The instore bakery has been one of the most adversely impacted fresh grocery departments since the coronavirus made its first waves of change in grocery industry practices and consumer behaviors in early March.

While most categories within the fresh bakery have made up some loss from the early months of the pandemic, the donut category still has a lot of ground to make up. At its worst in April, donut sales in the instore bakery were coming in at 50.3% below April 2019 sales. As of the first week of August, donut sales are still struggling at 37.7% below sales in the same timeframe of 2019, according to data released by 210 Analytics and IRI.

 Since the pandemic has ushered in the closure of open-air, self-serve donut cases found in many grocery store bakeries, moving donut production over to commissary and central kitchen locations has the potential to help the instore bakery make up those lost sales, said Kathy Sargent, director of market strategy at Lenexa, Kan.-based Corbion.

“Commissaries and central kitchens have been able to assist these bakeries with switching to pre-packaged and pre-portioned baked goods like donuts, while offering consumers peace of mind,” Sargent said. “We believe that off-site kitchens have an important role to play in helping in-store bakeries make up missed sales, by providing them with the vital skilled labor, safe pre-packaged goods and the delicious, exciting donuts their customers want.” 

Sargent pointed out that consumer desire for donuts is still around, and shoppers are looking for indulgent and on-the-go breakfast foods such as donuts. An estimated 60% of the US population consumes donuts annually, which is a number that Statista predicts will increase in years to come. But customers need to feel safe buying the donuts.

In July 2020 commercially packed donut sales actually grew by 2.6%, year over year, suggesting that using a central kitchen to pre-package fresh donuts is the way to usher in those sales to the instore bakery.

“With the pandemic straining bakeries all over the country, the problem of sourcing skilled labor was only further exacerbated,” Sargent said. “But one-way central kitchens help to address this issue is that they have access to more skilled workers and can help bakers offer donuts that capitalize on trends involving new and exciting flavors.”

Moving donut production over to commissary and central kitchens also offers the benefit of quality control, pointed out Mike Baxter, product information and marketing coordinator for Auburn, Wash.-based Belshaw Adamatic Bakery Group.

“Quality control is the biggest benefit, because larger bakeries have equipment that ensures consistent product,” Baxter said. “Employee issues, equipment issues and capital investment issues are handled by a larger bakery, perhaps with 50 or more employees. The larger bakery will usually find it easier to deal with each of these, by virtue of its size.”

Baxter said product quality and taste innovation are the two factors that guarantee the future of donuts and provides value to using automation and off-site facilities to produce donuts for the instore bakery.

“The donut category is safe because it produces unique customer satisfaction that can’t be compared to any other bakery item,” he said.

Baxter also noted that off-site locations have more ability to automate the production process, which reduces the number of human touchpoints for the product on the production line and reduces contamination risk.

Automating donut production

Belshaw offers a number of ways for commissaries and central kitchens to begin automating and further automate the donut production process. From robotic solutions that proof yeast-raised donuts, deposit cake donuts into an automated fryer, cooling conveyors to glazing screen loaders, the company can help facilities determine which solutions best match their production needs.

“For commissaries and central kitchens, we discuss production needs with the customer, we then focus on types of donuts needing to be made and what kind of finishing they do,” Baxter said. “We also discuss their frying time, proofing time and donut size and go over how they see growing in the future. We advise on equipment challenges that may exist with different product choices.”

Baxter pointed out that it’s important for facilities to pin down which types of donuts they’re going to be producing because of the fact that different types of donuts have different production needs. Bismarcks, crullers and fritters, for example, require longer frying times, while raised donuts need a carefully controlled proofing time, and cake donuts don’t need proofing at all.

When it comes to identifying which kind of setup will be most efficient for a facility’s donut production line, the available space is a key factor in getting the right equipment — from the best proofer and fryer size to different finishing options — needed for production requirements. Baxter said it’s also important for facilities to decide the balance between how much labor it can provide and how automated the facility can be.

“The simple answer is you must stay on top of your donut line every hour of every day,” he said. “You must filter shortening as well and as frequently as possible. You must keep equipment clean. You must make line operation run as close to clockwork as you can, because makeup, proofing and frying must be well synchronized to be efficient and to achieve quality. If you can do this, your increased product quality will be appreciated by store customers, and you will save labor as you go because production runs will be more efficient with less downtime.”

Making donuts that hold freshness and shelf-life

When shifting donut production off-site, a retailer’s focus should also be on the freshness and texture of the products coming in from commissary or central kitchen production facilities.

“Consumers want baked goods that feel like they are freshly baked in the store, and that can be a challenge when these items are made off-site,” said Corbion’s Sargent. “Not only do they have to arrive intact, but they also have to stay fresh enough through shipment to the store, so that they still look, smell and feel like they were freshly baked.” 

Because of the pandemic, many shoppers are cutting down on the number of trips they’re making to the grocery store, so consumers are looking for items that will last longer between shopping trips.

Corbion’s proprietary research shows that 57% of consumers would purchase other varieties and types of donuts, in addition to their normal purchase amounts, if they lasted longer in their pantries. That’s why the company developed Corbion’s Ultra Fresh Sweet, a tailored

solution that keeps donuts soft, offers encouraged resiliency and withstands dryness.

“In our testing, product samples formulated with Ultra Fresh Sweet were softer and had higher quality than the enzyme-added control, even on day 10,” Sargent said. “The extended freshness it provides is perfect for achieving long-lasting, great-tasting packaged donuts.” 

Corbion also offers an emulsifier solution called SweetPro that can help commissaries and central kitchens eliminate unwanted ingredients, such as partially hydrogenated oils, from their formulations, while safeguarding the quality, taste, texture, appearance and crumb structure of their products. SweetPro helps enhance tolerance, handling and storage stability, Sargent noted, ensuring that the instore bakeries are able to offer consumers the high-quality donuts they’re expecting.

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue