Imagine a line of people, waiting patiently—sometimes for quite a long stretch—for toast. It happens regularly at The Mill in San Francisco, where happy customers pay $3.50 for a slice of toast slathered with something tasty. It’s been elevated from a homespun breakfast staple to an artisanal, premium comfort food item. The Mill offers a number of options, from a thick slab of fresh-baked, dark mountain rye served with cream cheese, salt and pepper, to country bread with butter and house apple butter. At Sqirl in Los Angeles, house-baked burnt brioche toast is topped with a combination of blueberry-rhubarb preserves with housemade ricotta.
“Toast is the comfort food we didn’t know we wanted,” says Food IQ’s Mindy Armstrong. “Carefully selected bread toasted to perfection is the perfect carrier for a variety of toppings.”
Although some may dismiss the toast trend as a short-lived, hipster-driven fad, toast shows promise and potential for menus nationwide. When executed well—with attention paid to quality and craftsmanship—it can live happily on breakfast menus as a premium offering, it can reside on bar snack menus as a shareable or quick afternoon bite, and it can add depth to an appetizer menu. Datassential found that 63 percent of consumers said they are likely to try artisanal toast at a restaurant.
It’s already playing across the country. At Canteen 3255 in Minneapolis, diners can customize their toast at the buffet-style toast bar. For $2.50 an order, plus 75 cents per topping, guests can choose from a currant-walnut sourdough, baguette or multi-grain bread, then top it with Hope Creamery butter, Beez Kneez buckwheat honey, maple-almond butter, cinnamon sugar, mashed avocado and sea salt, peanut butter, strawberry balsamic-black pepper jelly or raspberry-green tea jam. Notice the attention to both the bread and the spreads. In Seattle, Toast Ballard features an expansive menu of 14 toast builds (priced at $3 each) on a choice of Pullman bread or gluten-free bread. Spreads and toppings range from spiced apple butter and blue cheese to an olive salad and provolone blend.
When searching for the evolution of this trend, a few building blocks help build toast up and make it prime for adaptation. “In recent years, there was interest in focaccia, ciabatta, naan and pretzel bread,” says Laura McGuire, editorial manager at Technomic. “Now it’s turned to more traditional breads, like biscuits, toast, Irish soda bread and beer bread.” And if searching for an example of a successful predecessor, look no further than bruschetta. Once an Italian starter, it’s now a most common American appetizer.
Another driver for the toast trend springs from the continued quest for signature flavor innovations based on familiar formats—for which toast is a shoo-in—as well as a longing for real food linked to traditional foodways. “Though late to the artisanal food party, the elevation of toast is a natural extension of the revival of bread-making in America,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “Toasts are excellent platforms for chefs to show off creativity and the quality of ingredients due to their ease of preparation and versatility.”
A Toast to Opportunity
Success here lies in capturing the spirit of authenticity, craftsmanship and comfort that toast offers. “There is an opportunity to showcase new bread varieties, flavorings and forms,” says chef-consultant Rick Perez. “Breads are a natural in this category. Flour, yeast, water, fat and seasonings are easy profit boosters when the appropriate skills are involved.” Those skills include flavor innovation in toppings. Although consumers are responding to the comforting familiarity of the platform, they seek interesting flavor combinations, eager for revelatory discovery. The toast strategy must include that.
Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles features a rotating menu of toast both during its brunch and dinner services. At five dollars, offerings include toast with espresso-maple, sea salt and tangerine marmalade, and fresh pea-avocado mash with spring radish. “We started the toast menu because it was such a hot trend coming out of San Francisco,” says Kajsa Alger, co-owner and chef of Mud Hen. Her signature toast is Coconut Kaya with Soft Egg and Dark Soy, based on a common snack in Malaysia and Singapore. “We sell the toast as a share for the table because it’s such a great way to start the meal,” she says. “At brunch, the toast serves as an appetizer, creating an opportunity where there usually isn’t one.”
As crucial as the topping is the bread. Whether it’s baked in-house, sourced from a community bakery or a premium national brand, the bread has to spark interest and invite trial. “For operators looking to get in on the action, it’s important to move beyond commodity,” says Michael Parlapiano, senior strategist with The Culinary Edge. “It’s not just flavor and quality of ingredients that will win consumers over; texture and character are just as important.”
To help signal an elevated toast experience, look to interesting bread varieties and flavors. Rustic presentation is a good thing. “Go with rounds, planks, long bias, thick and thin, and other unorthodox forms and sizes to connote that this is not your average experience,” says chef Rob Corliss. “Toast can transcend breakfast, moving into lunch, snacking, dinner and late night.”
The opportunity for toast in the burgeoning snack category cannot be understated. At Superba Food & Bread in Los Angeles, Executive Chef Jason Travi says he added the toast section as a vehicle for the restaurant’s expansive bread program. “It’s a great way to get people to understand the detail and craftsmanship that goes into our breads,” he says. “It goes beyond breakfast and lunch, and sells as a snack throughout the day.” Items include the bestselling avocado toast with pickled Fresno chiles, red radish sprouts, cilantro and sea salt. “My favorite is a Middle Eastern-style toast with muhammara, which is a walnut-pomegranate spread, along with burrata and pickled radish,” says Travi. At New York’s The Shakespeare, diners can order from an Afternoon Toast and Bar Bites menu, which includes pickled pears and Stilton on a toasted baguette with a Port wine reduction and ricotta with olive oil, herbs and aged balsamic on toasted sourdough.
Flavor Innovation via Toast
As toast is such a familiar, beloved item, it provides a safe platform from which to launch more adventurous flavors. “Toast acts as a gateway, or as the calmer, less-threatening counterpiece to what the bread is partnered with,” says Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides. “Toast is the little doorman that welcomes you in before you enter the party.” Global exploration can provide plenty of inspiration from regions where toast already has a foothold. Consider the Asian kaya toast, slathered with comforting kaya (coconut jam) and sweet and/or savory toppings. In Nashville, Tenn., Tavern’s version sticks to the classic prep, spread with kaya and served with an over-easy egg and sweet soy sauce. At Sa-Tén Coffee & Eats in Austin, Texas, a Japanese-influenced toast menu includes builds ranging from Sriracha Mayo Smoked Salmon Toast to the Teriyaki Curry Chicken Toast, topped with Japanese curry, teriyaki chicken thigh, cabbage, Kewpie mayo, picked vegetables and mozzarella. Back in Los Angeles, Hinoki & the Bird’s chef Kuniko Yagi’s top-selling toasts include a variety with miso jam, goat cheese, a drizzle of honey and pumpkin seeds, along with the Chili Crab Toast, with spicy cucumber and coriander.
Pulling from flavors closer to home, toast can anchor a more adventurous offering while still letting it soar with premium elements. At Vernick in Philadelphia, the toast menu includes seven selections, including charred spinach and fontina for $10 or beef tartare and fresh horseradish for $15. The Rib Room in New Orleans serves a Wild Mushroom Toast at brunch with black truffle and a fried quail egg. At Nomi in Chicago, diners can order the elegant Uni Avocado Toast, which combines sea urchin with Mangalica ham, avocado, capers and scallion on brioche toast. Or they can go with something more familiar but equally tempting in the Cheddar Scramble Toast with Nueske’s bacon and aged Wisconsin cheddar served on country toast with scallion and cream cheese.
“Toasted bread translates to menus at every level—from neighborhood bistros simply serving it with flavored butters and jams, to upscale restaurants utilizing it as a key selling point on charcuterie boards, and fast-casual operations taking more interest in toasted bread options,” says KOR Food Innovation’s Seeratt Dutt. Clearly, toast is an opportunity to create artisanal distinction on a product based on comfort and familiarity, a perfect formula for flavor innovation.
“The big questions will be how far operators can push price before hitting a value perception wall,” says Datassential’s Webster. “How broadly can the high-priced toast trend move in this country? I absolutely believe toast will continue to work its way through the trend cycle with countless interpretations and presentations, constantly reinventing what is both old and familiar into something that is new and unique.”