There’s never a special occasion needed for cookies. They’re perfect any time and any place.

Say the magic word “cookies” and you’re likely to bring a smile to the face. For many, the making and eating of cookies is one of pure and uncomplicated simplicity. What you see is what you get as bakers combine basic ingredients to create a baked good known for its ability to provide comfort and reward.

Since the start of the pandemic, when at-home baking took on an exponential trajectory, the cookie category continues to show impressive growth. Cookies have always been a crowd-pleaser and they continue to prove themselves as a versatile media for both the traditional and tried-and-true and as well as a springboard for innovation.

Even during times of inflation when consumers look to make purchasing tradeoffs, the appetite for cookie indulgence remains. One in four say they are consuming more cookies compared to a year ago, according to the Barry Callebaut Cookies Crazed report. What may differ is where consumers choose to look for their cookie fix. Sales data from Nielsen shows consumers who are unwilling to forego the purchase of cookies are making the switch from National brands to private label offerings.

Creating occasions

Within the instore bakery, special occasions and holidays continue to provide a strong backbone for cookie sales. IDDBA’s Retail in Store Bakery, the Consumer and the State of Innovation shows cookies are the one of the largest (dollars) categories in bakery. Dollar gains for the category accelerated in January 2023 compared to total year view, but results for perimeter bakery were mixed in both dollar and unit sales, according to IDDBA, Madison, Wis. This was related to inflation with units falling 5.6% behind January 2022 levels.

“Special occasions have been the driver in bakery and continue to be,” said Whitney Atkins, vice president of marketing, IDDBA. “Consumers want to indulge, and we are seeing smaller packages and single packaging of sweet treats.”

Atkins noted that schools and events are starting to shift away from requiring individually wrapped treats, which will often lead to increases in the purchase of instore bakery cookies. But as most consumers already know, there need not be a special occasion for cookie consumption. Cookies are good any time and any place.

Comfort fix

One reason cookies always find such a welcoming audience is their comfort-giving qualities. A multi-year pandemic followed by uncertain economic times create a reasonable temptation to recall easier times. This often includes a longing for the foods that made us feel more secure at the time by recreating the flavor combinations enjoyed in times past. But nostalgia can be fickle and often difficult to harness.

For those looking to invoke an “exciting return of simple, comforting richness to the kitchen,” McCormick Flavor offered Full-flavored Fats in its 2023 Forecast. Full-flavored fats celebrate creamy, melt-in-your mouth textures and delicious cooking aromas. An excellent example being brown butter chocolate chip cookies, preferably hot and melty from the oven. Flavors like chocolate chip with the addition of crunchy walnuts, pecans or other nuts also have the ability to invoke a sweet crunch of good memories.

The ever-popular chocolate chip cookie continues to be a major contributor to the category over the last 13 weeks. IDDBA/IRI International data found the popular variety had 28.9% dollar share of the category, +5.5% in units, 1.8% gain in SKU count and $7.9 million in dollars gained (price adjusted).

Flavor forward

Interestingly, the flavors of nostalgia are also attractive to younger generations who might not have longevity with a particular flavor(s) but who still long to make a strong sensory connection. Younger consumers are creating their own aspects of nostalgia with familiar flavors that offer a new twist. The combination of old and new was dubbed “Newstalgia,” by IFT Outlook 2023: Flavor Trends. One such mash-up of unique flavors in classic cookies could include a savory tahini chocolate chip cookie or a matcha chocolate chip cookie, as suggested by Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich.

Interesting flavor iterations are also used to entice consumers, which can lean into uber-indulgence, like triple chocolate fudge, said Courtney LeDrew, senior marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis. The Cookies Crazed report found that large chunks of chocolate, chocolate coating, filling, nuts and swirls of chocolate make cookies even more appealing.

“You’ll also see developers use inclusions and icings to dial-up the decadence – think sandwich cookies with extra fillings or cookies with multiple types of chocolatey inclusions,” LeDrew said. “The premium cookie space continues to be a hotbed for innovation and growth.”

Or it could be a springboard to re-envision a long-time favorite in a new flavor profile. This year, the Girl Scouts introduced a new Raspberry Rally cookie manufactured by ABC Bakers of Henrico, Va., and Little Brownie Bakers, Louisville, Ken. The Raspberry Rally cookie, a thin, crispy cookie filled with raspberry flavor and dipped in chocolate coating, is described as a “sister cookie” to Thin Mints, one of the Girl Scouts’ most popular flavors throughout the U.S.

The longevity of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies and its LTO appeal, offers a segway for bakers to introduce a familiar favorite in a unique format within the instore bakery. This could be a way to play homage to the traditional crunchy cookie format, the addition of a similarly flavored Thin Mint icing or an inclusion of a Thin Mint-like cookie in another bakery format – all available beyond the typical LTO cookie season of January – April.