Sit down to dinner at Elaine’s on Franklin in Chapel Hill, and you’ll be offered a choice of garlic focaccia or sourdough batard (or both). The bread service is on the house, but it’s not an afterthought.
“We’ve got a century-old sourdough starter I smuggled back from France in ninety-five,” says chef-owner Bret Jennings. “I’m really proud of our sourdough. I’ve had a lot of help from pastry chefs perfecting the recipe over the years.”
He’s surprised the starter is still alive—between the humidity and the temperature, this isn’t the ideal climate—but he and his team have been using it to bake fresh bread every day since Elaine’s opened in 1999.
This kind of free bread service used to be a staple in restaurants, but these days, it’s scarce. Many chefs and restaurateurs find that the benefits no longer outweigh the costs.
At Crawford and Son in Raleigh, chef-owner Scott Crawford and pastry chef Krystle Swenson serve a basket of six malted wheat rolls with hickory butter and sea salt for $6. The rolls are a hybrid of the sweet rolls from Swenson’s native Hawaii and the Parker House rolls Crawford has always loved.
“We were able to develop the recipe through a lot of testing,” Crawford says. “Then the question was, ‘Do we give these away to every guest that comes in?’ It was a tough decision, one that we spent days talking about.”
First, the rise of allergies and gluten-free diets had a big impact on bread service.
“When I first started as a chef twenty years ago, we’d get one allergy a week, usually shellfish,” Crawford says. “Gluten wasn’t a factor—everyone got bread, and everyone ate it.” Now, he estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the guests at Crawford and Son are gluten-free.
This played into chef Carrie Schleiffer’s decision to charge for bread, too.
“In the gluten-free era, you start putting bread on the table, and it doesn’t get eaten. It’s such a waste,” she says. At Alley Twenty Six in Durham, she serves a “Butter and Salt” plate of lemon-poppyseed compound butter, Maldon sea salt, baby radishes, microgreens, and sliced baguette for $6, and says that about half of guests order it.
There are also significant costs to making bread from scratch. Swenson spends at least an hour each day making and shaping dough (that’s not including rise or oven time), and the rolls take up a lot of space in the small kitchen. Combine that labor cost with ingredients, and Crawford says the rolls come out to about $1 each, which is exactly what he charges for them.
“We realized that if we gave away the bread, we’d need to increase the price of entrees by one or two dollars, and we wanted to keep them below thirty,” Crawford says. “Nothing is really free. You have to build in that price somewhere.” Charging for bread also seems to increase its value to guests, Crawford says. “People will literally take home the rolls they don’t eat.”
At Alley Twenty Six, the tiny kitchen makes bread baking impossible. Schleiffer gets her baguettes from Loaf in Durham.
“I could get cheaper bread and serve it for free, but there are really good bread makers in town, and I like to support local businesses,” she says.
Jennings faces these same challenges at Elaine’s. “I think [bread service] is ultimately cutting into my appetizer and dessert sales,” he says.
So why, despite this, does he give his bread away for free?
“I like tradition. I don’t like change,” he says. “It’s a labor of love, but I’m starting to question my business sense.”
Related: See “Five Local Bread Baskets You Should Fill Up On.” Contact us at email@example.com.