Unlimited potential for progress evident at Expo
To the degree the International Baking Industry Exposition is a well-attended show with interesting exhibits of equipment and ingredients for as far as the eye can see across the convention center floor, the baking industry has cause to view its current circumstances and prospects with optimism. And based on this measure, it was clear to anyone spending even a moment on the floor of the 2013 Expo that Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association, was fully justified when he said he “couldn’t be more pleased” with this year’s show.
And it’s true that the level of innovation at this year’s show was quite high. In terms of equipment technology, three trends were powerfully apparent, with a focus on heightened sanitation perhaps most evident. In the wake of the Food Safety Modernization Act (signed into law just after the 2010 Expo) and, for baking, the ANSI Z-50.2 standards, equipment redesign for improved sanitation generally was “table stakes” for what was displayed on the exhibit floor. Other innovations mostly zeroed in on sustainability and labor efficiency. The I.B.I.E. B.E.S.T. competition for sustainability innovation drew a large number of submissions not only for more energy efficient ovens and other devices but also for environmentally-friendly packaging, sustainable ingredients and spraying systems that reduce waste.
Enhancements in automation were geared not only toward perennial baking industry efforts to bring labor productivity at least somewhat closer in line with other segments of the packaged foods industry but also were oriented toward enhancing the precision of a baking craft that even in 2013 is subject to wasteful irregularities. Computer monitors, sophisticated software and even artificial intelligence were part of the descriptors of advances in baking equipment offerings.
In addition to serving as a barometer for the health of grain-based foods, the show also serves as a mirror of change under way in the industry. And looking at this year’s Expo using this yardstick prompts amazement at the degree to which baking has changed from its past. It has been a long time since an I.B.I.E. was overwhelmingly oriented toward the traditional wholesale baking industry and its mainstay categories of pan bread, buns, cakes and donuts. Still, it was remarkable at this year’s show to see how much of what was on display was oriented toward customers, bakers, who are about as far as one can imagine from sliced white or variety bread.
This divergence from wholesale baking’s roots was most evident in areas of the show devoted to retail baking. Here, in addition to exhibits devoted to trends in retail and in-store baking were numerous booths and demonstrations related to pizza. Audiences lined up to see pizza makers competing with one another in spinning pizza dough. To an extent, the variety of grain-based foods addressed at I.B.I.E. reflects an intentional decision by BEMA and the American Bakers Association to invite a broader range of groups outside its traditional constituency, most notably with the Retail Bakers of America. But specialty products also were aimed at wholesale bakers, looking to participate in the large food service market.
While underscoring the vital energy of grain-based foods, the variety of products on display also affirms the greatest single underlying challenge facing baking — the increased competition wholesale bakers face from other segments of the industry. With the ceaseless creativity of these other players, there is no reason to expect the erosion in market share held by the industry’s traditional wholesale products will reverse or stop. The need for successful innovation by wholesale bakers has never been greater. While exactly that kind of stepped-up innovation was evident earlier in the 2000s, the pace of new product introductions slowed dramatically with the economic downturn in 2008 followed by industry-specific struggles in the years that followed. The 2013 I.B.I.E. showed that bakers have many ready partners, equipment makers and ingredient suppliers, willing to help them develop and introduce a new generation of products to capture the imagination of consumers. It’s a good time for the baking industry to step forward.