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February 11, 2013
February 15, 2013

Restaurants are rethinking the bread basket.

And while bread – preferably free, warm and served with soft butter—is how many diners expect to start a restaurant meal, intense changes in the restaurant industry is changing what diners first munch on at the table.

Some restaurants are dropping the tradition to save money. Others are putting less bread in the basket, or bringing it only on request. Conversely, many high-end restaurants are working to raise the standard on bread baskets from a dining afterthought to dining experience, and sometimes at a charge.

For noticeable freshness, restaurant chefs are making bread from scratch, adding flavors like bacon or serving it with unusual dips and spreads, like whipped ricotta with honey.  People have come to expect “artisan style” bread.  A higher-quality bread has become more common across the country.

Bread facts:
*  Restaurants say most people like soft, sweet butter. Some eateries use less expensive butter with less fat, then whip to add creaminess. 
*  Diners eat an average of 2.4 biscuits per visit.
*  Eating a piece of white bread on an empty stomach is like eating the same amount of sugar, which raises glucose levels.

While some chefs still make their bread from scratch, many mid-tier restaurants are trying to kick the bread-basket habit. Some are putting less bread in the basket, bringing it later in the meal or offering it only upon request to cut consumption.

Americans are attached to the bread-basket custom. Some restaurants became more casual as World War I approached. Many lowered prices to appeal to middle- and working-class diners. When some tried to charge about 10 cents for bread and butter, there was public outcry. 

Slightly fewer people are expected to visit restaurants in 2013 compared with 2012, after several years of weak restaurant visits.  Many restaurants don’t want to start to get them full of bread and they haven’t even had a chance to think about their entree. Usually warm bread arrives after orders are taken, an increasingly common restaurant practice.

Butter is generally the biggest bread-basket expense. Close as quality expectations rise, diners still prefer softer-style breads and sweet, creamy butter.  Most diners say they want hard and sourdough and multigrain, but in fact eat dinner rolls and bagels.

Airy whipped butter is loved by U.S. consumers, and it allows restaurants to serve less-expensive, lower-fat butter while maintaining a creamy taste. While whipping, many restaurants add herbs or salt.

Nutritionally speaking, eating white bread before a meal is like eating an equivalent amount of sugar. Glucose levels surge when a person eats highly processed bread, as opposed to stone-ground, whole-grain bread, on an empty stomach. Those glucose levels then crash, making people feel hungrier later in the meal. Eating less bread with more olive oil or butter, he says, is better than bread alone because digestion slows, limiting the crash effect.

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