Colorado restaurants serving free bread, chips less and less often

In the grand scheme of life’s disappointments, losing free carbs at restaurants may not rank quite as high as, say, getting passed over for a dream job or being left at the altar. But still, the fact that complimentary bread at restaurants and bars — as well as chips and salsa, popcorn, nuts and whatever else we used to gnaw on pre-meal — has become an endangered species is a dining downer.

Noticing that the bread basket is increasingly missing when we sit down for dinner, we wondered: Is free bread dead? And if so, what killed it? Was it gluten-free diets that landed the first punch? Did COVID wriggle in the knife? And did massive inflation — in rents, wages, food costs and, well, pretty much everything — hammer the final nail into bread’s yeasty, baguette-sized coffin?

Up until about a month ago, Tavernetta dropped off free focaccia at every table, a rich, olive oil-filled welcome offering to guests. But making that bread is incredibly labor-intensive, not to mention that the costs of the ingredients that go into it have skyrocketed. The restaurant didn’t take the decision to start charging for those squares of bread lightly, discussing it internally for a year before pulling the free focaccia plug.

“It was a big change for Tavernetta,” said the restaurant’s pastry chef, Charlene Vogel. “A lot has to do with labor costs and the inflation of product. With labor factored in, we were spending roughly $60,000-plus in bread a year.”

That’s a lot of money for an industry that hasn’t exactly had the best couple of years. Charging for the bread — $6 for a good chunk of a loaf served with garlic conserva — is also helpful in cutting down on the restaurant’s food waste. Instead of tossing uneaten bread from diners who didn’t really want it in the first place, those ordering it are eating every last crumb. “We hardly see any bread come back on the plate. Across the board, it’s a lot less waste,” Vogel said.

Another plus: Making less bread frees up Vogel and other staffers’ time to focus on pastry, and eliminating the free bread has specifically led to a more robust cake program as well as new dessert specials.

“This is a big change. We’re always trying to give the best to our guests, and the thought of taking away the free bread wasn’t even on the table [for a long time]. But we didn’t want to start using product that wasn’t as good, just because we can’t afford it. [Charging] hasn’t affected guests that much, but it’s been a big change for labor. We decided to go for it and, honestly, we’ve had nothing but support from our guests,” Vogel said.

Many new restaurants are opting to charge for carbs from the get-go, with bread and butter kicking off menus at recently opened spots like Noisette, The Greenwich, Chez Maggy and Brasserie Brixton, ranging in price from $7 to $9. The same goes for chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants. What used to be a routinely free appetizer now either comes with a price tag or is missing altogether. But with the upcharge can also come an uptick in quality.

“Our salsas are different — you don’t sit down and get a ramekin of tomato water and call it salsa,” said Joe Mazzocco, owner of Mama Lolita’s Mexican in Broomfield, which opened earlier this summer. “Everything we do is from scratch, and that’s our reasoning for charging. Everything is a little more elevated.”

The chips and salsa at Mama Lolita’s certainly go beyond tomato water. For $9 you get your choice of three salsas, ranging from a seasonal fruit to grilled tomatillo verde, served with a mound of fresh-made chips.

Bars are pulling the free stuff too; finding complimentary nuts, popcorn or pretzels is about as rare as finding single-digit priced cocktails. Then again, fishing through a communal bowl of nuts just isn’t that appealing in a pandemic. (Was it ever?)

Some spots, though, are holding on to the free bread tradition. Il Posto still serves not one, but two varieties of complimentary bread, a house-baked herb and onion-topped focaccia and a crusty ciabatta sourced from Grateful Bread. Tyler Gallup, director of operations at Il Posto, said that the restaurant spends more than $35,000 on bread a year, and that they did, at one point, put the free bread on the chopping block.

“We tried to start charging,” Gallup said. “During the pandemic, we had to find a way to recoup our losses. We didn’t want to cut bread out altogether, so charging for it was our only option. But in the end, we are an Italian restaurant, and as such are naturally gracious hosts. Part of the journey in an Italian meal is breaking bread with the other people you are dining with. To take that away is taking a piece of who we are away, which is why we went back to making it complimentary.”

The floury compromise is that Il Posto gives the first round of bread for free, but charges for refills.

So we guess free bread isn’t all the way dead, but it is on life support, gasping for air and clinging to every crumb. With the costs of so many things continuing to rise, it may be only a matter of time before complimentary chips and salsa, bread, popcorn and other pre-meal freebies become relics of snacks past.

RIP, free carbs.

Subscribe to our new food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox.

Source: Read Full Article