Bread programs are on the rise. Industry experts tag the category as a potential image builder for supermarkets, especially when it comes to the upscale products that are usually called artisan or European breads.
When the bread is baked in the store and available hot, its message of freshness can be powerful enough to shape the way shoppers think of the whole store.
But it takes more than the aroma of baking bread for in-store bread programs to be winners. They have to be supported by employees who know the products and know how to market them. Otherwise, fancy bread can get stale awfully fast.
And what if the aroma can't be smelled over the phone? SN decided to test how well supermarket in-store bakeries are training their personnel to market their fresh-bread programs.
SN called stores across the country seeking information from the in-store bakeries about breads.
The scenario was that the caller was a new resident in the community, who wanted to find fresh, ideally warm, bread that she could serve for that night's supper. She asked basic questions about the availability and varieties of fresh breads at the store, and also requested advice about how to fit breads into her plans for a dinner party.
What SN's secret shopper encountered was a batch of genuinely helpful individuals who exhibited few signs of annoyance with a customer who was full of questions.
Some in-store bakery employees offered driving directions, gave menu suggestions, offered recipes and pointed out that other departments within the store could also help service her needs.
However, most of them said their bakeries couldn't offer hot bread when she needed it. The singularly most glaring drawback apparent from the round of calls was that operators continue to bake on a baker's schedule, rather than a consumer's schedule.
SN called the stores mid-week, between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. At that time, the bakery personnel reported that the baker was long gone, and thus some detailed questions could not be answered.
Most importantly, while some bakery clerks told this consumer she could indeed find "freshly baked" bread at their stores to pick up after work, the bread would not be hot because it had been baked in the morning, usually before 7 a.m.
The bakery at a Cub Food unit in Roswell, Ga., for instance, told the caller that all the bread was baked in the morning.
"But I want to serve it fresh and hot tonight," the caller persisted.
"Do you have a microwave at home? Well, let me tell you how to let your family think you just baked it," the Cub employee replied, and then explained in detail how to sprinkle water on bread and heat it in a microwave.
The caller was also cautioned by the charming bakery employee at the Cub Food unit that crusty breads should be eaten within 48 hours, "or the inside gets hard."
The bread was also being baked in the morning only at an Edmonds, Wash., unit of Safeway. A staffer said the bakers work in the morning, but "The French bread is hot now. I took it out of the oven only half an hour ago." (at what time was the call?) ....
A bakery staffer at an Atlanta Harris Teeter tried to be quite helpful, but nonetheless many questions -- such as when bread is available hot, what the ingredients are or whether the bread is baked from scratch -- could not be answered because "the bakery manager isn't here."
An A&P store in South Plainfield, N.J., kept the bread-seeking caller on hold for the bakery for close to four minutes, interrupting the music and advertising messages at the midway point to see if "they" had picked up yet. Finally, the caller was told "They must have gone home; call back."
"Do you have hot bread?" she asked anyway. "First thing in the morning. You'd have to order it," was the reply, followed by a hang-up.
As might be expected, the most knowledgeable employees were found at operations where variety breads are a hallmark.
At Harry's Farmers Market, Marietta, Ga., the store's phone rang 15 times. But once connected to the bakery, the caller found a helpful staffer who revealed that while French bread is baked at the store all day long, the other 160 varieties of bread are baked from scratch "in our bakery in Alpharetta," referring to the retailer's central baking plant.
The bakery employee at Harry's was "not sure" what crusty bread was, but offered, "We have Italian focaccia with tomatoes or olive oil or plain, and a great Middle Eastern bread."
The staffer also volunteered that some breads are $2.99 or $3 per loaf, but are "quite economical for their size."
That impulse to offer an unsolicited explanation for the pricing of breads overcame several of the clerks. A man at a Waldbaum's in Huntington, N.Y., for instance, admitted that crusty bread does cost more than others, "but it's a large piece of bread, about 18 to 20 ounces."
From a bakery staffer at a Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas, the caller learned that breads are priced at $1.79 to $3.19 to $4.50 because "We use organic flour, bake fresh daily and the hearth breads are made with a special technique in a special oven."
Seven kinds of hearth breads at the Whole Foods unit are "parbaked and frozen at our own bakehouse and then we bake the bread right here, on the floor of a big brick oven."
Most importantly, the clerk reported that at the Whole Food location, bread is baked throughout the day, "as we run out, and it takes about 10 minutes, so you can ask us to put some in the oven, pick up things in the store and we'll have it ready for you."
Some in-store bakery staffers were slow to warm up to the telephone customer. When asked if the store had hot bread, an employee at A&P's North Bergen, N.J., unit responded, "not really," and then added tentatively, "but if you want some for a certain time, we could try."
But when asked about the varieties available, the A&P staffer bubbled over with the bread menu, which ranged from mini-Italian to French to sourdough. When a crusty roll was mentioned, the caller asked, "What is that, exactly?" The counter person explained that it is "an Italian type of roll with a harder crust, because we add steam when baking them."
At a Kroger store in Cincinnati (several were called), the in-store person was also tentative as the telephone conversation began, and remained somewhat impatient in tone throughout, but still answered the persistent questions.
After indicating that the store did indeed offer hot bread from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., the clerk was asked if the bread was baked from scratch. "Yeah," was the terse reply. "Are the ingredients natural?" she asked. "I have no idea."
When asked what types of breads were available hot, the clerk's answer was "everything." And when asked what a crusty bread was, exactly, he said, "It's a different kind of bread. We have sunflower, dried tomato. They have different spices and flavors."
How much do they cost? "They were on sale last week. They are $2.99 to $4.99." Why so much more than regular bread, the caller asked? "Because of all the special things they have in them. Hold on, I'll find out for sure." When the clerk came back, he reported, "They are $1.99 this week. They are still on sale."
Waldbaum's Huntington, N.Y., unit had one of the most knowledgeable employees encountered by SN answering its bakery telephone.
When asked if the store had hot bread, he enthusiastically responded, "Yes! I just took it out of the oven 20 minutes ago."
When asked when hot bread is typically available, he said, "In the morning and late afternoons during the week, and three times on the weekends." Italian, rye and pumpernickel varieties are available hot, the employee said.
As the caller asked for suggestions of what to serve for an upcoming party, the Waldbaum's employee replied, "Hum, that depends. I'd go for an Italian crusty. Get the bread from us and the cold cuts from the deli."
For the same "party," the bakery associate at Harry's Farmers Market suggested a big, round bread that could be hollowed out for dip, and invited the caller to "Come down to look at all the breads we have, like cider rye, cheese bread, wheat, pumpernickel. We have a caterer who can also help you with your party."
Several savvy in-store bakery clerks asked what type of party the caller was planning, or who the guests were going to be. When told that it would be "for my husband's friends and their 16-year-old boys on my son's soccer team," the menu options came quickly.
At a Kroger location in Cincinnati different from the one mentioned above, the bakery person offered her garlic-bread recipe using baguettes that come in frozen and are baked hourly. "When you're ready, you come in and see me. My name's Margaret," she offered.
The first question the North Bergen's A&P counter person asked the caller was, "How many will you be feeding?"
The availability of freshly baked bread in quantities for a party varied from operator to operator. When the caller asked if she could come down on Saturday and pick up a dozen or more Italian or French loaves to make sandwiches for the party, she met with mixed results.
Harry's Farmers Market indicated that "If you want just one kind, we generally have a dozen to 24 on hand."
The clerk at a Safeway in Bethesda, Md., recommended that she "give me a call, so we have it fresh. We can prepare it to be hot for you. It is $1.19 per loaf. I'm Tony."
The Whole Foods Market clerk suggested that a special order be placed on Friday for a Saturday party, but "if you let us know when you will be over, the bread just takes 12 minutes to cook."
The bakery person at A&P's North Bergen location suggested that an order be placed the day before. "That way we could give you a nice variety. You could have some plain, some with poppy seeds, some with sesame seeds. And be sure to tell us what time you'll want to pick them up, so we will be sure to have them ready for you."
The associate at Waldbaum's Huntington unit also recommended calling ahead, "so you won't be disappointed. We bake amounts based on what we sold last week."
The bakery personnel routinely offered, toward the end of the calls, that perhaps the shopper should just buy "one of those really big sandwiches," adding that the deli department could help out with such an order and that the caller could be transferred to the deli for more details.
"We have a caterer here for you to talk to. We don't make those big sandwiches, but we can be talked into anything," said the Harry's Farmers Market employee.
The Bethesda Safeway's bakery personnel said that at the in-store deli, "They have brochures. Come in and get one. Hold on and I'll read you some of the things they have." She then ticked off party trays, large heroes, club sandwiches and other items, reading the descriptions and price ranges.
The man at Harry's Farmers Market even suggested that when "shopping for your family or your party, come in and get our produce. It's the best and we have a big selection."