As many chefs no longer have the time or expertise to make bread for demanding customers in search of diverse and healthier options, Emma White discovers that speciality suppliers are stepping in to provide bakery goods for every occasion
Everyone likes the idea of home-baked bread, but the reality is that many caterers lack the time, kitchen space and skills needed to make it. Fortunately, the number of companies offering convenient quality breads and morning goods, from frozen French baguettes to freshly baked London bloomers, is expanding - with many providing more varieties than caterers could ever dream of making in-house.
Take Byfords restaurant, café-bar, deli shop and B&B in Holt, Norfolk, for example. There the breads offered include potato and rosemary, sourdough, spelt, gluten-free, seeded, Italian farmhouse and ciabatta. Owner Iain Wilson sources his speciality breads from Butlers of Norwich and receives fresh deliveries six days a week. Most of it is made in-house, including 20 varieties of cakes and 15 types of pastries. But with 1,500 covers a week and a rolling 15-hour daily service, baking his own loaves is just too much work. "We did make our own bread for a while but we were working 20-hour days and decided that something had to go," says Wilson. "Making breads in-house presents a huge space issue and you also have to rely on a baker to turn up every evening and work through the night, which is difficult."
Wilson buys croissants from Bakehouse and French baguettes from Brakes, which can be baked from frozen ready for service. He has been using Bakehouse plain, almond and chocolate croissants for eight years, and although he has used alternatives from artisan producers and tried to make the products in-house, he has found that he prefers Bakehouse croissants, he says.
"The quality, flavour and texture of these products is excellent and they are also very convenient," he says. "If you can buy something that's equal or better quality than what you make yourself, then why not consider it?"
Like many other company owners, Wilson is worried about the rise in food prices. "We may look into making more products in-house to control that," he says. "But the rise in prices will affect all companies and at least everyone's on the same pitch."
London hotel One Aldwych receives two deliveries of fresh bread a day from Sally Clarke's bakery for its Indigo restaurant, Breads Etcetera for its second restaurant Axis and The Bread Factory for Indigo and the rest of the hotel. While executive chef Tony Fleming would prefer to make his own bread, he's impressed by the wide selection of breads available. "If you can cook bread properly in-house it is better and if I had the time, equipment, space and money to employ a baker I'd do it," he says. "You can smell the bread baking throughout the restaurant and you can teach your team the skills. But it's only worth it if the end result beats the product you can buy. There are so many companies selling quality breads to choose from now, which is driving competition and standards have improved."
Bread is often the first thing customers taste at a restaurant, and Fleming says it's important to get it right. "Customers want to eat good bread whether you've made it or not. We've purposely chosen breads from a selection of suppliers to offer customers something different at each of the restaurants."
Customers can tuck into sourdough and wholemeal granary breads from Breads Etcetera, which Fleming says are hearty breads for evening dining. Sally Clarke's lighter Mediterranean-style olive and tomato breads work well during lunch service. "All food is in the public eye now and bread is very much a part of that," adds Fleming. "People are more experimental with breads and more interested in their taste and quality."
Breads Etcetera director Kurt Anderson agrees that consumers are now more willing to try different breads and pay extra for the quality. "Previously companies were restricted by price, but the demand for quality ingredients and authentic production methods has opened the door for chefs to explore the highest quality bread," he says.
Set up by former chefs Anderson and co-director Troels Bendix, Breads Etcetera offers a wide selection of fresh 100% sourdough breads made with stoneground flour, sea salt and no added yeast. "We've retained our customers by providing a consistent product and we have our mobiles on all the time so that if someone phones up and asks for a last-minute order we can deliver it the next day," says Anderson. The pair have opened two additional retail outlets to cope with demand, and they also take frequent orders for bespoke bread. "Very often chefs will ask for specific products for special events and we will work to accommodate their demands. We consider ourselves to be the extra arm of the restaurants," Anderson adds.
Lawrence Keogh, head chef at Roast restaurant in Borough, London, advises fellow chefs to work closely with their bakers to guarantee a consistent supply of good quality bread. He buys from Breads Etcetera and Flour Power City. "Several years ago when I started working with Flour Power City I was offered French and Italian bread but I wanted old-fashioned British bread for the restaurant," he says. "Forty-eight hours later the owner Matt Jones returned with fantastic poppy-seed bloomers, London twists and cottage tins, so I gave him the contract."
More recently Keogh asked Jones to develop a focaccia made with rapeseed oil and Isle of Wight garlic. He describes this as "bright yellow and fantastic - we're looking at developing this bread further and putting it on the menu alongside the other breads. There will always be room for traditional as well as new and experimental types of bread".
Keogh has noticed trends in the market, including concerns about allergies and an interest in healthier, rustic-seeded breads. "Lots of customers ask us about food intolerances so we're planning to introduce a Hoxton Rye loaf made from 100% rye," he adds.
Jones believes many people are allergic to mass-produced products rather than breads produced by traditional methods. "A lot of people find they aren't intolerant to wheat, but rather to commercially made food with added chemicals and E-numbers," he says. "Fast production methods are not conducive to a healthy diet. People are also mindful about buying brown, healthier breads but they still want to eat delicious things. A balanced diet is the most important approach.
"We make thousands of staple products, such as croissants and baguettes, but people are becoming more experimental. A few years back rye and spelt breads were thought to be a little bit weird, but not any more. Walnut and apricot is one of our biggest sellers."
Supplier Mantinga's product portfolio comprises more than 260 varieties of bakery goods, including speciality breads, Continental pâtisserie and savouries. "We can provide such a variety of products that an in-house baker just couldn't produce on a daily basis," says managing director Steven Mackintosh. "Products are provided frozen ready for bake-off or to thaw and serve, so wastage is minimised."
The range includes the Seeded Wholemeal Loaf, which won a Gold Taste Award 2007 from the Guild of Fine Foods, the Saveur Butter Brioche with Chocolate, and Wild Garlic Bread, which is available only from April to October when garlic is in season.
With so many varieties of bakery goods available for operators it's no wonder that so many decide to buy in. "Making bread is something you need to do on a daily basis, so leave it to the bakers," Jones advises. "Plasterers can plaster, plumbers can do the plumbing, chefs can cook and let the bakers bake."