During the past few years, several c-store chains like Sheetz have upgraded their breakfast menus.

Ripe for the picking

During the past few years, several c-store chains like Sheetz have upgraded their breakfast menu with everything from the Dreamy Bacon Croissant and Schmonster Breakfast Burrito to sourdough breads or pretzels or ciabatta rolls. For lunch, the Altoona, Penn.-based chain that serves the mid-Atlantic and East Coast with about 500 locations now offers po’ boys, flatbreads and The Big Philly for hearty eaters and even provides seating in many of its stores.

Jerry Smiley, Sheetz
Jerry Smiley, partner at Strategic Growth Partners

“As c-stores grow their food service offerings, par-baked breads can play a bigger role,” said Jerry Smiley, partner at Strategic Growth Partners and consultant to the baking industry.

From his perspective, Mr. Kolinski noted that both c-stores and in-store bakery/delis have upped their game in providing premium sandwiches that compete with sub shops, Q.S.R. chains and even casual dining establishments.

“The c-store industry is really making a push for very good quality sandwiches similar to what the European c-store trade has been doing for years,” he said. “I am very glad to see this because it means those customers will be looking for higher quality artisan-style breads and sandwich carriers.”

Mr. Brimacombe described the potential to bakers of c-stores as an “emerging business, but one ripe with opportunity.”

He cited a recent Technomic study in which 87% of c-store operators feel that food service has become a strategic priority for their businesses.

“Given the volume of sandwiches and snacks sold through c-stores, quality fresh-baked breads can deliver a premium experience with little labor and infrastructure change,” Mr. Brimacombe said.

Identifying the latest hot product in the fickle frozen and par-baked bread market can be a tricky proposition, especially with food service chefs often seeking customized signature breads to delineate their menu from the competition.

“Pretzel rolls seem to have cooled off as many of the Q.S.R. burger chains have opted for newer items like brioche,” Mr. Smiley said. “That said, brioche also seems to have plateaued.”

Euro-Bake Farmhouse Loaf
Euro-Bake’s multigrain Farmhouse Country Loaf contains flaxseed, banana chips, apple pieces and toasted soy grits.

Meanwhile, sales of ciabatta breads and rolls, which had dipped in recent years, seem to be making a comeback, according to Mr. Kolinski. The company’s cheese breads remain extremely popular, as do products containing an assortment of seeds, spices and grains. Euro-Bake’s multigrain Farmhouse Country Loaf, for instance, contains a multitude of ingredients, including flaxseed, banana chips, apple pieces and toasted soy grits.

“Customers continue to look for something that differentiates their ‘artisan bread offerings’ from the competitor down the street,” Mr. Kolinski said. “We see this as an opportunity to be creative by adding inclusions in the bread loaf category. As far as rolls are concerned, we also like to offer rolls with inclusions but to give different shapes whenever possible — especially in our assortments, which is one of the categories that we do very well in.”

Mr. Vierhile said seasonal flavors have gained a larger footprint among packaged breads and rolls.

“Pumpkin spice has been huge the past two fall seasons, and it seems like there is more potential for seasonal flavors and/or limited-time flavors like red velvet, which add an element of indulgence to bread,” he said.

The seasonal trend also extends to the in-store bakery channel as well as in special displays throughout the store designed to increase impulse sales during holiday periods.

Baking trends
Made from Fortuna wheat, a non-G.M.O., single-origin heirloom grain, new artisan breads by La Brea Bakery target consumers looking for something more wholesome and natural.

“We are always at the forefront of developing exciting recipes and flavor profiles from La Brea Bakery such as the limited-time-offering bread we will be selling this holiday season to creations like our naan or award-winning gluten-free line,” Mr. Brimacombe said.

For bakers looking to push the envelope, Mr. Vierhile suggested keeping an eye on breads and rolls that avoid the use of wheat or any other grains.

“It sounds really difficult to pull off, but we are seeing a few innovations like a coconut wrap product,” he explained. “Almond flour is another ingredient to watch with breads made from it instead of wheat flour. It is really a niche right now, but it may be starting to break out a little bit, based on the strength of the gluten-free and paleo trends.”

For par-baked and frozen baked goods, the bottom line — in more ways than one — involves leveraging emerging trends by providing bakery customers with new products relevant to today’s consumers who are looking for new ways to live a good life.

As Mr. Brimacombe said, “Retailers recognize that the consumer is savvier than ever and understands that good food is healthy food versus counting calories on every food label.”