Bagel Baker, Sandwich Maker Philip Smith’s new menu helps transform Bruegger’s from bagel bakery to fast-casual cafe.
By Monica Rogers
Executive Chef Philip Smith has broadened Bruegger’s menu with salads, upscale sandwiches and indulgent sweets.
Whole wheat, barley, sunflower seeds, flax, pumpkin seeds, rye, malted wheat flakes, millet, buckwheat and corn pack nutrition into Bruegger’s new whole-wheat bagel.
Giving guests more reasons to trade up from bagels and cream cheese, Bruegger’s just launched two new hearty breakfast wraps.
The best-selling Cranberry Gobbler tops roast turkey with cheddar cheese, whole-berry sauce, lettuce, red-onion rings, cucumbers and sprouts. It’s shown here on a Softwich, Bruegger’s square bagel.
The only obvious holes that Bruegger’s has left unfilled in its menu morph from bagel bakery to fast-casual cafe are the ones in its bagels. “We want guests to love our new look and menu but cherish us for our authentic, kettle-cooked bagels,” says Philip Smith, executive chef of the Burlington, Vt.-based chain. “That tradition’s not changing.”
A whole lot else has since CEO James Greco set out to strengthen ailing 240-unit Bruegger’s two years ago. The company has broadened its menu with cafe-style items like salads, upscale sandwiches and more indulgent sweets; remodeled stores with a warmer, more contemporary look; and shaped a next-generation prototype.
And company sales are starting to pick up speed. They built slowly through 2005 with monthly volumes averaging 2 percent higher than the prior year, finishing the fourth quarter with same-store sales 5 percent higher than the same period in 2004.
“It’s very gratifying to see this taking hold,” says Smith, who stepped over to menu development from a director of training position two months before Greco came on board in 2003.
“It all coincides very nicely with the evolution of consumer interest away from low-carb toward healthy and flavorful offerings.”
Going with the Grain
Requests for low-carb have steadily declined to the point that Bruegger’s dropped its low-carb wrap in fall, in favor of a more flavorful whole-wheat wrap. Smith also launched a hearty whole-wheat bagel made with barley, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax, rye, malted wheat flakes, millet, buckwheat and corn, that’s more on point with customers’ new desires.
“I knew that when the pendulum swung away from low-carb, the next thing was going to have something to do with artisanal craftsmanship and healthy basics, and that includes whole grains,” he says.
Artisanal and healthful are the objectives in Bruegger’s new items like the top-selling whole-wheat bagel and the sourdough bagel, slated for a mid-March launch, as well as the menu sections Smith shaped for 2004 and tweaked in 2005.
“Everything happened in two phases,” Smith explains. “There was first the quick-change, 90-day plan, where we introduced the new programs, followed by the second phase where we built on the strengths and adapted what we felt could work better.”
Bruegger’s launch of salad in November 2003, for example, included four varieties, such as the Mandarin Medley, $5.19, with Mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, blue cheese and greens, tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with almonds. According to Smith, the salads did all right, coming in at 3 percent of sales and acting as a veto-vote-stopper, but he thought they could do better.
He switched to tossed-to-order service in April 2005 and added a $5.99 Build Your Own Salad option, allowing guests to choose three veggies, one meat and one cheese.
Vice President of Marketing Scott Hughes reports that salad sales have doubled since the April change and that half the guests choosing salad now order the build-your-own option.
Sandwiches Go Beyond the Bagel
Arlene Spiegel, a New York-based restaurant consultant, says the timing is right for Bruegger’s to move beyond bagels: “There is a great opportunity today to sell what you have all day, in all sorts of creative ways, without creating confusion in the consumer’s mind about what you are.”
Sun Capital Partners, Boca Raton, Fla.
2005 Systemwide Sales
Average Unit Volume
30 in 2006
Bruegger’s new sandwiches fit that strategy. Smith upgraded ingredients and added some adventuresome flavors. He first added the top-selling Cuban Chicken, $5.29, in November 2003. The sandwich includes chipotle sauce and Dijon mustard with grilled chicken strips, honey ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce and pickle slices. In September 2005, Smith followed up with the new best-seller, Cranberry Gobbler, $5.49, roast turkey topped with cheddar cheese, whole-berry sauce, lettuce, red-onion rings, cucumbers and sprouts.
Customers can purchase their sandwiches on bagels or pay a buck more to get them on a Softwich (a soft square bagel), stone-hearth honey-wheat bread or a whole-wheat wrap.
Smith bolstered the soup line in November 2003 with heartier offerings such as Italian Wedding Soup with Pecorino Romano cheese, spinach, pearl pasta, meatballs, spices and celery, $2.79 per cup, and then extended the line in 2005 to include several organic vegetarian options from the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. One popular example: Moroccan Stew, $2.79, blends cabbage, cumin, red peppers and chickpeas in vegetarian broth.
Smith has yet to quantify changes in sales or satisfaction in response to the new soups. “We’ll be looking at those results through winter before determining whether more changes are necessary,” he says.
To stay on trend, Smith works closely with his field team, the director of operations, purchasing department and vice president of training. He also looks throughout the industry for new ideas, as well as sifting through decades of wide-ranging culinary influences.
With dad in the British Army and mom from British India, Smith’s globetrotting childhood included years in Germany, the United States and West Africa. “Mother entertained weekly and made all sorts of world foods,” he says. “So I come to my love of food from a global perspective.”
Following hospitality-management training in England, Smith worked for a small luxury hotel there. He followed that with a formal externship in Switzerland and cooking stints in St. Moritz and Tuscany. Smith also taught for five years at the New England Culinary Institute before coming to Bruegger’s in October 2002.
Smith has borrowed flavors from the Orient and Latin America for Bruegger’s menu, but what about Tuscany and India? “I do have some Tuscan flavors in use, and may do more with that, but wouldn’t chicken tikka with a curry mayonnaise be nice?” he laughs. “Well, the curry may be a bit before its time.”
Smith says while he will push the envelope as far as possible, the aim is to hit that sweet spot of comfortable but intriguing: “You know, keep one foot in safe territory but the other on new ground.”
Hearty and Indulgent
No pushing the envelope at breakfast and for dessert, however; here, objectives are to go heartier and more indulgent. “We wanted to give our guests more opportunities to trade up from a bagel and cream cheese at breakfast, and from a cookie at dessert,” Smith says.
Bruegger’s added two hearty breakfast wraps in January. The Classic, $3.99, includes choice of peppered bacon, sausage patty or honey ham plus cheddar or Muenster cheese and a two-egg omelette. The Rio Grande, $3.99, adds roasted pepper and jalapeo cream cheese to the build.
At dessert, it’s all about indulgence, Smith says. Launched in November 2005, Bruegger’s Worthy dessert bars, $1.69, include the best-selling Seven Layer Bar, with dark chocolate, walnuts, butterscotch, coconut and graham crunch and chocolate kisses. Dessert sales have doubled since the program started.
Room for Improvement
While most of the new items hit the mark, stone-hearth-baked breads have met with muted reception. “The bread was our first attempt to go beyond bagels,” Smith says. “We haven’t yet cracked the code on this.” Bread will continue to augment the bagel lineup, however, and Smith is experimenting with different formulations and loaf sizes. “We’re on to something with this sourdough bagel, for example,” he says. “It really crosses the two categories.”
The jury is also still out on muffins. Bruegger’s first attempt with The Morning Glory, a spin on carrot cake, and Blueberry muffins “allowed us to dip our toe into the snack arena,” Smith explains. Launched along with the new desserts, muffin sales are not available.
Breakfast Classics Western Bagel Sandwich, with egg, roasted peppers, red onions, cheddar, bacon and chipotle sauce, $3.39
Sandwich Classics Leonardo da Veggie: roasted red peppers, Muenster cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion with light herb-garlic cream cheese, on a plain Softwich, $4.99
Deli Sandwiches Chicken Salad: lettuce, tomato, red onion, cucumber, green pepper, sprouts and choice of condiments, $4.19
Tossed for You Salads Sesame Chicken Salad, with grilled chicken strips, sesame seeds, sliced almonds, chow-mein noodles, salad greens and Asian sesame dressing, $5.99