Natural Foods Merchandiser
Hot from the oven: In-store bread baking basics

Hot from the oven: In-store bread baking basics

Here's a simple fact about in-store baking: It's the aroma that sells. The scent of bread and the theatrical aspects that surround the baking process lure consumers. Sound simple? It's not. In-store baking is an established trend in the United States. But natural foods retailers are, nonetheless, faced by numerous options, and there are many paths to offering quality bread in a bakery section. Retailers need to take into consideration oven types, the skill levels of their staff and what types of breads the store wishes to offer.

Oven manufacturers and baking professionals do agree on some things. Good, quality artisan bread demands a skilled staff of bakers and an efficient, capable oven. A deck oven is, by far, the most competent type of oven for artisan baking. And steaming the bread is a necessary process. But that's about all they agree on. Industry practitioners disagree on which type of oven works best for overall baking capacity and whether retailers should use thaw-and-bake products or made-from-scratch breads. Ultimately, bread is a signature section, and the final decision rests on individual taste and consumer demand.

Europeans have been making crusty batard, levain and pugliese breads for centuries. These breads are now popular in the United States, and interest is steadily growing. "Within the last five to seven years, we've seen a lot more interest at in-store bakeries in preparing and retailing European style breads," says Mary Kay O'Connor, director of education for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, based in Madison, Wis. "Consumers [are] extremely interested in broadening their eating experience with bread."

To respond to this consumer demand, retailers must analyze their needs and resources before deciding how to introduce artisan breads to their bakery. When deciding upon the right oven, retailers should ask themselves questions about labor, space and marketing. Does the store have access to skilled bakers? How much space can be sacrificed for a baking operation? What kinds of breads would sell in the region? "Those are very important issues," says Jeff Salenger, sales promotion manager, pro Bake Inc., Twinsburg, Ohio. "You, as an in-store bakery, need to decide which way to go."

There are three major types of ovens—the revolving tray oven, the rack oven and the deck oven—and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Marvin Willyard, Bakers National Education Foundation professor, Grain Sciences Department, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., says the revolving tray ovens are mainly used for large-scale baking operations. "Historically, the revolving tray oven has been the workhorse of the retail industry, and it does a reasonably good job," Willyard says. "The limitation is that it is very difficult to develop the crisp-type crust associated with European-style bread."

Rack ovens, also known as convection ovens, circulate heat with high velocity, and evenly spread steam throughout the oven. Rack ovens are efficient; bakers can insert a multitude of racks in the oven at one time. A rack can easily hold 10 loaves of bread, and newer ovens have up to a 46-rack capacity. "Rack ovens give a good blast of steam and are especially good for quantity products like rolls, but they give a more manufactured look with [artisan] breads," says Peter Reinhart, a faculty member at the International Baking & Pastry Institute, Johnston & Wales University, Providence, R.I.

The ideal way to produce the dark crust and soft middles of artisan bread is with the age-old style of baking bread on a hearth. Deck ovens, which use stone or ceramic bases, mimic this process, circulating heat from the bottom up. "Deck ovens are a superior way to bake. You're basically baking on the hearth," Salenger says. "The heat and steam from the bottom give you a nice crust."

While everybody agrees that deck ovens are the best choice for baking crusty breads, deck ovens also require more skill. Gorton asks rhetorically, "It's attractive, it's romantic, but is it the right choice for the kind of staffing that's available?"

Retailers need skilled bakers to create artisan bread from scratch in a deck oven. "There are fewer people going into skilled [bread making]," O'Connor says. "Labor is a tremendous issue, and there aren't that many master bakers coming out of schools."

There are alternatives for retailers unable to afford or find skilled artisan bakers that still wish to fill their aisles with the smell of baking bread. Many manufacturers now offer par-baked and frozen-dough breads. These are industry terms for bread that goes through a majority of the baking steps before reaching the retail level. All that's left to do is thaw and bake. This new in-store baking trend can solve the labor situation, and these breads work in any industry oven.

Par-baked and frozen-dough breads look and taste similar to made-from-scratch breads. There are many beautiful par-baked products on the market, says Kirk O'Donnell, vice president of education, American Institute of Baking, Manhattan, Kan. In fact, in a 1998 San Francisco Chronicle food section Taster's Choice test, Los Angeles-based La Brea Bakery's par-baked baguettes won first place over local bakeries providing fresh-baked baguettes.

However, there are things added to the bread recipe with par-baked and frozen-dough products that cause concern for some natural foods retailers. "There [may be] a number of additives added to the formula of a frozen dough," Willyard says. "Natural retailers may be bothered by that." While par-baked products don't necessitate additives, some producers may use them to lengthen shelf life and improve performance. However, additives are not an industry standard. La Brea Bakery, for example, uses no preservatives in its products.

Forest Wakefield is co-owner of Harvest Organic Foods, Bakery and Café, Jackson, Wyo. Harvest Organic Foods' in-store bakery offers a variety of breads and pastries made with only organic ingredients. Wakefield is dedicated to offering organic, fresh breads to his customers and does not use any par-baked or frozen-dough products. "We're not into adding additives to get it to work that way," Wakefield says. "I can see how for people with no experience, why they would go that way. [Par-baking makes sense] if somebody has a store and they want to have a bread operation and they can't afford help."

Harvest Organic Foods only has 2,000 square feet of retail space. Its rotating rack oven, originally designed for a cruise ship, was reassembled in the store's basement to save space. The oven offers Harvest Organic Foods the ability to produce a variety of quality baked goods. But the ability to do a variety of different things demands more than just the perfect oven. Wakefield and one of his partners, Glenjamin Wood, do all the baking for Harvest Organic Foods. Wood trained with established European bakers, and Wakefield trained with Wood. "I feel like instinct is everything," Wakefield says. "I learned not with recipes. I learned to feel the bread as it's going along."

Dana Goldman, baker at Ollie's Bakery in Winston-Salem, N.C., agrees with Wakefield. Bakers need to know more than just recipes; they need to understand things like the effect of weather and central air conditioning units and the subtleties of yeast fermentation on the process of baking itself. "[Baking] takes a little bit of talent. You don't just go by time," Goldman says. "You have to look at the bread. It also matters what the weather's like. A rainy, humid day can change everything."

While a baking apprentice in Germany trains for five to seven years, it's possible to bring employees up to par in a much shorter time. Reinhart travels the country and holds all-day seminars on professional baking for in-store staff. "A lot of people working as bakers have not had formal training," Reinhart says. "[But] we've seen bakeries go from putting out mediocre product to putting out exceptional product just from learning a few things in training."

Ultimately, in-store baking decisions are up to the retailer. Space and labor issues are important, but equally important is the quality of the product. While par-baked and frozen-dough products ease the process of baking, some of these products contain additives that may sacrifice quality. At the same time, made-from-scratch baking demands labor-intensive ovens and a skilled staff of bakers. Answers to these problems aren't easy, and neither is an in-store baking installation. But the payoff—the scent of baking bread floating through the aisles of a retail store—is well worth the effort.

Vishal Khanna is a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Why They Buy At In-Store Bakeries

From Consumers in the Bakery: Who, What, When, Where and Why They Buy and How to Get Them to Buy More (International Dairy Deli Bakery Association. 1999)

  • Convenience—68 percent
  • Freshness—15 percent
  • Price—11 percent
  • Better Flavor/Taste—8 percent
  • Like the products—5 percent
  • Variety—5 percent
  • Looks Good—4 percent
  • Quality—3 percent
  • Special Occasions—3 percent
  • Have Special Items—2 percent

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 8/p. 28, 31-32

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