Great Harvest Bread Co. bread baking
Great Harvest Bread Co. has evolved from offering freshly baked bread from its originally sourced Montana wheat to a full bakery-cafe profile.

DILLON, MONT. — The up-and-coming freedom-franchise Great Harvest Bread Co. was founded in 1976 as a small bakery in Montana and has now grown to over 200 bakery and cafe franchises in the United States. The company has evolved from offering freshly baked bread from its originally sourced Montana wheat to a full bakery-cafe profile.

The products the company offers include bread, as well as soups, salads, cinnamon rolls, breakfast biscuits, and its newly introduced grain bowls. Great Harvest also underwent a leadership change in January with a new business plan that will allow franchises to access downtown areas with smaller franchises.

The freedom franchise model distinguishes Great Harvest from other bakery-cafe franchises. Under this model, there are some basic requirements each franchise must fulfill, but franchise owners are mostly free to create an environment that they see as best for the local community.

Eric Keshin, Great Harvest Bread Co.
Eric Keshin, president of Great Harvest

“We want to fit, we want to be that local, natural fresh resource of everything made from scratch for our customers, and we want to look and feel local,” Eric Keshin, president of Great Harvest, told Milling & Baking News in a recent interview.

Each franchise is privately owned and individually run, and may adapt to local tastes. They have the freedom to rename products, change prices, tweak the recipes of products such as bread, sandwiches and salads. All of the wheat that goes into the products must still be sourced from Montana, though, from what Mr. Keshin likes to call the “Golden Triangle.”

Great Harvest Bread Co.
Each Great Harvest franchise is privately owned, individually run and may adapt to local tastes.

“We source all of the wheat from the great triangle in Montana, which I have kind of described as the Napa Valley of wheat,” Mr. Keshin said. “It’s where the best tasting wheat in the world comes from… They must source the wheat from where we source the wheat, from those farmers in Montana, in the Golden Triangle.”

In addition to these franchise owners’ freedom to tweak recipes and such, they are also free to source all of the produce and proteins locally. There is also no set store design, and local owners may have new designs approved to fit local communities.

“We just opened a store in Dallas that has a very western feel to it, and in fact that particular store just opened, and they’re selling beer and wine, and they’re open for dinner and they stay open until 8 or 10 at night,” Mr. Keshin said.

Great Harvest Bread Co., Dallas
Great Harvest recently opened a store in Dallas that sells beer and wine alongside its baked products.

Great Harvest bakeries have joined in the growing trend of on-site milling of wheat. Every bakery that bakes bread mills the wheat every day, rather than a central distributing milling location.

Grain bowls join the menu

Since opening as a bakery in the 1970s, Great Harvest has evolved to a bakery-cafe style. After introducing sandwiches, the company moved to salads and now has four salad recipes. The salads evolved into the chain's newest product, called the grain bowl. This product simply adds a roasted grain component to the salads. The grains include wheat berry, quinoa and numerous seeds.

Great Harvest Bread Co. grain bowl
Great Harvest's newest product is the grain bowl, which adds a roasted grain component to its salads.

“What is interesting about the grain bowl is anything in a bowl is pretty hot, and we are able to serve that with the best tasting wheat in the world,” Mr. Keshin said. “We’ve just introduced them in a couple of stores… The store that just opened in Texas, we are selling it there, and it’s doing quite well.”

Mr. Keshin estimates about 15 to 20 Great Harvest stores have picked up the grain bowl.

New ownership comes on board

In January, Great Harvest underwent an ownership change when former employees and officers at the company Mr. Keshin and Mike Ferretti, who became chief executive officer, bought out the company and became majority partners.

Mike Ferretti, Great Harvest Bread Co.
Mike Ferretti, c.e.o. of Great Harvest

The new leadership has added a new component to the company’s model with a goal to establish franchises in smaller, densely populated downtown locations. Because the locations do not have the available space for a large oven, the company would establish smaller cafes in the available spaces in the region. A hub bakery would then be placed nearby that can service the cafes.

“You can cover your territory … more profitably by opening a cafe in a downtown, high traffic area that tends to have higher rent,” Mr. Keshin said.

For ventures like these, Great Harvest is looking for a multi-unit owner. Rather than just an owner servicing a single franchise, a single owner would oversee a territory.

Great Harvest Bread Co. cheesy bread baking
Great Harvest offers a wide variety of bread types to pair with its sandwiches.

Great Harvest also has expanded its products to become more distinct and highlight what it views as its most valuable resource: its Montana-sourced wheat. Mr. Keshin’s objective is to see a shift similar to that of coffeehouses with dramatic expansion of coffee options.

“We make all of these different kinds of bread,” Mr. Keshin explained. “The same way Starbucks created this whole discussion (of) how you want your coffee, which you go back to 1980 nobody was having that discussion, but now it takes five minutes to order a cup of coffee because of all of the things you have to say. What’s going to happen at Great Harvest is finally the outside of the sandwich is going to be as good as the inside, and you’re going to have a choice of what kind of bread you want on that kind of sandwich.”

These products include the Best-Ever B.L.T. and the Grown-Up Grilled Cheese. The sandwiches are offered on different kinds of bread to give the consumer a new profile. Great Harvest puts as much emphasis on the sandwich’s ingredients as the bread, Mr. Keshin said.

Great Harvest Bread Co. Grown Up Grilled Cheese
The Grown-Up Grilled Cheese is offered on unique, different kinds of bread to give the consumer a new profile.

“That’s what makes it different,” he said. “A sandwich is what is in the sandwich as much as the bread.”

The freedom franchise model that Great Harvest utilizes gives the company an opportunity to continuously test and produce new recipes and products throughout its more than 200 franchises.

“We are introducing new bread all the time, and because this is a freedom franchise, the reality is we have basically 200 test kitchens,” Mr. Keshin said. “So when we find an owner that is successful with a new recipe, it is shared throughout the system.”

Great Harvest Bread Co. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich
Great Harvest delivers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to radio stations during live advertisements.

A unique approach that Great Harvest uses to advertise its products is to provide no script for radio advertisements. The company makes deliveries to the station during these live advertisements.

“We have stores that delivered on our honey whole wheat bread, which is our basic bread, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Mr. Keshin said. “The guy went on for about four minutes about how it’s the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich he has ever had.”

Sorting through a lawsuit

Great Harvest has been advertising under the slogan “Bread. The way it ought to be” since August 2014. The company argued that Panera’s use of “Food as it should be” is too similar and filed a lawsuit for trademark infringement. The company applied for and was granted a combined service mark/trademark for its mark on a variety of goods and services, including bread, flour, franchising services, retail bakery shop services, bakery services and restaurant and cafe services. Panera began use of its tagline in June 2015, a move Mr. Keshin believes will cause consumers to mistake Great Harvest advertisements as Panera.

Great Harvest Bread Co. and Panera Bread slogan lawsuit
Great Harvest has been advertising under the slogan “Bread. The way it ought to be” since August 2014. The company argued that Panera’s use of “Food as it should be” is too similar and filed a lawsuit for trademark infringement.

“People are going to get confused every time they hear a Great Harvest ad they’re going to think it is a Panera ad,” he said.

Great Harvest, which does not have a national marketing budget, and due to its freedom franchise model, relies on its individual franchise owners to advertise.

“I have to protect the individual rights of our owners,” Mr. Keshin explained. “They’re the ones who pay for us to create a line for them that they can market under.”