DALLAS — Bulbous-headed restaurant mascots and TV advertisements proclaim the news: Bread is back.
With the Atkins low-carb craze of 2003-04 a crusted-over memory for many, restaurateurs are pushing past the bread dread and heavily promoting artisan offerings, whole-grain loaves and other yeasty treats.
And consumers are eating it up.
"Because of the low-carb craze, people came back to bread with a vengeance," said Tammy Bailey, vice president for menu marketing and promotions with San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. The fast-food company has reported better-than-expected earnings as higher-end items such ciabatta bread sandwiches boosted sales.
"They really love their bread now," she said.
And with the introduction of more whole-grain options, bread has moved off the "guilty pleasures" list, where it lingered during the height of the low-carbohydrate juggernaut.
In Billings, many bakers acknowledged the Atkins fad by offering low-carb bread, but say it never really caught on.
At the Log Cabin Bakery, manager Debbie Surwill has a recipe for low-carb bread, but rarely uses it. "I never really got into that diet bread," Surwill said. "We only made it upon request."
Log Cabin customers have long had healthy alternatives like whole-wheat sandwiches and bran muffins, she said.
Bryan Layton, owner of the Great Harvest Bread store in Billings, said the Atkins craze did hurt a little, and for a while the stores offered a low-carb bread.
"When it first came out it was pretty popular," Layton said. "We'd make it two or three times a day. It only lasted maybe a year." Now the store doesn't make low-carb bread at all.
For the 52 weeks ended April 24, 2004, sales of fresh bread at grocery stores fell 2 percent to $5.9 billion, according to ACNielsen. Since then, sales are up 3 percent to $6.1 billion.
Sandwich and bakery restaurants — whose bread and butter is bread and meat — saw sales growth slow slightly as carb-conscious dieters pulled back. But that has changed, too.
U.S. sales at the top 25 sandwich and bakery concepts were $16.7 billion in 2005. That's up 13 percent from 2004, according to a new report from Chicago-based Technomic Information Services. By comparison, sales grew 8.8 percent in 2003.
Restaurant industry experts say the major chains were able to avoid a big fallout from the carb craze because they were quick to respond with wraps, salads and other low-carb options.
The proportion of adults who say they adhere to a low-carb diet is down from about 16 percent in early 2005 to 10 percent this year, said Lawrence Shiman, vice president of Cambridge-based Opinion Dynamics Corp., which specializes in food-service market research.
With the coast largely clear, restaurateurs are being just as quick to unabashedly roll out breads.
In April, Ohio-based Wendy's International Inc. reported a "favorable response from consumers" to its new Frescata deli sandwiches. The line launched earlier in the month, backed by a national advertising campaign.
The highly publicized "Bread is Back" promotion by Jack in the Box — complete with its own www.breadisback.com Web site and a commercial featuring the company's round-headed pitchman — has helped plump up sales of its ciabatta sandwiches since the campaign launched last year.
Bailey declined to give sales figures but said the sandwiches were "doing much better than we ever expected."
The bread-boosting campaign was "our little way of poking fun at the craze," she said.
Not to be outdone by the burgermeisters, traditional sandwich players are also lengthening their bread lines.
Using the same "bread is back" tag line, Atlanta-based Blimpie International Inc. also launched a line of ciabatta sandwiches last year featuring "premium meats and freshly baked artisan bread."
"They have done phenomenally well," said Mark Mears, chief marketing officer for Blimpie, adding that the new sandwiches on average account for 15 percent of sales and can be as much as 30 percent in some markets.
At its peak, the chain's carb counter menu amounted to only 10 percent of sales and is no longer available nationally.
"Restaurants have done an about-face," said Joel Cohen, owner of the Cohen Marketing Group in Raleigh, N.C. "But it's not one done with any embarrassment.
"I see this as a way to market to a broader audience. Also, it's a way to get an edge on the competition."
And it's a way to boost the size of the average check because chains generally charge top dollar for specialty sandwiches.
"Consumers are willing to pay a bit of a premium because it's artisan bread," said Bailey of Jack in the Box, which counts Texas as its second-largest market. "It's not mass-produced — it's more handmade."
That may be, but with prices close to $6 for offerings such as the chipotle chicken ciabatta sandwich, some consumers balk at forking over that much dough.
"I'm trying to eat cheap," said 22-year Dennis Daoust, finishing up a less expensive sourdough burger at a Jack in the Box on Greenville Avenue in Dallas this week. "That's the whole point of eating at these places, for me."
Restaurateurs are counting on consumers' desire to "trade up" to a higher-quality product, albeit with a higher price tag.
"Going from peanut butter and jelly's white bread to an (artisan bread), it feels good," said Aaron Allen, founder and chief executive of the Quantified Marketing Group, a Heathrow, Fla.-based restaurant marketing firm. "It's an easy indulgence that you can afford."
And the new breads, especially the whole-grain versions, offer sandwich restaurants a chance to market their offerings as healthier than the fare at the burger joint next door.
Experts say that as baby boomers age, the focus on eating healthier will grow.
Sandwich chains in general are already picking up a healthy glow as Subway Restaurants, the nation's most populous restaurant chain, continues to market itself as a healthy fast-food alternative.
— The Gazette's Jasa Santos contributed to this report.