Treat yourself

by Charlotte Atchley
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Nobody wins when premium sweet goods pretend to be something they aren’t. This upscale segment of the category doesn’t boast a low price point, and the healthy trend adapts to these baked goods, not the other way around. When consumers reach for premium sweets, whether for breakfast, a midday snack or as a dessert, it’s because they want to indulge, celebrate a special occasion or savor a moment with a simple reward.

Take Gagne Foods, a producer of restaurant quality biscuits, cinnamon buns, sticky buns and petite pies, which are made with — not surprisingly —Wild Maine Blueberries and nothing less, according to Somerset Gagne, national sales director of the Bath, ME-based company.

“Sweet goods are not a staple, but that’s okay,” Ms. Gagne said. “I’m happy to make that special thing people reserve for Sunday morning.”

People seem more than happy to purchase that something special. “Year after year, we see positive growth trends in the in-store bakery as consumers seek out high-quality, fresh-baked products,” said Gary Kyle, chief sales and marketing officer, James Skinner Baking Co., Omaha. “It is a comfort food category and surprisingly remains strong even through tough economic times.”

The combination of shoppers watching their budgets more closely and still wanting to indulge appears to be working in this segment’s favor. Because consumers are watching costs and calories, they want the best and nothing less. “Consumers are not interested in wasting calories with belly-filler products,” Mr. Kyle said. “Today’s sophisticated shoppers have more discerning palates, and they want the best.”

The definition of quality

Premium sweet goods break through those discerning palates with extra care during production. “You can get something sweet anywhere, but to get something premium, you want to be able to tell that it has a story and it’s made from something inherently good,” Ms. Gagne said. To tell its story, she said, Gagne Foods relies on high-quality ingredients such as crispy southern pecans, Belgian cocoa powder and whole milk that consumers can recognize on the label. Adding dollop of decadence, a pinch of pizzazz or some fancy finishing touches, such as topping a double or triple flourless chocolate dessert with curly cues of dark and milk chocolate shavings, provides consumers with a visual cue that signals to them that this product is extra special.

In many treats, butter seems to be a prerequisite for attaining premium status. Gagne Foods uses a high percentage in its various products, including its petite pies, in amounts ranging between 11 and 14%. Butter isn’t cheap, but Ms. Gagne believes the taste difference is worth it.

“Butter is one of the cornerstones of baking and has been since the beginning of baking,” she noted. “It’s like yeast or flour. I don’t think we’ll ever make that change, no matter what the economy is doing.”

Process also can play a role in defining a product as premium. James Skinner Baking Co. prides itself on its commitment to old-world European methods. “We take no shortcuts with our methods or our ingredients,” Mr. Kyle said. As proof of this, he presented the company’s laminated Danish, which takes 36 hours to make. “The artisan dough is folded again and again into more than 100 thin layers before it rests for up to a day, allowing the flavors to blend and the yeast to rise perfectly,” he added.

And J. Skinner’s muffins aren’t just ordinary muffins, according to Mr. Kyle. Its Blissfully Blueberry Muffins contain the highest percentage of blueberries per muffin possible based on baking science. Its Creamy Carrot Top Muffins are made with whole eggs, grated crisp carrots, fresh raisins and sweet pineapple pieces and topped with cream cheese and crystalized sugar. And real banana puree lays the foundation for its Mind-Blowing Banana Nut Muffins, which contain fresh whole eggs (never substitutes) and US No. 1 walnuts.

These authentic, natural, quality ingredients and the down-to earth formulas and process not only define premium sweet goods but also can help them weather consumers’ current tendency toward better-for-you food.

Fitting into healthy

Shoppers obsessed with more nutritional foods may seem like a movement that would threaten the sales of a category such as premium sweet goods. The truth, however, is that while consumers may look to purchase healthier breads or savory snacks, they do not seem to want to sacrifice on sweet treats. Even the strictest health nut tends to indulge when visiting the in-store bakery.

“When a premium sweet good is purchased for breakfast or dessert, it isn’t subjected to the same kind of ­dietary scrutiny as other meals,” Ms. Gagne said.

In a culture obsessed with dietary restrictions, people who decide to treat themselves don’t want that sublime indulgence to fall short. This plays right into premium sweet goods’ hands. “When consumers want to indulge, they make sure it’s worth the calories,” Mr. Kyle said. “Since premium baked good consumers are more focused on indulgence and taste attributes, they prefer not to sacrifice those top-quality ingredients for substitutions that simply attempt to position a bakery product as a better-for-you option.”

In many ways, the nature of the current health trend is also working in favor of premium sweet goods. In previous years, consumers looking for more wholesome foods focused on low fat or reduced sugar. Today, according to Nielsen Perishables Group as reported in the International Deli-Dairy-Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) What’s in Store 2014 report, people wanting healthy options are more interested in products with added health benefits rather than negative attributes removed. Super fruits, whole grains, omega-3 fatty acids and ­ingredients deemed “real” or “all natural” are positives consumers look for in their foods today instead of a reduced-sugar claim.

Premium sweet goods made with butter and fruit can take this trend to the bank by leveraging their natural goodness, particularly for the breakfast meal occasion. Gagne Foods does this by using fruits, vegetables and nuts with a healthy perception to add flavor to its new products without sacrificing the butter, sugar and cream cheese.

“We’re not masking ourselves as health products, but we’re looking to tie in things that consumers will ­recognize as a healthy part of a meal,” Ms. Gagne said. “But that is always second to premium. We’re ­always trying for decadent first.”

This year, Gagne Foods added vegetables to the mix with the introduction of a pumpkin cinnamon roll and sweet potato biscuits, both of which contain vitamin A. The company also harnessed the super ­powers of the almighty blueberry with its blueberry biscuits. Ms. Gagne described them as one of the company’s biggest sellers.

Portions solve everything

Desserts get even more of a pass when it comes to health. “Breakfast needs to be fairly satisfying whereas with dessert, you can get away with being delicate or having a crazy amount of sugar,” Ms. Gagne said.

Miniaturizing desserts can be a way to offer health-conscious shoppers a calorie-controlled option.  Mini products may only take up 7% of in-store bakery sales, according to the Nielsen Perishables Group data reported in What’s in Store 2014, but the segment has seen a 10% increase in dollar sales in the 52 weeks ending May 25.

Portion size comes into play when saving money as well. Tim Kanaly, division president of Legendary Baking, Denver, has noticed that both larger and smaller portions are in high demand now. “People want value,” he said. “They want more bang for their buck.” Large value portions help shoppers with large families or who are buying for large gatherings save money while smaller portions help smaller households save money on wasted product.

In its own consumer research, James Skinner Baking Co. discovered this trend of shrinking households and decided to cater to that consumer with its Perfect for Two line. Perfect for Two consists of 8- to 10-oz pastries instead of the company’s usual 16- to 20-oz items.

Mini products also appeal to on-the-go lifestyles, ­observed Mark Van Iwaarden, director of marketing for Legendary Baking. “People want convenience,” he said. “They want to take it with them, throw it in their lunch box or take it back to their desk.”

The baking industry has seen a lot of changes in the past few years, and some segments have had to rethink their product lines to fit into the current mold of what the public wants from bakery products. The market for premium sweet goods, however, succeeds when it sticks to what it does best, delighting consumers with quality ingredients and processing with care. “The biggest thing that people are trying to get out of a premium purchase is they just want to be delighted,” Ms. Gagne said. “They want a premium sweet good because it’s special.”

As long as bakers of premium sweet goods remember to stay true to those values, consumers will continue to spend money and calories on being delighted.                  

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