Breaking For
Traditional baked goods never wane in popularity but that doesn't mean there's not room for innovation.
- "Fill your own" house-made doughnut holes: At David Burke's Primehouse at the James Chicago Hotel, breakfast patrons are given squeeze bottles of jellies and custards to customize doughnut holes.
- Gibiassier: When Head Baker Tim Healea from Pearl Bakery in Portland, Ore., competed in the 2002 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris, he developed an orange-and-anise-laced pastry from a traditional Provencal bread. It's since become a favourite at the bakery.
- House-made pumpkin gingerbread: Sold at brunch, slices of this spiced-up bread can saddle beside granola and yogurt or a salmon potato cake with a poached egg at the Hominy Grill in Charleston, S.C.
- Morning Bun: A signature item since the 1970s at La Farine French Bakery in Oakland, Calif., this cinnamon bun made with croissant dough has many fans, including Pastry Chef Nancy Silverton, who adapted her own version
Building Better Muffins
It's true: Muffins are everywhere. According to R&I's 2005 Menu Census, 53% of operators across all segments menu muffins, more than any other breakfast pastry - with more than 90% of operators in lodging, healthcare, and university-dining serving them.
Such ubiquity means that muffins can become forgettable. Some bakers and pastry chefs are challenging this breakfast workhorse by addressing technique, ingredients and crumb size.
- Flour Bakery and Café, Boston: Don't look for a paper muffin cup supporting Joanne Chang's raspberry-and-rhubarb muffins. She bakes hers in ring molds lined with parchment, which is peeled off before serving. But her muffins aren't just visibly different. "We make a clear distinction between a muffin and a cake," says Chang, explaining that muffin crumb is denser. For batter to support weighty fruit, she uses less sugar, egg and butter than she would for a cake.
- Four Seasons Hotel Chicago: Whether customers eat Pastry Chef Michelle Antonishek's blueberry muffins in Seasons Restaurant or through room service, one thing will be certain: They will always get 40 grams of fresh blueberries per muffin. Antonishek began weighing each muffin to avoid serving muffins that were dry with scant amounts of berries with others that were soggy with too many.
- Macrina Bakery and Café, Seattle: Owner Leslie Mackie offers a rotating selection of fresh fruit muffins with more heft and less sugar. While blueberry and peach varieties always sell well, Mackie's most popular muffin, the Morning Glory, is chock-full of pineapple, carrot and raisins. She also keeps everything in proportion. "What I like about our muffins is that they're average sized," Mackie explains.