It would be premature to pronounce the restaurant breadbasket dead. But what was once a straightforward offering has become so tricky that when chef Eric Gburski was deciding what to give diners at Estelle’s, his new Southern-inspired restaurant, pickles seemed a safer option than warm cornbread.
“Not only are pickles gluten free,” he said, “but they’re soy and nut free, and there’s no dairy in them.”
Oh, staff of life, what’s happening to you?
In restaurants all over town, the traditional complimentary breadbasket is disappearing, a victim of two of society’s most powerful forces — the economy and the antiwheat juggernaut.
“You’ve opened up a Pandora’s box,” Mario Mariani, the general manager of Pain D’Avignon, a wholesale artisan bakery and cafe in Hyannis, said by way of starting a discussion on the topic. “It’s a sore point.”
With restaurants trying to fight their way back to pre-recession levels of profitability, Mariani estimates that 15 percent have started making diners ask for bread if they want it, and another 10 percent have stopped ordering table bread from his company.
The NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., is also seeing a drop in bread consumption at sitdown restaurants. In 2005, 18.5 percent of dinners included bread. In 2013, just 14.3 percent did.
At the South End’s popular Tremont 647, chef/owner Andy Husbands has replaced free focaccia with $3 and $4 servings of delicacies such as rosemary biscuits and Indian-spice-rubbed flatbreads. They’re made to order and have their own section on the menu: “Breads.”
“One of the things we didn’t like was seeing waste,” said Husbands, a longtime antihunger fund-raiser. The focaccia, he explained, was baked in a big sheet pan and lots of it was left over if business was slow — or if too many diners were reading the best-selling “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health.”
When chef Jason Santos opened Abby Lane Food & Spirits in the Theatre District in late 2012, his plans to welcome diners with a basket of bread lasted about a week.
“We’d spend the whole day making bread,” he recalled, “and then I’d see bread coming back. I said ‘the hell with this.’ ”
Between labor and flour, which costs as much as $25 for a 50-pound bag, bread was running Santos more than $100 a day. Looking to distinguish his restaurant, he started making blue potato chips, which he dusted with homemade barbecue spice and served with buttermilk onion dip.
Not only were they five times cheaper to make than bread, but their saltiness has the added benefit of driving up drink orders — and they are gluten-free. “No one is potato-free,” Santos said.
Despite restaurateurs’ fears that diners will resent paying for something that was once free, consultants and suppliers are advising clients to borrow a tactic from the airlines and start charging a little extra.
“When the cost of flour spiked, in 2008, the first thing I said to my restaurant customers was ‘Now is the time to charge for breadbaskets,’ ” said Michael Rhoads, head baker at Bread Alone, an artisan bread supplier to New York City’s Greenmarket farmers markets and a former Boston-area baker and wholesaler. “They said their customers wouldn’t accept it.
“But now we’re starting to see some younger restaurateurs seeing that bread can be a major cost,” he said. “Let’s say you are 16-seat restaurant, if you give out a baguette for every four people — that’s at best $2 wholesale — you are spending $40 a night before you consider butter or the service. A restaurant used to be able to get a roll for 10 cents. Now it can be 50 or 55 cents. Bread used to be cheap, but now it’s a serious cost.”
But in the age of Yelp, restaurants can’t afford to anger customers.
“You’re not going to let the customer be [angered] about paying $2.50 for bread,” said Ed Doyle, the president of RealFood Consulting. “You are going to give them a better product because you are charging for it. It can be a further extension of your concept.”
Indeed, in 2013, when chef Tim Wiechmann opened Bronwyn, a restaurant and bar in Somerville’s Union Square, he somewhat nervously decided not to serve free bread, as he does at T.W. Food, his fine-dining restaurant in Cambridge.
Instead, he brought in two bakers and a big steam oven and gave bread — a $5 “Brot Basket,” and a $7 “Giant Haus Bretzel” — top billing in the menu’s appetizer section. “I wanted to elevate bread,” Wiechmann said. “If it’s free, it can be an afterthought.”
But some people don’t want bread, no matter how well-thought out it is. At The Proprietors Bar & Table on Nantucket, some diners are so bread-phobic they skip the black olive bread and just eat the hummus dip — “off a knife,” noted co-owner Orla LaScola.
Meanwhile, with bread-stress rampant, the breadbasket of the future has already arrived at Sweet Basil, in Needham. There, diners sometimes bring in their own gluten-free bread, have it put in a basket and served right back to them.
“We’ll heat it up for them,” said owner David Becker. “Who am I to tell them what they can and can’t do?”
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Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twittter @BethTeitell.