The start of a renaissance in bakery?

Some of my earliest memories are of baking with my grandmother, Daphne. A true matriarch, she lived a life of service, to her country during World War II, to her community in local politics, and to her family. Delicious smells emanated from her kitchen and when we went to her house there were two certainties. First, there would be a highly competitive game of cards where no quarter was given, and second, you would be involved in baking something delicious. I raise this nostalgic reflection because it seems that I am not alone in taking solace in baking and baked goods during this tumultuous period.

As the pandemic hit, bread machine sales grew 652% vs. PY (Stackline) and sales of packaged bread and packaged crackers and cookies both surged over 40% vs. PY at points in March (IRI). Flour became rarer than diamonds and sourdough entered the stratosphere! However, confinement and hygiene concerns meant that not all parts of the baking industry had the same experience. After a modest gain in March, fresh bakery sales dropped more than 20% in April (IRI). Spending at restaurants fell more than 30% at points in March and April (Technomic) and lock down orders brought business at many Artisan bakeries to a halt.

These shifts in demand created huge challenges for the baking industry and are still doing so today. Some companies struggled to keep up with demand while others had to take difficult decisions to adjust to new realities. Everywhere, rapid changes had to be made to adjust to the invasion of an invisible enemy about which little was understood.

For many of us, it was humbling to see the passion and commitment with which people responded to the COVID-19 crisis. At my company, Puratos, and many others across the bakery supply chain, people showed up, kept going and kept food flowing. On a recent plant visit one of our team members told me, “people are counting on us, we’re soldiers[!], we get it done!” In the face of great uncertainty, stoicism, innovation and generosity emerged as prevailing characteristics.

This sentiment was embodied by the front line but extended beyond it. Retailers outsourced production that could no longer be undertaken in store almost overnight, and commercial, innovation and supply teams turned on a dime to fulfill the demand. Enterprising Artisans bakers started selling home baking kits online and communities swapped sourdough starters. At Puratos, we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of our customers in donating resources to help us turn our ingredients into baked goods that can be donated to food banks and other worthy institutions.

The health crisis has not been the only one we have faced. The killing of George Floyd was a shocking and sickening event, made more so by the fact that it is the latest in a series of brutal deaths suffered by black people at the hands of law enforcement. The Baking Industry is traditionally diverse with inspiration, technique and toil supplied by all races and communities across America and the world. We are stronger for this breadth of contribution and facing a shortage of talent we can take a leadership position in creating opportunity for under-represented people at all levels of our organizations.

Even with increasing COVID-19 cases in parts of the country, we need to continue to have one eye on the future, as it is virtually certain that this is a period that will precipitate change. Puratos is undertaking a global research program examining consumer trends in bakery as countries open. The results so far from China, Germany and Poland indicate that consumers will focus on health, hygiene (via packaging), taste and indulgence, local and affordable as key factors in purchase decisions. Online purchases will continue to increase and 94% of respondents say they will continue to bake at home!

While consumer preferences vary between markets, these are good indications of what to expect when we conduct our US research later this month. Whatever the specifics of the research, we can look forward with optimism for several reasons. People love bakery products, derive joy from sharing them, and take comfort from baking. The industry has proven that not only can it respond to crises, but also that it can innovate and emerge stronger. Finally, people in our industry step up and support the most vulnerable in our communities when it matters most. While the path forward will undoubtedly be challenging, we have never had a better opportunity to make a lasting social and economic contribution.