Gut-friendly, keto-friendly and traditional rye were among new product introductions in the bread category over the past year, but the popularity of indulgent brioche-inspired products stood out as a top trend once again in 2023.

Brioche-style packaged baked foods have seen rapid growth in recent years and gained heightened profile in late 2022 with the announcement by Grupo Bimbo SAB de CV that it had acquired St Pierre Groupe, a United Kingdom-based baker of premium brioche-style products with a growing presence in the United States. St Pierre’s products include brioche buns, brioche bagels and brioche sub rolls. Bimbo Bakeries USA also in 2022 introduced brioche buns under its Artesano brand.

In August 2023, Melissa Altobelli, principle, client insights, dairy and bakery vertical, Circana, told Baking & Snack magazine brioche was doing exceptionally well.

“Brioche actually has the strongest unit and dollar growth rate of the premium options, followed by pretzel,” Altobelli said. “Brioche is a trend that I think is going to continue. It’s here to stay. It’s trendy. It’s versatile.”

After the introduction of brioche loaves by numerous bakers in 2021 and 2022, two leading bakers in 2023 launched brioche buns targeted at the foodservice sector.

The growth brioche has brought has been especially welcome in the face of continued overall softness in bread sales volume. Center store sandwich bread sales were $10.23 billion in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 25, up 5.1% from a year earlier, according to CircanaOmniMarket. The data cover sales at grocery, drug, mass market, convenience, military and select club and dollar retailers. Unit sales during the year were 3.11 billion, down 1.5%. Average price per unit during the year was $3.29, up 6.7%.

Aspire taps retro, hot trends

In its new product introductions, Aspire Bakeries, Los Angeles, is tapping into both retro and sizzling hot trends. Recent rollouts under the La Brea Bakery brand include a New York Rye loaf and a plant-based brioche bun.

“Traditional flavors are coming back,” said Chris Prociv, chief commercial officer. “Nostalgic flavors are back. It’s a trend we’re calling mindful indulgence. The statistics show 44% of food choices will come from traditional or nostalgic choices.”

La Brea Bakery offered a rye bread in the past.

“The team thought it could be enhanced,” Prociv said. “We searched for the best ingredients for rye bread — the best wheat flour and rye flour. The type of carraway seeds. Our culinary team created some alternatives for a traditional New York rye. The caraway seeds are baked inside the crumb and generously top the loaf. We shared it with our customers, and they were overjoyed.

“One of our customers from a Midwest retailer said, ‘I personally am not a rye consumer, but we’re taking it. It looks beautiful. It smells amazing. Our consumers will love it.’”

Made with the original La Brea Bakery sourdough starter, the introduction was billed by the company as the rejuvenation of a true, authentic rye bread in time for St. Patrick’s Day for a “real corned beef sandwich, Reuben or whatever you may like,” Prociv said.

At the time of the interview in mid-February, the rye was in 1,300 retail stores nationwide. Prociv said she expected the figure to reach 2,000 by St. Patrick’s Day.

With its introduction of a brioche bun, La Brea Bakery is attacking the trend from a unique perspective.

“La Brea Bakery launched a plant-based brioche,” Prociv said. “Brioche is fantastic and very much on trend. Our bun was created to primarily serve the needs of foodservice operators who are looking for a one-stop shop — an option that works for all consumers, including those who are flexitarian and would like to have plant-based choices. So instead of two stock-keeping units for brioche buns, they have one. If you tried this, you’d have a hard time knowing that it is plant based — it has the buttery aroma and mouthfeel of a traditional brioche.

“It’s been extremely successful at foodservice. We plan to take it to retail.”

In promoting the bun to foodservice customers, La Brea Bakery noted that 21% of Gen Z consumers are incorporating plant-based products into their meals more routinely than they did two years ago and that 54% of consumers consider plant-based products slightly or much healthier.

Prociv said the brioche craze is part of a broader trend of consumers elevating their eating experience.

“It’s everywhere, from retail to foodservice — hamburger buns, hot dog buns, sandwich slices,” she said. “It’s just this premium segment consumers are really responding to. Elevating their sandwiches with a brioche bun, for their burgers or barbecues. It certainly makes sense for La Brea Bakery to participate in the space.”

Stepping back to review the company’s overall business, Prociv said a shift in consumer buying habits toward value has helped, not hindered, Aspire Bakeries’ efforts to grow its business.

“We had a strong holiday season, which is a very important time of year for us,” she said. “We observed a significant amount of in-home entertaining in November and December, and following that, even our January was quite strong. Business has been solid, more than solid.

“What we’re seeing is that consumers love artisan bread. They love the experience of it. It’s still the post-COVID effect — everyone got a little taste for sourdough, baking it themselves, realizing what a hassle it is, and then experiencing the La Brea Bakery brand in the in-store bakery. They don’t need to bake it from scratch.”

A reluctance to eat out in the face of higher menu prices has benefited the company, too, Prociv said.

“We’re continuing to see the switch from going to restaurants to creating elevated meals at home and entertaining more at home,” she said. “So that premium experience is important, and La Brea Bakery offers just that to allow consumers the opportunity to enjoy quality, fresh baked bread as part of appetizers or meals.”

In keeping with these trends, La Brea Bakery in November published “For Starter to Finish,” a cookbook that features breadmaking tips and recipes utilizing bread, including a maple-bacon breakfast sandwich, cinnamon raisin french toast with apple cider syrup, ribeye sandwiches, grilled cheese selections, toasted wheat panzanella salad and bread pudding.

Even when consumers are cutting back at home, shifts often appear to benefit La Brea Bakery, Prociv said.

“If people are entertaining, they may have a charcuterie board instead of a sit-down dinner,” she said. “Our breads fit very nicely, whether it’s baguettes, sourdough … Some of our friends include our pecan raisin bread with brie cheese to add interest to their charcuterie board.”

Brunch has been gaining in popularity, too, particularly as an opportunity to entertain.

“Some consumers are celebrating and gathering in the morning rather than going out to dinner or having people over in the afternoon,” Prociv said. “That could be lending to trends that are driving bread and baked goods, traditional breakfast foods. It fits with people watching their wallets a little. It’s less expensive to host if you’re having a brunch or happy hour than if you’re hosting a sit-down dinner.”

Innovation after ACE refocus

In the two years it has owned ACE Bakery, FGF Brands has made numerous changes aimed at refocusing the Toronto-based baker of artisan bread, said Sabrina Tessier, vice president of marketing at FGF. Tessier described the process as “taking the business back to basics to ensure we are building on a strong foundation.” Having restored ACE as a dependable supplier of quality artisan table bread, baguettes, free-form loaves and sandwich carriers, she said ACE is launching its first new products under FGF ownership, a line of buns for the North American foodservice market.

The bun line consists of six varieties — a mix of classic and on-trend products, including 4- and 4.5-inch classic burger buns, a classic slider bun, 4-inch black and white sesame burger bun, 4-inch brioche bun and 4-inch potato bun. Tessier said the buns varieties and sizes “best suit today’s market.” The buns are offered exclusively as a foodservice launch, with plans to offer them at supermarkets in the future.

Acquired by FGF in 2022 with its purchase of the fresh and frozen bakery business of Weston Foods, ACE’s roots date back to the 1980s when the husband and wife team Martin Connell and Linda Haynes began baking artisan bread at home near Toronto as a hobby. The hobby grew from the kitchen to a bakehouse on their property where the couple honed their skills, Tessier said. They opened a small retail store on King Street in Toronto in 1993 where the couple continued using a sourdough starter (mother) that had its origins in the 1960s acquired on a trip to Europe.

“In addition to the store’s retail customers, ACE began serving top restaurants and hotels in Toronto,” Tessier said. “They quickly outgrew retail space and opened a larger baking facility north of Toronto a few years later. As they grew, they held true to all the artisan pillars."

Those pillars include baking with the simplest of natural ingredients, using natural starters, long fermentation periods and, “where it makes sense for the product, to bake directly on stone,” Tessier said.

Amid rapid growth across Canada and the United States, additional baking facilities were opened in the years that followed. ACE was sold to a private equity firm in 2008 and to George Weston Ltd. two years later.

Since it assumed ownership, FGF was inspired to elevate the quality of ACE products by members of the team whose roots dated back to the early years when the business was independent, Tessier said. Among team members is Marcus Mariathas, FGF’s vice president of research and development, responsible for ACE as well as FGF’s other brands, including Stonefire sold in the United States and Canada and other Canadian brands Wonder Bread, D’italiano, Country Harvest and Casa Mendosa. His career began as an apprentice at the Toronto ACE retail store where he was mentored in baking by the company’s founders.

“He is the most passionate individual about artisan bread you’ve ever met, and it’s very important to him that we stay true to the tradition that Martin and Linda established from the very beginning,” Tessier said.

She also used the word “passionate” to describe the attitudes of other ACE team members with similar tenures to Mariathas’.

“Upon acquisition, we huddled with the ACE team, which meant soaking in their knowledge, expertise and what the target quality ranges should look like and then set about reengineering best-in-class,” she said.

This approach was reflected in the process leading to the introduction of the new buns, Tessier said.

“We are really focused on bringing the best quality and value,” she said. “Given the cost and menu pressures being faced by foodservice operators, it was important to land on the best product size, variety, and resilience to make our lineup relevant. What really makes this different is that we’ve applied artisan baking techniques to our burger buns — they are made with the perfect balance of natural starter, rest time, and free-form shape, giving them that artisan visual appearance. We have been honing the taste and texture for the past 18 months, and we’re really proud of the quality.”

While early in the launch, Tessier said the initial response in the marketplace with customers has been strong, including from bar and grills, quick-service restaurant chains (QSRs), independent QSRs and white tablecloth restaurants.

One of the varieties, brioche buns, has enjoyed surging marketplace popularity in recent years.

“I truly feel we have the best brioche on the market,” she said, noting that it is baked with real butter and eggs.

Asked about other changes at ACE Bakery, Tessier explained the company was working to make its products “more resilient.” While its artisan line historically has a one-day shelf life in foodservice, she said the buns have been formulated to have a three-day shelf life. The company is working to roll out the “same approach for all of its foodservice products,” she said.

The move is part of an ACE ambition to grow its artisan business both in retail and foodservice.

Tessier identified three facets to this strategy:

  • Focusing on the quality and introducing true artisan
  • Improving resiliency and ensuring it has the right portfolio
  • Through continuous improvement

“FGF is focused on technology,” she said. “We are passionate bakers who are powered by technology.”

Keto bread ‘steals the show’

Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga., also introduced new buns in 2023, but Mark Courtney, chief brand officer, said it was the company’s new Nature’s Own Keto Net 1 Loaf that “stole the show.” He said the variety became the top new item introduced in 2023 in its category.

Courtney said Flowers crafted the Keto Net 1 Loaf “with the consumer in mind” and developed the product in a process involving the company’s internal team and suppliers.

“We created a soft white keto loaf that meets our Nature’s Own brand promise of no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, and no high-fructose corn syrup, and that differentiated us from competitors,” he said. “Our success was helped by strong acceptance from retailers as well as creative marketing to drive trial and awareness with consumers through shopper marketing, e-commerce and a fun new commercial.”

The new buns introduced by Flowers are “performing well,” Courtney said. The Wonder Hawaiian buns offer a sweeter flavor profile while the Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted bun line was expanded to include a savory Everything bun.

The Hawaiian buns under the Wonder brand followed the 2022 introduction of Nature’s Own Hawaiian bread, which Courtney said also “performed very well.” It was the company’s top new item in 2022 and “has shown no signs of slowing down.”

The company noted during the year that Dave’s Killer Bread also generated a standout performance with sales totaling $1 billion at the retail level.

“Despite its premium status, DKB’s consumer appeal transcended its price point,” Courtney said. “Even more impressively, DKB grew unit volumes in tracked channels by 10% while the overall bread category declined 3%. This strong performance illustrates the brand’s appeal beyond the organic and specialty premium categories. The brand also continued to demonstrate an ability to grow outside of core loaf products, increasing units 15% and 28%, respectively, in the breakfast and sandwich buns and rolls subcategories.”

With successful promotions in 2023, the Wonder brand did well last year, Courtney said. He cited the brand’s partnership with USO (United Services Organization), which supports active-duty members of the military and their families, the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and the title-winning NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

For 2024, Flowers is taking DKB in a new direction with the introduction of Organic Rock ‘N’ Rolls.

“This new offering caters to the growing consumer interest in diverse bread options and is the first nationally available roll from Dave’s Killer Bread,” Courtney said.

He said the rolls are soft and have recognizable ingredients, including wheat, barley, oats and flax seed while bearing “DKB’s signature seedy texture.”

The rolls offer convenience and versatility, he said, “complementing a meal, or crafting creative sandwiches and sliders.”

Looking at the bread market broadly in recent remarks was R. Steve Kinsey, chief financial officer and chief administrative officer at Flowers. Speaking March 13 at the Bank of America Consumer and Retail Conference, Mr. Kinsey said a migration during 2022 and 2023 toward private label in value channels appeared to be fading late last year. Still, he said Flowers was remaining cautious about the consumer outlook in its guidance.

“From that perspective, it seemed like maybe some improvement with the overall consumer,” he said. “But the fact that private label did take a turn doesn’t keep us a little more cautious from an overall consumer perspective. Now saying that, our brands have done, we believe, well throughout this. So we’ll continue to watch from that perspective, traditional grocery brands have done really well.”

Kinsey also highlighted the strength of DKB sales volume.

“So it appears that the consumer really is looking for innovation, better-for-you attributes and products,” he said. “And those products seem to be driving decent volume response. Same thing with Canyon, gluten-free, again, a premium product for us. We’ve seen things fairly stable… We had early in the year issue with production capacity. All that’s behind us.”

Wide-ranging BBU innovation

New products introduced over the past year by Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, Pa., tap into the artisanal as well as other evolving trends, said Lorraine Hale, vice president and general manager, bread, buns and rolls.

“We’ve introduced several new products to meet the evolving consumer demand for health-conscious and convenient options,” she said. “These products feature artisanal experiences, functional foods and nutritious ingredients, all of which are top of mind for consumers.”

Hale said BBU under The Rustik Oven brand launched a new sandwich loaf of sourdough bread in two varieties, sourdough and multi-grain.

“These new loaves give consumers the same artisanal experience in a perfectly sized sandwich bread,” she said.

The Rustik Oven line was test marketed in California in 2019 and then introduced nationwide in 2020. The bread is Non-GMO Project verified, made without any artificial colors or flavors and is produced with a sourdough starter.

Also in 2023, BBU unveiled a Grains Almighty line across its Arnold, Brownberry and Oroweat bread brands.

“Grains Almighty caters to the functional food market with offerings like Gut Balance and Plant Protein, tapping into consumers’ focus on digestive health and increased protein intake,” Hale said.

Grains Almighty Gut Balance includes whole grains, gut-fortifying prebiotic fiber and “a touch” of sprouted grains in every loaf. The variety also includes flax, honey, barley and sunflower seeds. Each two-slice serving contains 29 grams of whole grains and 7 grams of fiber.

Grains Almighty Plant Protein features sprouted whole grains, chickpea flour and pea protein. The variety has 19 grams of whole grains, 9 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber in every two-slice serving.

More broadly, Hale said BBU’s diverse portfolio of brands “continue to perform well.” She said the company’s core brands, including Arnold, Brownberry, Oroweat, Sara Lee and Thomas’, are well positioned to “meet evolving consumer preferences.”

“We’re seeing increased desire for whole grain, multigrain and keto-friendly options that are part of recent health trends and carb-conscious diets,” she said. “We’re also seeing consumers look for a gourmet experience at home that our sourdough based Rustik Oven brand delivers. We continue to innovate our product lines to provide all consumers with products that fit their lifestyles.”

For 2024, Bimbo’s focus remains on sustainability and nutrition, Hale said, adding that new product introductions will “align with those principles” and that the company will focus on “continually improving the environmental footprint of operations.”

The company’s recent acquisition of Amaritta, a baking business based in Spain and focused on gluten-free baked foods, will help ensure Bimbo “consistently innovates to keep pace with consumer trends and demands,” Hale said.

“Leveraging market research ensures that we stay on top of where consumer interests lie,” she continued. “Grupo Bimbo’s recent acquisition of Amaritta aligns to a movement toward gluten-free bread.”