Sunday, April 22, 2018
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In food trend, fewer restaurants offering free bread baskets

Think about it. The last 10 times you went out to eat, were you presented with an overflowing, complimentary bread basket? Most times, probably not.

Seasons 52 in Tampa? Bowled Restaurant in St. Petersburg? No bread basket. The Hurricane in St. Pete Beach? Z Grille in St. Petersburg? Nope.

"Small restaurants don't have the room and can't afford the bread waste," says Z Grille chef-owner Zack Gross.

It appears that the death knell has rung for the traditional bread basket.

It's a culinary shift for sure, especially since free starch has been a predinner tradition in American restaurants for a long time.

In the 1970s, there was the cracker basket, cellophane-wrapped circles and squares; the 1980s brought the pillowy sliced baguette with icy, foil-wrapped butter pats; in the 1990s, the bread affected an Italian accent, accompanied by a shallow bowl of olive oil, sometimes flecked with herbs; and then, in the 2000s, the bread got better, and butter muscled back onto the scene.

But in the 2010s? The staff of life is largely MIA.

Many restaurants that are offering bread are charging for it, and not just those in the Tampa Bay area but around the country. New York hot spots such as Momofuku Ssam Bar and Co. offer bread only for a charge, as does popular newcomer Roost in Houston.

Michelle Baker, co-owner of the Refinery in Tampa, thinks bread baskets are passé.

"My opinion is that bread is a filler. It sits in your stomach so you're not as hungry. When you're hungry, you taste everything; if you're not really hungry, you're not really experiencing the flavors of the food."

There are other, less esoteric reasons the Refinery doesn't serve bread.

"We really are buying as much as we can from local farmers. That food is expensive, and we try to keep prices down. Offering free bread costs money. Also, (chef) Greg is not going to serve anything unless he makes it. His last name is Baker, but he doesn't bake," she said of her husband.

Harry Balzer, industry analyst and vice president of the NPD Group, says bread consumption at home or in restaurants has been in decline for 20 years. The reason for that he summarizes in one word:

"Calories. The thing people are more interested in than anything else is, how many calories am I putting in my body?"

Some restaurants have adopted an "ask and it shall be yours" approach, as with glasses of water during drought times. Why waste bread if people don't want it? But for many restaurants, forgoing free bread may be an essential part of a cost-cutting strategy.

"During the recession, restaurants were challenged with rising operating costs and declining consumer spending, which put a squeeze on their already slim profit margins (a typical restaurant runs a 3 to 5 percent profit margin)," says Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association. "So it's very possible that some restaurants modified offerings by eliminating or charging for bread baskets as a result."

Mike Harding, co-owner of BellaBrava in St. Petersburg, sees bread service as the "first big quality statement you make for your guests." But the details of when, or if, it is served at BellaBrava are hashed out in a conversation between guest and server.

"I spent a little over $28,000 last year on free bread," he says.

Chad McColgin, chef de cuisine at Boca Kitchen Bar and Market in Tampa, which opened earlier this year, charges $4 for a bread basket.

"We didn't start out with bread service, but we got so many requests that we offer one for $4, which right now includes an assortment of Italian rustic bread, a little sourdough and maybe baguette as well, served with a bing cherry butter. We're in the business of taking care of customers, but also of making money."

And, of course, there are the holdouts. Olive Garden isn't ditching its bread sticks anytime soon, and Dominique Christini, chef-owner of Café Largo in Largo, bakes bread daily, the whole process taking 24 hours. He offers it free with dinner and sometimes sells customers a loaf to take home.

"I keep on doing so because I like my bread. As a Frenchman, I can't live without bread. And I don't know any better — I'd make a lousy plumber or electrician."

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.

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