The recent announcement that Campbell Soup Co. will acquire Ecce Panis, Inc., an artisan baking operation in East Brunswick, N.J., may attract scant attention in baking as a modest transaction in a niche segment. Viewed from a wider angle lens, though, the deal may generate considerable interest. Artisan baking could be dubbed the great trend that never took hold in U.S. commercial baking.
Expectations ran high at the 1997 International Baking Industry Exposition, with many equipment makers supporting the trend by introducing machinery allowing large scale emulation of the hand crafted work that helps define artisan bread. A few months earlier, Interstate Bakeries Corp. acquired San Francisco Bread Co., and in March 1998 The Earthgrains Co. (now part of Sara Lee Corp.) acquired Sun Luis Sourdough, Inc. Artisan was hailed as "the next big thing," coming at the peak of per capita consumption and at the tail of a remarkable string of popular grain-based foods innovations in the 1980s and 1990s (from high end cinnamon rolls to bagels).
While both I.B.C. and Earthgrains looked at broadening distribution to tap into growing interest in artisan and specialty bread, the forays failed to live up to their promise. I.B.C. in 2005 abruptly closed the San Francisco plant that baked Parisian sourdough bread, a victim of the company’s bankruptcy. San Luis retail distribution remains limited to California and Nevada.
Will Campbell Soup have a different outcome in this artisan category? Could be. Ecce Panis already has widespread distribution through in-store bakeries and Wal-Mart Stores, and another artisan baker, La Brea, has stood out among the fastest-growing large commercial baking companies for many years running. Considering the success Campbell has enjoyed with its Pepperidge Farm baking business, this latest acquisition could provide a much-needed spark for baking.