Sweet, savory, large or small, muffins are moving beyond the traditional morning daypart with anytime convenience.

After a number of banner years, the bakery category continues to show strength and resiliency. In perimeter bakery, full-size muffins account for 81% of dollar growth in both dollars and units, according to IRI International, Chicago, with mini muffins showing a strong rate of growth.

The perimeter bakery is thriving in units driven by breads and morning bakery, a notable growth driver. 

Although center store outperformed ISB during the pandemic, it is now being impacted by inflation more than the perimeter, according to Melissa Altobelli, principal, strategic solutions group, IRI. Eating a muffin at home for breakfast, versus grabbing a muffin at a coffee shop or café, can be an inflation fighter for consumers versus the cost of eating out.

“Inflationary pressures also continue to influence consumer behaviors, finding consumers looking for sales and deals and cutting back on non-essentials as the top behavior changes,” she continued. “Understanding who and what is driving consumers to morning bakery will help unlock long-term growth and also set retailers apart.”

Time and labor

Although consumers are looking for premium experiences at home, it can be difficult to keep up with consumer preferences while also keeping in mind inflationary pressures that may limit the availability of ingredients or require the need to reduce SKUs. But even with ongoing labor shortages, bakeries easily can produce muffins with a range of frozen and raw pre-deposited versions.

Bake’ Joy, North Andover, Mass., offers frozen pre-deposited muffins and pan-free muffins. The company’s pre-deposited muffins are available in Ultramoist and Homestyle brands. The company’s PanFree brand muffin batters bake in a study liner, so there is no special pan needed. The company also offers its clean label Kitchen Cupboard brand. Those looking for a distinctive, old-fashioned taste can choose from its Country Muffin & Cake Co. brand of premium scoop batters made with sour cream.

Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., offers a variety of muffin mixes and bases for instore bakers that provide added convenience and consistency. Its basic mix offers a starting point for a variety of flavor profiles. The simple, one-step, just-add-water process is a time-and-labor cost saver for the instore bakery. The company’s #9 muffin batters also come pre-mixed and only need to be thawed, scooped and baked.

The high-speed muffin lines from Rise Baking, River Falls, Wis., feature the capabilities to fill and apply toppings in order to deliver decadent layers of texture and flavor.

Rise Baking’s pre-deposited batter line delivers a pre-scaled batter that can go from freezer to oven, which is perfect for instore bakeries who need to deliver fresh-baked product to the customer with minimal labor. The pre-portioned and ready-to-bake muffins are available in blueberry, chocolate chip, double chocolate chip, triple berry, banana, corn and lemon poppy varieties. Rise seasonal muffins are also available in pumpkin and cranberry orange varieties.

Finding balance

While health and wellness remain top-of-mind for the conscious consumer, many still desire to treat themselves to something sweet, according to Dawn Foods’ Global Trends report. This might include the delicious addition of wholesome, nutrient-rich ingredients that also provide health benefits such as high cacao chocolate, cocoa nibs, high-protein chocolate, nut butters and cocoa powders.

The parallel trend of delicious and better-for-you offerings allows consumers to feel like they can enjoy a guilt-free treat without sacrificing indulgent flavor. Bakels Global Insights, supported by Innova Marketing Insights, referenced the importance of finding this balance through inspiring “feel good” moments, everyday moments easily available through basic treats and rewards.

“Given the current economic climate, consumers are feeling more stressed and turning to food for comfort,” said Bryan Fitzsimmons, director of insights and marketing channel strategy Dawn Foods. “Enjoying sweets provides a momentary escape for many. Consumers want treats that are convenient, affordable and in smaller portions as they look for permissible opportunities to reduce stress and unwind.”

Dawn Foods' 4 global trends

1. Technology transformation

Technology has forever changed the consumer eating experience, transforming how we choose, receive and consume food.

2. Experience exploration

Consumers seek foods that not only enhance their nostalgic memories but incorporate fresh and new flavor experiences from other cultures.

3. Daily delights

Tied to the growing importance of mental wellness, consumers are finding ways to bring moments of joy into their daily routine with smaller-sized, high-quality sweet treats.

4. Mindfulness matters

Acutely aware of how their choices affect their personal health, their community and their planet, consumers are looking for authenticity and want to make a positive impact on the world.

Younger demographics

IRI found muffins over index with Millennials, both with young families and those raising teens. A mini version is often popular among Millennial parents who have young children. In contrast, larger sizes can offer a more decadent treat such as muffins topped with cinnamon crumbles, powered sugar or fruit. Barry Callebaut recommends ingredient inclusions such as peanut butter cups, fudge cups, cake batter inclusions, marshmallow chunks, peanut butter chips, butterscotch chips and almond paste.

Gen Z, a generation known for its exploration of fresh and innovative ingredients, shows a high affinity for chocolate chip muffins – demonstrating the ongoing desire for both comfort foods and fresh, new flavor experiences. But muffins remain a great option for consumers of all ages with hectic, on-the-lifestyles. With category growth, Dawn Foods expects to see 29% growth in menu penetration over the next four years, as informed by Datassentials statistics.

Traditional + innovative

For those looking for extraordinary experiences, muffins offer ample room for experimentation. Seventy-four percent of consumers enjoy trying new flavors of baked goods, according to Barry Callebaut. In 2022, top flavors included blueberry, chocolate chip, banana, chocolate and lemon, according to Nielsen. Traditional flavors remain top sellers in the category, according to IRI, including chocolate chip, blueberry, party cake, banana muffin and Mantacadas, a sweet and buttery Mexican sugar muffin. Additional flavors showing strong growth include triple chocolate, pumpkin and confetti cake.

Dawn Foods is seeing consumers flock to both traditional and innovative flavor profiles. This includes an ongoing affinity for nostalgic sweet goods that offer comfort. These often have rich chocolate and sweet vanilla bases, including those with fruit, like blueberry muffins. Alternatively, muffins offer an area for creative exploration. This could be an opportunity for adding on-trend matcha to a lemon muffin or going savory with a sundried tomato and feta option. Layered flavors such as matcha, bourbon and curry present ways to marry new tastes with familiar flavors.

Barry Callebaut’s Top 6 Trends to Watch in Bakery predicted new twists on nostalgic flavors such as birthday cake, s’mores, cookie dough and cookies and cream. Seventy-two percent of US consumers agree that they enjoy things that remind them of their childhood. Regional baking styles and street food-inspired desserts and baked goods offer ways to invoke both familiar flavors and nostalgia with new experiences, depending on the audience. For bakeries interested in trying something new, it is recommended to begin with tiny tweaks as to not go too far beyond a consumer’s comfort zone.

“Consumers seek daily delights as a way to bring moments of joy into their daily routine and to unwind,” Altobelli said. “Nostalgic flavors serve as a popular way to deliver comfort.”

Healthy twist

With pandemic aftereffects continuing to influence food choices, many are looking to bridge comfort with better health. This is represented by sweetening and all-natural health and wellness claims that are significant as far as dollar sales and have strong growth rates, according to IRI. This includes strong rates for gluten-free, protein, no preservatives and vegan claims, but these account for less than 1% of category dollars, proving the muffin category remains largely indulgent (IRI).

While still in the inception stage, savory flavors such as cheddar, feta and goat cheese offer potential for those bakeries looking to add an artisanal feel to their bakery offerings. These options also play well with growing consumer interest in items that offer additional protein. IRI found strong growth in muffin products with a protein claim; however, those products account for less than 1% of category sales.

In total bakery, the fastest growing product attributes center around better-for you – non-GMO, vegan, all-natural and protein, including the absence of negatives: low-carb, no artificial sweeteners, no preservatives, low sugar and gluten free. Vegan claims show growth in the category but only account for 0.1% of category sales, according to IRI.

To leverage the ongoing health and wellness trends, Dawn Foods offers a Vegan Crème Cake mix in vanilla and chocolate. Introduced in 2020, the product was the latest addition to the company’s Balance line of better-for-you muffins, which include cleaner label, sugar-free and gluten-free mixes certified by NSF, to meet the needs of those with allergies and specialty diets.

Anytime treat

Packaging in the form of resealable pouches with tear-strip openings can also be a great option for mini-sized items. These pouches often have zipper or press-to-close features that allow customers to return to the item with the same amount of freshness whenever they want. Additionally, single-serving sizes let customers try out something new without having to commit to multiple servings with the bonus of on-the-go indulgence. There is also opportunity to entice consumers with seasonal varietals.

Altobelli recommends instore bakeries encourage consumers to think about tomorrow’s breakfast and snacks while in the store or shopping online to drive an incremental purchase. Bakery confections remain a relatively affordable purchase and consumers facing inflationary pressures are increasingly open to ways to replicate out-of-home experiences. Likewise, this behavior fuels permissibility for a more premium muffin or other bakery items because it’s still a more cost-effective option than purchasing from a restaurant, café or coffee shop.

“Instore bakeries have the opportunity to highlight muffins as a sweet treat any time of day, not just in the morning,” Fitzsimmons concluded. “By offering seasonal items such as peppermint toppings, pumpkin or chocolate flavorings for the holidays, bakers can drive greater seasonal demand. Additionally, other LTO offerings and muffin flavors such as blueberry streusel, cranberry orange and lemon poppyseed can help drive sales throughout the day.”

This article is an excerpt from the January 2024 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Muffins feature and more in the digital edition here.