I’m not an expert baker, but as a judge at this year’s America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest, I got an insider’s look at what it took to win and what people did wrong. In fact, I sat in to observe the preliminary stage and discovered from the expert judges that many bakers submitted wonderful formulas for possible award-winning products, but they didn’t make it to the finals at AIB International in Manhattan, KS, because they left a section of the form blank.

In some cases, the contestant simply didn’t fill in a suggested retail price or they suggested a price was too expensive for consumers or too cheap to be profitable. The goal is to sell more raisins so the products have to be marketable.

Fortunately, chief judge Theresa Cogswell and artisan bread judge Klaus Tenbergen, PhD, worked with many of those who entered to make sure they did fill out the forms correctly — or at least entered the right category for their products. Still, from my perspective, here are some other dos and don’ts for next year’s contest.

Give your product a catchy name that can sell the product to consumers. Some of this year’s winners included a Current Seeduction Bread, Sunrise Bagels or a Raisin Rouleaux. However, don’t get too cute. Make sure the name matches the product. If it’s a whole-grain raisin bagel, make sure the formula contains enough whole grains to qualify.

When you fill out the forms, make sure you use bakers’ percentages for the formulas. Trust me. It’s very important. See Dr. Tenbergen's suggestions below.

Try to include all-natural ingredients or possibly substitute raisin juice for sugar in healthy formulas, and take a little time to provide proper documentation on why a product is healthy. And make sure it doesn’t taste “healthy.”

Be creative. This year’s student winners included Barbeque Raisin Bread, Laminated Rosemary Raisin Epi, a Sunny Side Up Orange Raisin Brioche and a Muscat Grape-Vanilla Cream Raisin Danish. I was very impressed with all of their creativity.

Some bakers took an artisan product and put it in a pan so that they could enter the commercial category.

According to Ms. Cogswell, the standard of identity for raisin bread is 50% raisins based on the weight of flour. All bread products must meet this minimum standard. “More is always better,” she said. “All types of raisins count to the 50% level, including juice and paste. For breakfast category, she said, the raisin content must be a least 25%. Go towww.loveyourraisins.com for what the winners did during the past four years.

If you're entering the bread category, don’t think traditional 12- or 16-oz loaves. Maybe your formula fit better in a different form. For example, the California Raisin Walnut Pretzel received the grand price for the artisan bread category. Other winners included bagels, demi-loaves, energy bars and, don’t forget, sliced pan bread.

Keep it simple. Overcomplicated formulas (must retard three days) don’t fly in a short contest. During the finals, you only have a limited amount of time to make the product, and you have 36 others vying for oven time.

Take advantage of the half-day prep time on Friday afternoon before the show. Again, it gets very busy during the contest. AIB’s Jeff Zeak, the contest coordinator on game day, runs a tight ship so everybody gets a fair shot.

Make sure the product is versatile. AIB has a lot of equipment, but there are only so many types of ovens. If you need a rack oven and a revolving tray is the only one available, you might find yourself in uncharted territory. Also, make sure your formula can be easily scaled up or down to adjust to conditions at AIB.

Follow your formula and don’t change it after you submit it. Judges check every formula during the finals. Additionally, asking forgiveness from the judges doesn’t work. They like a level playing field.

During the finals, clean your bench and makeup area for the next contestant. The judges count that as well.

Use proper sanitation procedures. If you drop something on the floor and pick it up to throw it away, wash your hands before going back to work.

Design your products so they photograph well. Feel free to add props and pizzazz to your presentation. One contestant had her products on a mirrored platter. It showed them off nicely. The Marathon Mini Loaf came with faux Olympic medals.

When in the judges’ room, keep your message succinct, but share your passion. Feel free to present your product with homemade butter or cream cheese, or even make a sandwich out of it. However, keep in mind that the judges will primarily gauge the raisin bread or breakfast item on its own merits.

During the judging, some contestants handed out promotional sell sheets and Nutrition Facts information, and some even suggested packaging formats and designs. The whole idea is to sell more raisins, so the judges want to see how your product will be merchandised.

If you win, promote the heck out of it. Tell the newspapers, radio and television stations. Hang signage, Tweet it, put it on Facebook or on your website. The California Raisin Marketing Board will work with you to promote and market your award-winning product, but take the initiative from the start.

Finally, spread the word and get other bakers to enter. In the end, you’ll find that you learned more from your fellow finalists than you ever thought you could.


Now that you have my observations, here are a baker’s dozen suggestions from Dr. Tenbergen, who was the chief judge in the best artisan raisin bread category. Dr. Tenbergen is also assistant professor and culinology program director, department of food science and nutrition, California State University, Fresno, CA.

Type your entry submission; hand-written entries do not look neat.

Read the contest rules carefully.

Create a professional-looking portfolio, which can include the formula, photos of your product, a troubleshooting guide, production timetable and more. Page protectors will keep the portfolio looking neat.

Get professional photos of your product when submitting your entry for pre-judging.

Get ready, practice and use consumer feedback to test your prototypes.

If you make it to the finals, have a PMA (Positive Mental Attitude). It helps get through the day.

Dress the part; this is a professional competition.

Even if this is not mentioned in the competition rules, bring some props to display your products to the judges and for the camera because all products will be photographed for publication.

A label and proposed packaging looks great, too.

Think it through and work with Jeff Zeak of AIB International. He coordinates the contest during the finals at AIB, and he will be your new best friend.

Make use of all available resources from the California Raisin Marketing Board, and contact Dr. Tenbergen through www.calraisins.org if you need help with the baker’s percentage calculation as indicated on the entry form.

When it is all said and done, take time to talk and get to know your follow bakers, judges and guests. You will be inspired.

Have fun!