The Changing Cost of Bread Service

Categories: Food Policy

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Photos by Troy Fields
Whipped beet butter at Roost.
Complimentary bread service in restaurants was once as ubiquitous as free chips and salsa at any Tex-Mex spot. And it's still seen in a majority of restaurants, from fast food (free breadsticks at Fazoli's) to high end (a beautiful basket of gratis bread at Triniti).

But as former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni astutely pointed out in 2009, those slices of bread and ramekins of butter aren't as free as you think.

"Their complimentary availability is reflected in prices on the rest of the menu," Bruni wrote. "The restaurant's balance sheet and overall price structure consider the cost of all that bread, much of it neglected."

It's this latter part -- neglected -- that caused Bruni to defend the new practice of charging for bread service in restaurants. Since so many people ignore or pick at the bread basket, he reasoned, restaurants should simply charge those who want bread and reduce the overall cost across the board for the rest of the diners.

"I think of Momofuku Ssam Bar," he wrote of the iconic New York City restaurant. "On its menu, bread and butter are listed on the menu as a dish. But what you get is a terrific crunchy baguette with two exceptional butter or spread options."

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And although that was in 2009, Bruni could have been writing about Roost, the new Montrose bistro from chef Kevin Naderi -- the subject of this week's cafe review.

At Roost, the bread service costs $6 (pickles are an extra $5), but -- as with Momofuku Ssam Bar -- you get a crunchy loaf of bread and your choice of two whipped butters. The loaf of bread comes from Slow Dough, and sometimes it's two exaggeratedly large pretzels instead of a rough-edged, hearty pain de campagne. And the whipped butter selection changes from week to week: beets, blue cheese, bacon...

Is it worth $6? If you're a fan of thoughtful bread service or just well-made bread in general...sure. If you're the type of diner who picks at the bread basket like me? No, of course not.

But that's the beauty of non-complimentary bread service: Diners aren't tempted to fill up on the free stuff just because it's there, and those who don't want bread aren't forced to pay for it in the overall cost of their dinner.

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Photo by Sifu Renka
Bread service at L20 in Chicago.
At a time when high-end restaurants are being judged on their bread service as much as the rest of the meal -- seriously, a tough Sysco dinner roll can easily be that one flat tuba note in an otherwise beautifully composed evening -- it makes sense that restaurants would elevate bread to a menu item equal to other appetizers or small plates. And it's certainly easier to justify extra effort or cost for a truly good product when you're charging diners for it.

What's more interesting to me is that in three short years, diners seem to have fallen in line with Bruni's suggestion -- or at least those dining at Roost. For all the negative remarks I've heard about Roost (they've been few, but consistent) from other diners, not one has been about the cost of its bread service. Instead, a handful of the many good things I've heard about Roost from people are compliments on that delicious bread.

Six dollars or not.



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Location Info

Roost

1972 Fairview St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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14 comments
ec
ec

You're not paying for the bread, you're paying for the flavored butters.  If the bread is good, there's no need to put flavored butters on it.

Bradg
Bradg

I'm happy to pay for good bread in a restaurant...and happy NOT to have bad or mediocre bread cluttering up my table/stomach for free.  I love that it can be my decision and I'm okay with $5-6 dollars for it!

Klipschorn22
Klipschorn22

About time, this. So many SouthBeach diet-type carb haters around now. But more to point: it's unfair to spread the cost to those who love bread, to those who don't want it.

The old system is like serving bottled water to all and up-ing the prices to everyone to cover. Yeah duh

Urban Swank
Urban Swank

How many of us nibble on that "free" bread and find ourselves full before we receive our main course? I am in full support of bread being on the menu (if it is good, of course) and supporting small businesses is a plus. It does seem to help me in those times when carbs are not my friend. :-)

Schwarzestiefel
Schwarzestiefel

If it's a whole loaf of bread, that I can take home afterwards and make sandwiches or croutons out of, then $6 is reasonable.  Because I can buy a great chewy whole grain sourdough  loaf at many places around town for around $5.  But if it's a single roll or a batard or even a single baguette, then no, that's outrageous. Especially if it's only one variety and not a selection.

ShitThrowingMonkey
ShitThrowingMonkey

This reminds me of Amazon and their formerly free salad bar.  That was the thing that put that restaurant over the top for me.  And I identified Amazon with the free salad bar.  When I found that they started charging for the salad, I really wondered why they wouldn't just raise prices across the board rather than get rid of something that customers felt synonymous with their service.

Bruce R
Bruce R

Love a good bread service.  For example, the infinite bread sticks at Olive Garden. OK, maybe they're not technically infinite, but they'll bring you as many as you can keep down. Free.

Joestarktx
Joestarktx

I don't mind paying for bread service, but I feel it should be an item the server offers or at least 'by request' it pains me to see untouched bread thrown away at the end of the meal.

melissa
melissa

If it's really good bread, I'm happy to shell out some money for it.

HansardG
HansardG

I've gotten a free loaf at Haven. Sure, they're a little small but.....

Jim T.
Jim T.

 If I didn't know you, Bruce, I would almost think you were serious.  Almost.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Every place I've seen that charges for bread service offers it by request as a menu item. I'd be quick to call out any sneaky buggers otherwise...

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Agreed. And you're usually supporting a local small business when you do so, which I'm just as happy to do.

Erik
Erik

 I think Joe's saying he okay with paying, but if it's free it should only be given to those who want it -- so that it doesn't go to waste.  I'd agree with that, but I hate when the server forgets to offer it and late in the meal I notice other tables feasting on amazing looking bread.

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