Bread rises, and not just from yeast

Around the world there’s growing talk about food crisis as grain prices soar and supplies plummet. They’re talking food riots. And the American Bakers Association marched on Washington.

Meanwhile, in the breadbasket of the nation (a.k.a. Kansas), the price of bread rose yesterday in its best-known bakery, WheatFields. Nobody rioted.

“Today’s the day,” Thom Leonard announced when I met him at WheatFields Bakery in Lawrence. “We raised our prices today. Two months too late, but we did it.”

The price increases were small by most measures. The bakery formerly listed prices with tax included as a convenience, such as a baguette formerly selling for $2.50, or $2.33 before sales tax. Now a WheatFields baguette is selling for $2.50 plus tax, for a total of $2.68. (The government gets an extra penny with the higher price.) It added up to about a 7 percent increase on most loaves, more on whole wheat. Leonard worries a little that WheatFields didn't raise prices enough, although the increase is adequate for the moment.

WheatFields is hardly alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the price index for cereal and bakery products rose 1.8 percent in February compared with January, its largest monthly advance since January 1975. It was the first increase at WheatFields in about a year and a half, but the price before that had been in place for longer than Leonard can remember.

Diane Simpson, a regular customer, said the increase wouldn’t cause her to reduce her purchases. “The quality at WheatFields is very important to any of us who want local products and want the best quality,” she said. “People are willing to pay a little bit more.”

Indeed, Leonard, who is head baker and co-manager of the artisan bakery that has been cited, among other places, in "Artisan Baking" by Maggie Glezer (also known as "Artisan Baking Across America" in an earlier incarnation) and in Bon Appetit, said the only comment he got yesterday from a customer about the new prices was "'I understand.'"

WheatFields was able to delay a price increase because, at least with artisan bread, flour is a small percentage of bread cost. Leonard cited labor and other overhead as significantly bigger concerns. As an example, he said a baguette requires 0.44 pound of flour. That calculates to about 15 cents six months ago, versus about 24 cents today. It’s a big jump, but still a relatively small portion of the total cost.

WheatFields’ bread-baking approach includes a wood-fired oven, natural levain, and organic flour from Heartland Mill of Marienthal, Kansas, for all its breads. WheatFields paid $17 six months ago for a 50-pound bag of organic flour compared with $27 for the same quantity today, a 59 percent increase. Ironically, the conventional flour it buys for use in some of the bakery’s pastry goods has risen significantly more, from $12 to $25 for 50 pounds, a 108 percent bump that makes it nearly the same price as organic. Leonard said the conventional price is so close to organic now that the bakery is talking about eliminating conventional flour altogether.

WheatFields placed lime-green notices on tables in its restaurant to explain the price increase, citing a bad crop last year (in Kansas and Australia, at least), “commodity market speculation, growing world demand for wheat products, shrinking reserves and ethanol subsidies. All contribute and all are connected.”

At the bottom of the sheet, Leonard included a favorite quote: “Oh, God! That bread should be so dear, and flesh and blood so cheap!” attributed to Thomas Hood, 1799-1845. Leonard said, however, he was tempted to amend it to say that bread should be so dear and biofuels so cheap.

Photos by Janet Majure

One Responseto “Bread rises, and not just from yeast”

  1. I had an interesting experience related to wheat prices the other day. I stopped in a bagel shop to get a few bagels and saw that the owners had posted about five articles about the recent rise in wheat prices, including one from New York that was specifically about bagels. I'm guessing that a price increase was in their recent past or is slated for the near future. It seems like a good idea to me, as most customers will probably be less hostile to price increases if they are told why it is happening.