Buns and rolls have found their way into more shopping carts thanks to the economic recession. According to Mintel, Chicago, IL, US retail sales of fresh rolls and buns saw a sharp increase in 2008 when the downturn hit consumers hard. The research firm attributed this not only to the rise in commodity prices at the time but also to the fact that many consumers began eating at home more to save money. As a staple of the American diet, buns and rolls continue to see sales growth today.

“Our industry isn’t hurting as badly because buns and rolls are inexpensive compared with other food items people purchase,” said Jesse Amoroso, director of business development, Amoroso’s Baking Co., Philadelphia, PA. “Buns and rolls are part of the essentials: bread, milk and eggs.”

While the country digs its way out of the effects of economic recession, consumers seem to be continuing to eat at home and bringing restaurant-quality products to the family table, even in something as simple as a sandwich. According to Mintel, bun and roll sales grew by 14% between 2008 and 2011 as consumers searched for alternatives to sliced breads for their sandwiches.

John Yamin, CEO, Aryzta North America — which owns La Brea Bakery and has US headquarters in Los Angeles, CA — said he believes that the sandwich answers consumers’ current desires for value, portability and variety. “A sandwich can be dressed up with the most premium ingredients in it or it can be dressed down.” The bun, he said, offers a perfect blank slate for that value-oriented, on-the-go meal.

While bun and roll dollar sales are still increasing, the growth has slowed as consumers trade name brands for private label to try to save money, but they still want a sandwich carrier with a little bit of quality and flavor. Innovative varieties of high quality breads keep brand names on the public’s radar, but balancing price and quality remains the most challenging line to walk.

Innovating toward quality

When Turano Baking Co., Berwyn, IL, improved its gourmet hamburger bun, people took notice. “Without even communicating the improvement to consumers and customers, sales have increased,” said Giancarlo Turano II, frozen retail manager.

The company went back to basics by re-evaluating the way it bakes buns. Now with a more consistent bake, Turano Baking’s hamburger buns have a golden brown crust and lighter, moister bite, according to Mr. Turano. “The end result is softer, better looking product that the consumer can feel the ‘freshsqueeze’ that we have found to be so important,” he said. “Consumers are looking for those high-quality bakery buns.”

As consumers have become more aware of their food in recent years, interest in higher-quality or better-for-you products has infiltrated most categories. Mintel research revealed that 56% of bread shoppers buy products today they consider to be better quality than bread they purchased in the past. Buns and rolls are no different.

“Consumers want the same thing from their roll that they want from everything else,” Mr. Yamin said. “They want flavor; they want quality. They want a roll that is a great carrier. They want the roll to complement the protein in the carrier, not to dominate it.”

For name brands competing with private label or food service establishments trying to get people in the door, new and interesting bun varieties work wonders to get the public’s attention. According to Mr. Turano, food service outlets, where trends often start, have re-evaluated ways to upgrade their menus, and an upscale bun or an inventive sandwich roll is one way to step it up. This leaves bakers to reinvent the bun.

“It’s harder to create an entirely new item, so what we’re doing is reinventing,” Mr. Turano said, “We’re improving our focaccia items, taking a pretzel and finding a new shape for it or finding a new use or shape for brioche.” He marked pretzel and brioche buns as varieties he sees growing.

Diversity in buns and rolls spices up supermarket shelves and food service menus. Mintel research showed that 58% of bread shoppers buy new types of bread just to experiment, particularly varieties from other cultures. The research firm reported that King’s Hawaiian rolls were up 12.6% in 2012. The Torrance, CA-based company’s brand, categorized as an ethnic product, capitalizes on its authenticity and lack of competitors, and the bakery’s products illustrate consumer demand for more niche ethnic buns and rolls to shake up their bread baskets.

To add diversity to its bun line, Aunt Millie’s Bakery, Fort Wayne, IN, found success adapting its sliced bread varieties to buns. “We have something for everybody whether it’s high fiber, low calorie or whole grain,” said Bohn Popp, vice-president of marketing. “I think trying to increase sales through product innovation is a healthy testament to our industry.”

Innovation toward higher-quality items and diverse product lines, however, comes with a cost, and some consumers may not be ready to pay.

Keeping the price right

Offering a product line populated with variety and quality doesn’t matter, though, if the price isn’t right. As with most things, price gets the final say, and above all else, consumers look for a good value. This can help bakers selling quality buns and rolls because some consumers want more for their money. “Customers gravitate to a little higher quality because there is a reason to pay more for it,” Mr. Popp said. “It’s more than your typical white bun.”

Other consumers or food service operators might ask bakers for buns made with finer ingredients without understanding the price tag that comes with it. High-end buns require more expensive ingredients and often more hands-on production, all of which costs more money for the bakery and eventually the consumer.

“The customer needs to be educated because you don’t want a customer saying, ‘What, are you crazy? I’m not paying X amount for a dozen,’” Mr. Amoroso said. “Everything from sourcing the ingredient to the labor required adds a lot of cost to the product.”

Sometimes, what consumers dream up is just too much for the pocketbook no matter how much they understand the value. Finding ways to meet this demand for high quality without high cost has proved to be the key challenge to meeting these two opposing trends. Making high-quality buns just a little less gourmet by substituting ingredients that bring the price point to a more agreeable place represents one solution, according to Mr. Amoroso.

Turano Baking wants to manufacture products efficiently to lower cost. The company scours its supply chain from ingredients to delivery to find ways of cutting the price. These solutions can be additional automation to reduce labor and increase line speeds and throughput, or sending larger shipments and streamlining delivery.

Success in the bun and roll category hinges on this balancing act between price and quality. “Those who are able to deliver and execute premium or artisan attributes at reasonable prices will be the successful ones in the marketplace,” Mr. Turano said.