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Ones to Watch | By Judy Kneiszel

Wildflower Bread Co.

It takes three days to make the bread at the core of the Wildflower Bread Co. menu, but founder and president Louis Basile is not looking to speed up the process.

“When we started we said, ‘Let’s make world-class bread,’ so we only serve artisan bread—old-world hard-crusted bread,” Basile says. “That will never change.”

The bread includes caraway rye, ciabatta, French baguette, herb, honey-wheatberry, nine-grain, sourdough, Vienna, and whole-wheat cinnamon-raisin, nut varieties. It is mixed and shaped at a commercial kitchen then delivered in refrigerated trucks to individual restaurant locations where it rises and is baked each day directly on the hearth floor in imported deck ovens.

Basile says when he and his wife, Tracy, opened the first Wildflower Bread Company location in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1996, locals didn’t have much choice when it came to bread and sandwiches.

“I was raised in New Jersey in an Italian family, and bread was a huge piece of any meal,” he says. “I looked around Arizona and no one was baking really good bread.”

Basile’s concept started with bread and then he asked himself what went best with bread. The answer evolved into a multi-page menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches. Bakery sales have remained between 7 and 10 percent of total sales.

“If we were depending on bakery sales alone, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but people will try the bread, and if the bread is good, they figure maybe the food is good,” Basile says. “Our menu items are timeless. Our best sellers are things we developed 12 years ago.”

One of those best sellers is the Roast Beef & Gorgonzola sandwich with roasted red pepper, red onion, romaine lettuce, tomato, and herb mayo on sourdough for $6.89.

“In 1996 it was pretty bold to combine those ingredients,” Basile says. “We were trying to give consumers food they’d heard of but didn’t think of combining. We wanted to create interesting sandwiches made with a bunch of ingredients.”

Another unusual feature of Wildflower Bread Co. for 1996 diners was that while they ordered at the counter, they could sit down and have their food, silverware, and napkin brought out to them.

“That was forward thinking back then,” Basile says. “We also check back with the customer to make sure the food is OK and thank them for coming in. We offer all the benefits of quick-serve but let customers relax like they are in a full-service restaurant.”

A second Wildflower Bread Co. location opened in Tempe in 1999 and with it came the addition of breakfast. The breakfast menu includes pancakes made from Wildflower’s proprietary recipe and served with real maple syrup—a small touch that sets his restaurants apart, Basile says. Also on the breakfast menu: stuffed French toast made with Wildflower’s sourdough bread and several varieties of egg sandwiches on Wildflower’s ciabatta rolls.

Wildflower Bread Co.

PRESIDENT: Louis Basile

HQ: Scottsdale, Arizona

YEAR STARTED: 1996

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 9

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

WEB SITE: www.wildflowerbread.com

“We had to be there in the mornings to get ready for lunch anyway, and we weren’t doing the kind of business we wanted so we started breakfast,” Basile says.

With breakfast and lunch covered, Basile still wasn’t where he wanted to be, so in 2002 he introduced pasta dishes to attract more of a dinner crowd.

“We were trying to get the man side of the equation,” he says. “Ladies are happy with soups, salads, and sandwiches for dinner, but men want something hot and hearty so we added pasta as the dinner piece available after 3 p.m.”

Pasta dishes like Butternut Squash Ravioli topped with walnut cream sauce and nutmeg for $7.79 or Lemon Garlic Penne with roasted garlic, onion, spinach, tomato, ricotta, lemon, and basil in Alfredo sauce for $7.29 have resulted in a 30/40/30 breakfast/lunch/dinner split at Wildflower.

Through the years Wildflower Bread Co. has added locations throughout Arizona, growing the chain to nine locations. New stores in Flagstaff and Scottsdale are scheduled to open in 2009. All locations are about 4,000 square feet with seating for about 100 guests inside and 35 to 40 more outdoors. Each location has a different décor.

“The restaurants fit the neighborhood,” Basile says. “They all have a different focal point, mural, or color palette. That really helps consumers have a stronger emotional connection. Like, ‘This is my Wildflower.’”

Wildflower Bread Co. stores are also very involved in their communities.

“Being involved in the community is a business responsibility,” Basile says. “We belong to every chamber where we operate, and we have a ‘Dough on the Go’ program where 10 percent of baguette sales are donated to at-risk schools in Arizona.”

The Arizona communities that are home to Wildflower Bread Co. restaurants are in need of a little help right now. Phoenix, for example, is the most distressed retail area in the country, according to Basile.

“Wildflower is really holding its own in this economy,” he says. “Our same-store sales have been flat, which is amazing.”

And even in these trying times, Basile’s philosophy of quality is unwavering.

“We can’t be all things to all consumers,” he says. “But our general rule is that if we don’t think we’re serving the best—the gold standard—we won’t serve it.”