The bread business, particularly in the premium sector, is riding a wave of heightened consumer interest and demand. Without a doubt, the luxury models of bread — the ones differentiated by long fermentation, ancient grains, sprouted grains or other specialty ingredients — are grabbing hold of the public’s interest more than ever and causing many to return to the bakery department and feel great about buying loaves of artisan bread.

Tom Gumpel, former vice president of research and development for St. Louis-based Panera Bread, shared insights into the positive road ahead for sprouted grains, speaking at the International Artisan Bakery Expo March 5-7 in Las Vegas. Gumpel presented a broad look at how Americans view the benefits of bread and explained the dietary values of sprouted grains for individuals who are seeking ways to improve gut health. More people are starting to understand that avoiding gluten or carbohydrates is not a one-size-fits-all approach to their diets. “The next level of nutrition is, how does this work for you, the individual?” Gumpel said. “Nature should tell us that every one of us is different.”

Soaked or steeped grains are ideal for bakery applications. When the grain is sprouted (ideally just past the bud break), the phytic acid is eliminated. Phytic acid is a natural substance in plant seeds that impairs the absorption of minerals and, as a result, is often called an anti-nutrient. Soaking makes the seed or grain more permeable and contributes to a reduction in anti-nutrients, he said. This leads to an increase in functionality of vitamins, antioxidants and amino acids.

Nicholas Ahrens, product applications culinologist for Quincy, Massachusetts-based Bay State Milling, created a sprouted sourdough cold fermented batard specifically for the International Artisan Bakery Expo. The formulation brings together Bay State’s Heritage European Artisan Flour and BeneGrain Sprouted Wheat Flour. Heritage European is a low-protein patent flour with good absorption and volume. BeneGrain sprouted whole wheat flour brings a slight maltiness and a sweeter flavor profile than a traditional whole wheat flour. The resulting loaf has a light sour and malty flavor.

Expect sprouted grains to surge in popularity, according to Baking & Snack, a sister publication of Supermarket Perimeter. A 2017 GlobalData consumer survey noted that 60% of U.S. shoppers think sprouted grains and seeds have a positive impact on health. Jim Canterbury, director of sales, Alvarado Street Bakery, Petaluma, California, said the grains’ digestibility and energy benefits combat any negative perception of carbohydrates in bread. The minimally processed grains used in Alvarado Street Bakery’s Black Label line of sprouted bread are easier to digest than those made with highly processed flour, create longer-lasting energy and can help control blood sugar levels. Canterbury likened sprouted bread’s trajectory to the organic trend.

The recent International Artisan Bakery Expo featured dozens of bakery exhibitors including King Arthur Flour and Central Milling that showcased the enticing combination of premium bread and pizza flours for a wide range of applications. Exhibitors such as AB Mauri (Burgen premium bread mixes), Abel & Schafer (new Massa Madre Ferment), ADM (new organic flour), Ardent Mills (whole grains and multigrain breads), Bay State Milling (BeneGrain sprouted grains and flours), Corbion (clean label solutions) and General Mills Convenience & Foodservice (artisan bread flours) presented innovative products for bakers of all types. Ancient grains like quinoa, sorghum and teff are in big demand, and bakers are seeking professional techniques to take full advantage of this trend.

Denver-based Ardent Mills features The Annex by Ardent Mills, a team of experts dedicated to bringing a broad portfolio of plant and specialty grain innovations to the industry, including ancient and heirloom grains, pulses, barley and organic products available in unique formats such as crisps and Individually Quick Frozen grains, perfectly cooked and ready for culinary inspiration. With farmer relationships, custom growing and identity-preserved programs, The Annex is dedicated to bringing tomorrow’s specialty grains and plant-based ingredients.

Gaining traction in convenience and foodservice channels

St. Louis-based Companion owner and founder Josh Allen enjoys an inside view of America’s bread business, overseeing operations at one of the leading intermediate wholesale bakeries in the United States. So what trends does he see have staying power?

“There is definitely more movement on the sandwich side of things. Whole grain sandwich breads are doing well. More sourdoughs,” Allen says. “Sandwich breads are taking off in a multitude of directions, giving customers more options and signaling a strong positive for the “fine casual” movement in American dining culture. “Food is becoming more casual and much more approachable in restaurants, whether that be a great lobster roll or an Italian panini,” he adds.

Whole grains are most certainly gaining ground. In October 2018, Panera Bread announced that it is the first national restaurant company to disclose the whole grain content of breads on its menu. The bakery cafe chain will label all servings of whole grain per slice, roll or bagel, as well as the whole grain percentage, on all breads over 50% whole grain. Panera recently introduced new on-the-go options to its menu in the form of breakfast wraps served on whole grain tortillas.

In other developments, Subway and Tastemade first announced their innovative collaboration to deliver unique food offerings in North America and Latin America in August 2018. Since the inception of the partnership, hundreds of menu items have been developed using unique data and insights derived from the Tastemade audience and tested for possible inclusion on the Subway menu. And, now customers in the United States are getting a taste of what's new.

"When we initially tested this sandwich concept, consumers were intrigued by its unique flavor and craveability," says Len Van Popering, vice president of global brand & innovation for Subway. The Subway "Inspired by Tastemade" partnership furthers the restaurant chain's ability to create more locally-relevant menu offerings and develop an innovation standard that gives Subway competitive edge.

In April in celebration of Grilled Cheese Month at its Los Angeles café, Los Angeles-based La Brea Bakery conducted a month-long promotion with a special grilled cheese menu, featuring three limited-edition sandwiches: The Classic, three cheese blend on Country White Sourdough Loaf; the Cowboy, short rib, yellow cheddar, caramelized onions, and a garlic mustard spread on Country Wheat; and the South West, avocado, cilantro spread, southwest pork belly, and Monterey jack cheese on White Table Bread.

La Brea Bakery division vice president and executive chef Henk Drakulich discussed the importance of bread in the grilled cheese sandwich and how you can make your sandwiches stand out with the right pairings. ”While many consumers think the cheese should be the star of the show in their grilled cheese sandwich, the bread actually plays a huge role both in flavor and texture/composition of the sandwich. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the bread is more important than the cheese,” he says. “For a great grilled cheese sandwich, the benchmark is the color and flavor of the crust of the bread. A classic pairing for grilled cheese is a sourdough such as La Brea Bakery’s Sourdough Loaf or Sourdough Baguette since it has a subtle flavor that’s instantly recognizable but won’t overpower the cheese. It also has a crisp yet chewy crust that adds a surprising crunch to balance out the gooiness of the melted cheese, and the innate tanginess of the sourdough creates an opportunity to get creative incorporating other ingredients into the sandwich like caramelized onions or avocado.”

Back In 1989, Nancy Silverton founded La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, contributing tremendously to the growth of the artisan bread movement in the United States. During her time with La Brea, the bakery gained national attention for its old-world baking techniques. To commemorate its 30th anniversary, Silverton is working with La Brea Bakery to develop special edition breads. The La Brea Bakery Founders line, which features ingredients like sprouted grains, and alternative flours, was created by Silverton and La Brea Bakery senior vice president of innovation Jonathan Davis. The two spent months developing the line, culminating in three breads. The breads were made using Silverton’s original sourdough starter and incorporating contemporary ingredients paired with old-world baking techniques.

“When opening La Brea Bakery my goal was simple. I wanted to make beautiful and delicious breads, which was something of a novelty in Los Angeles in 1989,” says Silverton. “That same guiding principal has been the driving force behind the creation of La Brea Bakery Founders breads, 30 years later. These new breads pay homage to our past, while looking ahead to our future.”

The three breads, which feature sprouted grains, dusted varieties and seeded loaves made using whole grains, include pain levain (made with a classic slow fermented sourdough), sprouted multigrain & seed (a mild sourdough, enhanced with the nuttiness of sunflower and pumpkin seeds) and country wheat batard ( a mild wheat sourdough made with whole wheat flour and wheat bran).

“Creating La Brea Bakery Founders breads together has been a wonderful experience because we share such a passion for baking good bread and have similar interests in the ingredients we use and the flavors we want to taste,” Davis says of working with Silverton.

Taking the premium road

Slow fermentation, according to Food Business News, a sister publication of Supermarket Perimeter, is an apt metaphor for the pace at which the artisan bread trend has gained traction among wholesale bakers across the United States. While efforts by leading U.S. baking companies to break into the artisan bread market date back more than 20 years, new product introductions in 2018 by bakers large and small suggest a heightened determination. Additionally, with the packaged bread category continuing to contract in size, bakers have only intensified efforts to develop a wide range of innovative products to retain existing consumers and lure back those who have lapsed.

Thomasville, Georgia-based Flowers Foods has stepped up innovation activity across much of its portfolio, including the introduction of two varieties under the Nature’s Own brand — Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted Thin Sliced Multigrain and Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted.

Likewise, in the convenience store channel, providing healthier or premium food options through its food service business helps a c-store chain stand out among the competition. “We are seeing operators continue to focus on roller grill programs for the value purchasers but adding premium and healthier options to attract customers who would not normally make the roller grill purchase,” Dave Gonnella, vice-president, sales, Gonnella Baking Co., Schaumburg, Illinois, told Baking & Snack. “While all-day snacking is trending on the food service side of c-store, we believe made-to-order (M.T.O.) programs are the next evolution where much of the future innovation will take place.”

M.T.O. programs give bakers a big opportunity to experiment and offer c-stores something new. Gonnella Baking has seen growth for its mini burger buns, for example, as chicken sandwich and burger programs are reoriented toward all-day snacking. The company also is seeing a lot of innovation opportunity in the breakfast daypart.

“We’re rolling out a French Toast hot dog bun for the roller grill with cinnamon, maple and butter flavors,” he said. “The French Toast bun pairs well with a savory breakfast sausage and can be bundled with a coffee program to help increase the overall check size.”

Wholesale bakeries are expanding their portfolios in a variety of different ways to gain traction in the fresh perimeter of the supermarket.

St Pierre recently introduced full-sized Butter Croissants and Chocolate Croissants. The croissants are individually-wrapped and branded in packs of eight with a suggested retail price of $4.99. Made in France using high-quality ingredients and classic techniques, the new croissants reflect the brand’s commitment to producing authentic European-inspired bakery items. Individually-wrapped for added convenience, the new croissants satisfy the growing demand for premium grab-and-go products.

New Haven, Connecticut-based Chabaso, specializing in ciabattas and other artisan brands that are available in grocery and specialty stores throughout the Eastern US, recently launched a special Mother’s Day promotion with a Mother’s Day Bread Bundle, available only through the company’s new e-commerce platform.  Priced at $30 (plus shipping), the bundle includes four new flavors: Powerberry Flower-Shaped Loaf, Turmeric Sunflower Seed Loaf, Chocolate Cherry Boule, and Candied Orange Flower-Shaped Loaf.

Chabaso is launching a new chapter of growth and innovation identified with a rebranding effort, including a new graphics package and website that includes the company’s first-ever ecommerce platform. Chabaso’s chief executive officer Trish Karter is leading the charge on this ambitious mission. The new branding for Chabaso is minimalist and modern, including a simplified business name (formerly Chabaso Bakery). The new look features an updated logo, and a palette of bold but edible colors, rooted in flavor profiles that run through the Chabaso ovens daily. Simple but elegant graphics communicate the value proposition of sophisticated, clean and healthy food, beautifully made. The colors identify not only the flavor profiles, but also bring fun and a design-forward liveliness to the in-store bakery.

Two years ago, Karter joined as the new chief executive officer of Chabaso, after having served as co-founder and chief deer of Dancing Deer Baking Co. in Boston. During her first week of vacation from the job, Karter set a record with her 4-woman team for biking across America, raising money for a women’s health center.

“I saw an opportunity to take this wonderful company and do much more with it on the social impact front while expanding its track record in product excellence and market leadership,” Karter says. “I believe in values-driven companies but also in transparency and advocacy for what we believe in. We want our customers to know the whole story and choose us not only for our wonderful baking, but for the principles we bake in to our choices.”

More flavor options for consumers

Pennsauken, New Jersey-based Puratos supplies Sapore ready-to-use sourdough starters to Busch’s Fresh Food Market, Ann Arbor, Michigan, so that the 17-store retailer can differentiate its artisan bread program, which now consists of about 10 breads, including Italian, asiago, sesame, sourdough, rye and several specialty breads ( including cheddar jalapeño and cracked black pepper & parmesan).

Jessica Benn, bakery manager at the central plant, pointed to an additional benefit of Busch’s producing its own artisan breads. “It allows us to push different ads and gives us more flexibility to run more special deals.”

Pierre Zimmermann, Master Baker and owner of La Fournette in Chicago, demonstrated a convenient and simple method of producing artisan breads that your customers can watch you bake and enjoy inside your store with ease. “We make fougasse every day in Chicago,” he said during an IABE demo at the Lesaffre Corp. booth. “It’s a bread that bakes very quickly and doesn’t require years of shaping experience like a baguette.”

Fougasse is the French version of focaccia and is distinguished by diagonal cuts in the middle, which resemble a wheat stalk. This bread can be flavored with sundried tomatoes and thyme, or any other spices your customers might enjoy. During the baking process, Zimmermann recommends, you want a good amount of steam to maximize oven spring. Using innovative ingredients like Sensation sensory enhancer (with the taste of semolina crackers) from Lesaffre, you can bring a natural nutty flavor to breads such as a twisted baguette, another bread that Zimmermann demonstrated. “It is easy to shape. You can twist it and bake it right away,” he said. “It is helpful to be front of your customers when you make these breads because it gives them an interesting show.”