Building a better bun

by Eric Schroeder
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With the spring and summer grilling season just around the corner, the buns and rolls category stands to receive a much needed boost to lift sales. According to data from Information Resources, Inc., the past 52 weeks have not been particularly strong, with unit sales of buns and rolls in the period ended March 22 falling 2.2% to 1,171,678,000. And while many of the nation’s major bakers have been able to churn out year-over-year dollar sales gains, two of the largest — Interstate Bakeries Corp. and Bimbo Bakeries — were not.

Based on steps taken by leading companies, the strategy for reviving a stagnant buns and rolls segment appears to center on developing products that cater to consumers’ indulgent side while delivering on health and wellness.

George Weston Inc., which earlier this year was acquired by Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V., stands out as an exception to the sluggish trends of the category. The company posted a 17% gain in year-over-year unit sales and 30% gain in dollar sales in the 52 weeks ended March 22, according to I.R.I. The improvement may be directly traced back to the success in the company’s Arnold brand, which saw unit sales soar 51% and dollar sales climb 70% in the period.

The brand was propelled by success in the Arnold Select line of products, and in particular, the line’s sandwich rolls and sandwich thins. Arnold Select Sandwich Rolls resemble a large hamburger bun but with a roll design on top, giving the product a homemade look. Each roll has 150 calories. Arnold Select Sandwich Thins, meanwhile, are soft, 100-calorie products that are thinner than a roll and are described by the company as "sandwich-sized flatbreads." Part of the initial success of the sandwich thins may be traced back to the fact that they may be paired with hamburgers as well as with regular lunch meat or even tuna.

Another company forging ahead in the category is Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga. With dollar sales of $123,612,800 in the 52 weeks ended March 22, Flowers ranks fourth among buns and rolls vendors, trailing Sara Lee, George Weston and Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, Inc. During the period tracked by I.R.I., Flowers dollar sales rose 7% despite a 5% setback in unit sales.

In 2008, Flowers introduced ciabatta rolls and brat buns under the Cobblestone Mill brand.

"We developed the ciabatta rolls in response to the popularity of ciabatta sandwiches in the food service segment," said Brent Bradshaw, brand manager for Flowers Foods. "They are sold in a four-pack, which we thought would help generate trial and best fit their ‘special use’ profile.

"We made our bratwurst buns large enough to hold bratwursts, sausages, and larger hot dogs. We also use a premium recipe that allows the buns to hold up to lots of toppings and condiments. We tested these buns in our Florida market before rolling them out company-wide last spring."

Mr. Bradshaw said consumer response to both the items has been positive.

Looking ahead, the company this month plans to introduce another item under the Cobblestone Mill brand: mini sandwich rolls.

"We began developing these after seeing the growing interest in mini burgers and sandwiches in quick-serve and sit-down restaurants," Mr. Bradshaw said. "We tested these mini rolls in late 2008 and will introduce them in a 12-pack throughout our D.S.D. territory this month. They are a mini version of a premium roll with a nice cut on top."

As evidenced by the two most recent Cobblestone Mill product launches, Mr. Bradshaw said Flowers is constantly monitoring the food service industry and other segments for new bun and roll ideas and proven flavors or varieties.

"We think there is future growth in more indulgent buns and rolls with rich flavors and interesting textures (like our ciabatta rolls)," he said. "There also is opportunity on the other end of the spectrum for better-for-you buns and rolls. We think it’s important to always offer consumers a choice of options and we are always exploring new ideas."

In the case of Torrance, Calif.-based King’s Hawaiian Holding Co., finding a new way for consumers to sample its sweet rolls has opened the door to additional sales. The only other top 10 vendor besides George Weston to post a year-over-year increase in dollar and unit sales, according to I.R.I., King’s Hawaiian’s recent success was driven by Snacker Rolls, a new product introduced a little more than a year ago.

Long known for its sweet bread, King’s Hawaiian added the taste profile to mini sub rolls that the company said are perfect when combined with lunch meat or peanut butter and jelly to create snack sandwiches or mid-day meals. The Snacker Rolls come in a four-count package.

The company also recently introduced King’s Hawaiian Sandwich Rolls. Also in four-count packages, the rolls feature a sweet bread taste that the company said can liven up burgers and chicken sandwiches.

The category leader with approximately 10% of total dollar sales, Downers Grove, Ill.-based Sara Lee Corp. continues to rely on a steady influx of blended products under the Soft & Smooth brand. In May 2008, the company introduced Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Wheat Hot Dog and Hamburger Buns Made with Whole Grain. The buns have 6 grams of whole grain per serving and are made from a blend of enriched (76%) and whole grain (24%) flour.

By adding the new buns to its portfolio, Sara Lee was able to boost unit sales growth nearly 4% and dollar sales approximately 11% in the 52 weeks ended March 22, according to I.R.I.

The launch followed by a little more than two years the debut of Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Hot Dog Buns and White Hamburger Buns. Next up is an extension to the Delightful brand.

"Nutrition is top of mind as consumers shop the grocery aisles and we continue to provide the products that meet this need," said Heather Collins, director of marketing for Sara Lee North America. "The new 80 calorie Sara Lee Delightful Wheat Bun, launching in mid-summer with limited distribution, will deliver a lower calorie wheat bun option for consumers. A wider distribution is scheduled for spring 2010.

Tribeca Oven expands line with petite rolls

CARLSTADT, N.J. — As some of the largest wholesale grain-based foods companies look to the food service and retail baking industry for ideas on what may move the buns and rolls market, they may want to consider what’s taking place at Tribeca Oven, Carlstadt.

The company, which offers par-baked bread baked to old-world standards and flash-frozen to preserve the complexity of flavors, the rich and chewy textures, and the freshness of more than 36 artisan loaves and rolls, ships its products to specialty food distributors and fine food stores located across the United States. The company recently detailed plans for a new line of petite rolls and slider buns.

"We are always developing new shapes and flavor profiles to best serve the needs of our customers," said David Allen, vice-president of sales and marketing, Tribeca Oven. "Healthy, portion-controlled and economical, smaller-sized items have been popular trends in the artisan bread industry and we recently introduced a new line of petite rolls and slider buns to satisfy this demand.

"These new petite offerings allow customers — and consumers — to build a sandwich at a lower price point with the same focus on quality and taste.

"Although consumers may want a value roll, healthfulness is another trend that is continuing to garner a lot of attention. Our multigrain hoagie offers a portion-controlled size option for consumers interested in watching their waist as well as their budget. And our slider buns have been doing exceptionally well in the retail market with a range of gourmet to commonplace applications."

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