Artisan bread’s Bright future

Tuija Seipell
February 18, 2009
Written by Tuija Seipell
The ailing economy can’t slow the growth of high-end breads

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 The front counter at Pane e Formaggio.
 
Depending on your inclination – glass half-full or half-empty – you can take today’s economic climate and higher ingredient prices as good or bad news for artisan breads. Of course, an ailing economy and skyrocketing ingredient costs are never good news, but neither do they herald doom and gloom.

It is true that recent food-industry surveys and trend predictions indicate that, as consumers feel uncertain about the future and wish to save money, they go back to basics and favour comforting and inexpensive white bread, plain macaroni-and-cheese and other basic pasta products.

At the other end of the spectrum, 1,600 chefs of the American Culinary Federation voted in October 2008 that the following are among the “hot trends” of 2009: nutritional/healthy foods including high-fibre items, gluten-free and allergy-conscious items, flatbreads (naan papadum, lavash, pita, tortilla, etc.) and ancient grains (kamut, spelt, amaranth, buckwheat, etc.).

Both of these trends are really happening – one does not preclude the other. In fact, the same consumer could very well be loading up on macaroni-and-cheese at Costco before stopping at a neighbourhood bakery for a $5 loaf of artisan bread.

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 Loaves of Pane e Formaggio’s Kids Whole Wheat bread.
 
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 Pane e Formaggio’s Fruit and Nut Flaxseed Scone.

 
Megabrands such as Kraft and Kellogg continue to introduce and promote snacks, breakfast cereals and other foods with higher fibre content – good news for any business that will benefit from increased consumer awareness of the benefits of high-fiber foods. That kind of mass marketing has already moved whole wheat and multigrain breads from somewhat exotic to everyday items.

Know your niche
In these market conditions, knowing your niche, your consumer and your product are the ingredients for artisan-bakery success. Not surprisingly, they are the same ingredients that have served niche-bakeries best in the past. The difference is that it is no longer an option to know these things. It is necessary.
This is certainly the view of David Nonni, owner of Vancouver-based Pane e Formaggio Artisan Bread & Cheese. Nonni is confident about the future of his nearly decade-old business.

“For the baker, the secret is knowing your niche and offering your very best to your specific consumer,” he says. His reply to the question, Do you think the future of artisan bread is bright? is a confident “Absolutely!”

Pane e Formaggio includes a retail store-café-deli in the affluent Point Grey neighbourhood, and a 2,300-square-foot wholesale bakery and commissary in East Vancouver. Pane e Formaggio breads, baked goods, pastries, crisps and granola – all made of natural ingredients – are sold in up-market stores and restaurants frequented by food-aware consumers. About 60 per cent of Nonni’s business comes from wholesale and the rest from the retail store.

Nonni’s best-selling loaves are the Kid’s 100 per cent Whole Wheat Pan Loaf, Multi Grain, Roasted Pumpkin Seed Sour Dough and Toscana. The high, round Bacio (Italian for “kiss”) is also popular. It is made of unbleached wheat flour, filtered water, butter, currants, pecans, honey, rye flour, 100 per cent whole-wheat flour, yeast, sea salt, orange zest and anise seed.

Nonni recommends the Bacio as an accompaniment for a morning latte or as the bread to enjoy with blue cheese or brie. Pane e Formaggio’s hottest-selling loaf right now is the new Granary Loaf made of unbleached wheat flour, Granary Grain Blend (malted wheat, malted rye, barley, malt flour, sugar), yeast and sea salt.

“The Granary Grain Blend is a trademarked and exclusive product we bring in from the U.K.,” Nonni says. “It gives the loaf its characteristic malted flavour.”
Not everyone’s supplier

Nonni’s confidence stems from experience and knowing his customer.
“I don’t think a consumer who has been enjoying our products is suddenly going to go to sliced white bread sold in a plastic bag,” he says.

Nonni also says that he is not trying to be everyone’s bakery.

“You cannot be everybody’s supplier,” he says, “but with education, you can transition to your products those consumers who are already interested and asking questions.”

Education is one of the reasons Nonni personally handles almost all of the company’s wholesale sales, except for the par-baked and frozen items that a wholesaler handles. Michael Whynott, who is part owner of the company and has been involved since its beginning, manages the Pane e Formaggio retail store. With Whynott handling retail operations, Nonni can concentrate on wholesale, developing new products and educating the consumer.

One of the most effective ways to educate the consumer is to participate in demonstrations in retail stores, Nonni says.

“Direct contact with the consumer is very important to me,” he says. “So, as time-consuming and exhausting as the demos are – most take place over weekends – they are worth the trouble as a way of introducing consumers to Pane e Formaggio’s products and hearing consumers’ feedback.”

One of Nonni’s wholesale customers is Urban Fare, an “upscale” gourmet supermarket that is part of the Overwaitea Food Group, which, in turn, is part of the multi-industry Jim Pattison Group. At the three Urban Fare stores, olive oils, cheeses, artisan breads and an extensive organic produce section take up a large part of the floor space, and food demonstrations are a regular weekend occurrence. Pane e Formaggio breads, crisps, granola and the runaway success, Fruit and Nut Scone (priced at $2.99), are prominent in the bakery section.
Supervisor Stacy Fajure is in charge of the bakery and its seven staff members at the year-old Urban Fare Coal Harbour. She says the most popular bread items in her store are organic rye, ancient grain and whole spelt.

“Our average customer is a 30- to 35-year-old who is health-conscious and wants to know about the ingredients and their benefits, the calories and the bakeries,” she says. “They love the demonstrations by our vendors.”
Carrying a large selection of artisan breads and other specialty bakery items from many of the Lower Mainland’s best-known specialty bakeries puts a lot of pressure on the staff, Fajure admits.

“It’s just constant, the drilling of information, because the staff must know each product really well,” she say.

The bright future Nonni sees for artisan breads can only benefit from supermarkets’ strengthening the position of artisan breads as a great choice for consumers.

“I think that once people are accustomed to a certain quality of bread, it is very difficult for them to go back to something that is not as good,” he says. / BJ

Looking for more contact information about those quoted in this story?
Go to www.pane-e-formaggio.com • www.urbanfare.com • www.jimpattison.com. For more on artisan baking, please see the guest column by Sonia Akbarzadeh at www.bakersjournal.com.

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