KANSAS CITY - The past 12 months have offered time for reflection as restrictions found consumers shifting online for communication, shopping and awareness initiatives. With this focus comes heightened awareness of food-related issues ranging from brand reputation and sustainability and transparency to ingredient functionality and wellness, forever changing how consumers think about and purchase food. 

Today, manufacturers looking to compete must consider the bigger picture as food purchases become more complicated, considered and inclusive.  

“Food has never played a greater role in how we feel, because it’s become such a huge part of our every day, in the absence of so much else,” said Paul Baker, founder of St. Pierre Groupe, Manchester, UK.

Health matters with indulgence 

While the demand for health and wellness rarely trumps indulgence in the instore bakery, some see the tide turning. Calling the instore bakery the final frontier for health and wellness trends, David Skinner, marketing manager, J. Skinner Bakery, Omaha, Neb., is seeing more cleaner labels and free-from products, indicating health-centric customers are finding more of what they want in the instore bakery.   

This includes providing products for the growing number of individuals with specific dietary restrictions. As the first nationally branded vegan muffin, Abe’s Muffins are allergen friendly, free from nuts, peanuts, eggs, sesame, soy and seeds. Responding to evolving consumer needs, the company also created a school-friendly big muffin pack and a gluten-free line branded under Abe’s Mom.  

“Health and wellness in bakery are evolving beyond the scope of specific dietary restrictions,” said Joseph Koffman, founder and chairman of Abe’s Muffins, West Nyack, N.Y. “Consumers assess health and wellness as it relates to a brand’s overall practices regarding environmental sustainability, transparency, ethical sourcing and the treatment of its employees. These factors are increasingly important to consumers and play a significant role in choosing a one-off buy versus a repeat customer.”  

And increasingly vocal consumers have no issue telling you what they’re looking for, whether that’s allergy-friendly, plant-based or free-from. Greater awareness of packaging and labels means people know what ingredients they want, and don’t want, according to Alexander Salameh, director of business development, Bakery de France, Rockville, Md. Fueled in part by at-home baking trends, consumers are shifting in their attitudes toward bread. Rather than avoiding bread, health-conscious consumers are discovering the benefits of eating functional bread baked with long fermentation and inclusion of whole and ancient grains, he said.   

As attitudes around food change, Baker predicts there’s also likely to be a shift in attitudes toward whether a functional food can be decadent at the same time. Products like St. Pierre Groupe’s brioche is recognized as elevating everyday meals by recreating the restaurant experience at home.  

“Increasingly, there are more products which might once have been considered more ‘luxurious’ or ‘decadent’ appearing in the convenience sector,” Baker said. “Consumers will no longer accept that the two are mutually exclusive. There’s no reason to compromise anymore.”  

And sometimes indulgence is just a wonderful part of life experiences, said Mark Boyer, president, Tippin’s Gourmet Pies, Kansas City, Kan.   

“Tippin’s has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in bringing families and friends together to have an extraordinary dessert eating experience that, in some cases, becomes part of the fabric that binds families together and provides memories that are familiar and comforting,” Boyer said. 

Adaptability and creativity 

While consumers certainly have an idea of what they want, supply and demand still dictate what’s available at the time. Looking to meet consumers where they are in the moment, Kontos, Paterson, N.J., began accepting online requests directly from consumers in 2020. Restricted to a one case minimum, the company is welcoming new and repeat customers who order pizza crusts and flatbreads one case at a time, according to Warren Stoll, marketing director, Kontos.  

The company also found new ways to build consumer loyalty through its foodservice clients and worked with bloggers to share personal experiences using Kontos products in their own cooking. 

“The more educated and comfortable you feel about cooking and creating for yourself the more you want to share those discoveries with others,” Stoll said. “We will all go back and say we don’t have the time to do things, but people won’t forget some of the things they’ve learned along the way.” 

Ecommerce opportunities 

With more consumers embracing the convenience of online, bakery manufacturers understand the importance of finding new ways to grab consumer attention. Striving for a communication vehicle that transcends a label or package, J. Skinner Bakery is overhauling its website to optimize and identify touchpoints throughout the customer journey. 

Partnerships also remain important in a rapidly evolving world. 5 Generation Bakers, McKees Rocks, Pa., looks to capitalize on its Jenny Lee’s product reputation as a staple of the McKees Rocks/Pittsburgh area as the bulk of its audience have memories of the brand stemming from childhood.  

“We work to stay engaged with our customers when they provide feedback – both positive and negative,” said Scott Baker, president, 5 Generation Bakers. “Every opportunity to interact helps us to find ways to be better and to continue to please our fans.” 

Some, like Tippin’s, work with their partners to grow the bakery business under the retailer’s brand. 

“The tendency of most retailers is to put their own brand on bakery to help distinguish them from their competitors,” Boyer said. “We are supportive of those who want to use store brands and proud that they think enough of our product to want to put their name on it.”  

Serving consumers who wanted to enjoy the same Anthony & Sons bread experience at a restaurant and at home, Anthony & Sons, Denville, N.J. offers a retail version of some of its well-loved bread products in frozen and retail ready and thaw and sell varieties. 

Seeing opportunities to embrace growing consumer interest in ecommerce, Bakery de France invested in flow wrap technology and launched a new bake-in-bag Take & Bake line. The premium, sealed, ovenable packaging offers a natural ambient shelf life that accommodates easy management and fulfillment online. 

And beginning in early 2020, St. Pierre Groupe, added new digital roles within its in-house marketing team to maximize online opportunities with retailers in the US and globally.  

National vs. private label 

Despite a huge surge in online ecommerce sales in 2020, a whopping 70% of shoppers continued going to brick-and-mortar stores. At one time or another those shoppers, online and instore, found supply did not always accommodate demand. Faced with a choice to go without or take a chance on a new product, many discovered something new in a private label or store brand.  

As retailers continue to up the ante on store brands, these manufacturers are also making a mark among consumers for their own local and sustainable efforts.  

“People know what they are getting and often what the company is doing in terms of traceability and sustainability,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for IDDBA, Madison, Wis. “As retailers are stepping up to help, this demonstrates that what the company does is as important as the product they sell.”  

Sustainable advantage 

This means good food is increasingly associated with goodwill and impeccable values. Growing awareness of ingredient and processing supply chains and sourcing, employee relations and environmental impact mean manufacturers must meet more than the requirements of a great product.  

Tippin’s internal and consumer-facing sustainability initiative started years ago, reducing inbound packaging waste through changes in raw materials purchasing and packaging and a focus on what enters the waste stream, recycling everything they can.   

“We need for the recycling industry to continue to grow and become more widely useful and accessible. We will continue to focus on sustainability because our collective future depends on it,” Boyer said.  

Processes at Bakery de France are built with sustainability at the core. In addition to donating more than 40 tons of bread annually to its local community, the company uses proprietary techniques that yield minimal waste and have invested in technology to minimize its carbon footprint through water and energy conservation efforts.  

5 Generation Bakers focuses on reducing its carbon footprint and ensures sustainable ingredient sourcing. The bakery has also consistently received gold level sustainability from Sustainable Pittsburgh.   

J. Skinner bakery is investing in sustainability initiatives that consider its use of plastics, emissions reductions, waste recycling and responsible ingredient sourcing. This includes using ground post-consumer clear plastic bottles to create its 100% recycled clamshell package, which was redesigned to maximize outboard shipments and eliminate empty trucks on return journeys.  

In an effort to prioritize recyclable, compostable packaging, Abe’s Muffins created its “Earth-friendly” mini muffin boxes. The paperboard boxes use 60% less plastic than the company’s clam shells but still allow consumers to see the product through a window. The company hopes to further up the ante by the end of 2021 with compostable trays that will bring the number up to 95% less plastic than previous packaging.  

Gains enjoyed by branded bakery products over the past year show no signs of stopping, especially as these products offer an added level of integrity for the retailer and safety for consumers.  

“The way people eat, the times they eat and the sense of occasion around each meal has changed this year,” Baker concluded. “COVID has changed that and it’s driven a huge shift in needs and behaviors when it comes to food. The opportunity for food companies is huge, but for the bakery sector in particular it’s phenomenal.”