Artisan Rising

Showcasing the creativity and skills of an in-store bakery staff with an everyday product, artisan and specialty breads have become an important component of many supermarket bakery departments. They may not grab shoppers' attention like cakes, or generate impulse sales like pastries and desserts, but these specialty breads are responsible for up to one-third of bread category sales, and a store's

Showcasing the creativity and skills of an in-store bakery staff with an everyday product, artisan and specialty breads have become an important component of many supermarket bakery departments.

They may not grab shoppers' attention like cakes, or generate impulse sales like pastries and desserts, but these specialty breads are responsible for up to one-third of bread category sales, and a store's selection can offer shoppers a lot of subtle clues about how their supermarket bakery stacks up against local competitors.

But, the subcategory's growth lagged somewhat last year, likely as a result of the recession. Total U.S. sales of artisan and specialty bread declined 1.8% during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2009, according to data from the Perishables Group. The drop was most pronounced in the East, Central and Southern regions, which recorded declines of 3.3%, 2.9% and 2.3%, respectively, according to a report in Modern Baking, a sister publication of SN.

“That data shows that artisan/crusty bread lost ground in dollar sales,” noted Karen Peckham, an education information specialist for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association in Madison, Wis. “This was thought to be an issue of the higher price point of the artisan bread, since many consumers today are value-driven.”

By contrast, breakfast breads and hearth breads both grew by 1.5% last year, and the “other breads” category, which includes tortillas, flat breads, pita bread and corn bread, showed very strong growth in Western states, with sales up 11.6% in the region.

Overall, sales of every bread subcategory struggled in the East, with breakfast bread sales falling 5.7%, other breads declining 4%, an hot/hearth breads growing only 0.2%. Fortunately, the region's bakeries also sold the most bread overall, with category sales averaging $2,748 per store, per week.

However, despite these challenges, many leading in-store bakeries have continued to expand their artisan and specialty selection with recipes that feature baked-in olives, onions, fruits, cheeses and other ingredients.

West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley's Supermarkets, for example, offers fresh-baked Ciabatta rolls filled with Romano cheese or caramelized onions under its Nob Hill Trading Co. brand. And, shoppers can treat themselves to a traditional loaf bread baked with black olives, green olives, roasted garlic and Swiss Gruyere cheese.

Wegmans Food Markets' “Red, White & Blue” bread features “great blueberry-cranberry flavors in a rich, egg-y brioche dough,” according to the Rochester, N.Y.-based company's website, which also suggests serving the bread with goat cheese for breakfast or dessert. Other unique specialties from Wegmans' bakeries include a spinach Parmesan fougasse and a Parmesan peppercorn baguette.

And, Dallas-based H-E-B Central Market has more than a dozen new specialty breads featured in its current “Bread Guide,” including a breakfast bread filled with “Granny Smith apple chunks, golden raisins, toasted pecans and dates and spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.” There's also a ficelle baguette filled with prosciutto ham and cracked black pepper, a panettone filled with bittersweet chocolate and candied orange peel, a focaccia bread topped with roma tomatoes, black olives and shredded Parmesan, and a gugelhopf with rum-soaked raisins. According to the guide, many of the new breads were developed after Central Market sent their bakers to work with chefs at the Culinary Institute of America.

Other recent trends include the budding popularity of ancient grains, which have shown new potential primarily because of their novelty and their unique flavor profiles.

“Many bakers are using ancient grains or grains that are unfamiliar to consumers to add dimension to their artisan bread product line,” Peckham told SN. “Examples of grains are teff, sorghum, amaranth and quinoa.”

For example, Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, recently debuted a German-style bread called Dinkelbrot, made with spelt flour.

Although most bakers are using these grains and flours to complement and enhance more traditional breads, many ancient grains are also gluten-free.

If the economy continues to mend, and shoppers become a little more willing to open their wallets for those occasional indulgences, the artisan bread category should show some renewed potential. Many of the subcategory's key attributes are in line with other hot trends, Peckham pointed out.

“Quality artisan bread can accommodate many of today's trends: It has a nutritious profile, it's made with whole grains, it's high fiber, it's ‘natural’ and authentic, and, depending on the source, it can even fulfill a consumer's desire to ‘buy local,’” she said.

For bakery departments hoping to build sales of these higher-priced items, Peckham said that displaying these items in “natural or rustic settings” with accessories such as wooden racks or baskets, has proven to be a successful merchandising strategy.

She added that tags can help a retailer explain the bread's unique ingredients, flavor, suggested uses, nutritional profile and local connection when applicable.

But, when introducing new breads or traditional favorites made with new grain mixes, it's always important to sample, giving shoppers the confidence to spend a little more on something new.

“Sampling is especially important with artisan bread to let customers experience the taste of the unique grains,” she said. “Sampling sells!”