Hey, Pete Wells — There’s No Such Thing as Free Bread


Last week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells waxed nostalgic for an era when diners were treated to free bread and water as soon as they sat down at a table. You can still get tap water, Wells acknowledges, but you have to sheepishly ask for it. As for the bread, he writes:

…[T]here’s no guessing where or when or whether we will see any. The traditional basket almost never arrives before we order these days, although it may be handed out just after, like a small reward. Or we may find bread on the menu alongside the salads and snacks, for a price. Or we may have to ask: by any chance is there a stray slice or two lying around? Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Maybe it’s free, maybe it isn’t.

Here’s the thing about nostalgia: It tends to romanticize a past that didn’t exist.

First off, the ostensibly bygone Free Bread Era was also a time when restaurants (and diners) cared far less about quality ingredients and preparations, the contents of the bread basket included. Bread was typically a throwaway that arrived hard and cold and the texture of papier-mâché. If you were starving, you’d gnaw on a bland slice, using it as a vehicle for (over-refrigerated) butter.

Plenty of places still offer that kind of bread service — they’re just not the places where Wells is spending the Times‘s money. Nor are they the places diners go when they want a special meal. They’re out there, though — Styrofoam baguette, brick o’ butter, just like when you were a kid.

Luckily for Wells — and for anyone else who laments the loss of yesteryear’s bounty — even in our current Artisan Age the symbolic offering of bread remains important. But the bread you see at restaurants these days is, literally, more complicated: No longer a superfluous token that often winds up in the trash, today’s bread demands better treatment, and restaurants are doing just that.

“People see bread as the filler,” acknowledges Kate Wheatcroft, owner of Bien Cuit bakery. “It’s getting people to recognize that bread isn’t just something you stuff your face with.”

Bien Cuit is one of a handful of bakeries that provide bread wholesale to New York City restaurants. Other major players include Pain d Avignon, Balthazar, and Amy’s. These companies often operate retail outlets where they sell their goods directly to the public, but their stock-in-trade is the high-quality baguettes, rolls, and other loaves that grace the tables of local restaurants.

Bakery owners are reticent about sharing wholesale pricing information, but one tells the Voice that big restaurants — the type that does 800 to 1,000 covers a day — may spend $100,000 a year on bread, whereas a smaller operation might budget about $250 a week (which works out to $13,000 annually).

If an average check at either type of spot is $100 per person, then it takes two and a half diners just to cover the restaurant’s weekly bread overhead.

Gone are the days when it was okay to dump two-day-old bread on unsuspecting diners; bakers now deliver multiple times per week.

“Storage is an issue, and shelf life is an issue,” says Pain d’Avignon owner Uliks Fehmiu. “And with our prices, delivery is factored in.”

Why not bake in-house? It’s not necessarily cheaper. Rouge Tomate executive chef Jeremy Bearman says his restaurant decided to start making its own bread not because of a price or quality issue with its supplier (Bien Cuit), but because he was interested in baking.

“Bien Cuit is great — they make fantastic bread that’s probably better than I could ever make,” says Bearman. “But I like bread. I like working with it. It’s interesting. There’s a lot to it, and the process is something I decided to teach myself. There’s a baker here, and people love it. I like the idea of having warm bread at each table that came out of the oven five minutes before.”

Bearman’s kitchen makes seasonal focaccias, which require a two-day fermentation process and are filled with market produce (currently scallions). While he puts his ingredient costs for bread at 25 cents per loaf of focaccia — potentially a bit cheaper than bread from a wholesaler — he also employs a baker to do the baking, and he has another pastry chef fill in on that chef’s day off. That’s 50 labor hours per week spent on bread. Bearman didn’t share wage info with us, but if we use the mean hourly wage rate for bakers — $12.08 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — that’s $604 to bake bread each week — bringing Bearman’s total weekly outlay to about $952 for Rouge Tomate’s 1,400 loaves of focaccia. Assuming an average check of $150 per diner, it takes six diners to cover the bread.

Monarch Room pastry chef Tai Chopping quantifies her bread program in a slightly different way: She goes through 400 pounds of bread flour per week, plus 160 pounds of top-shelf gouda. She employs someone full-time to handle the bread program, seven to eight hours a day, six days a week. Extrapolating from those stats, based on wholesale prices of the ingredients and the labor numbers from above, Chopping probably spends about the same on bread as Rouge Tomate. If the Monarch Room averages close to $150, we’re looking at six diners to pay for the cost of bread.

“When we opened the Monarch Room, we had a big discussion about bread,” owner Lisle Richards tells the Voice. “In an American restaurant, bread is a very big part of the initial exposure. It’s the official start of the experience. You’re breaking bread, both literally and figuratively. We think that’s important, and we don’t charge for bread.”

Given the effort that goes in, restaurant owners might want patrons to notice. Sending over a waiter with a tray to tell diners about each variety and let them choose, highlighting bread as a course on a tasting menu, (or, yes, even charging for it) — all are facets of the evolution of bread service.

It’s still a free country, of course, and those who don’t like it are welcome to belly up for a cellulose baguette and a nigh-frozen pat of Land-O-Lakes.