Dawn Foods produce mixes, bases and finished baked foods for in-store bakeries and retail bakeries.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Today’s consumers can change their food preferences faster than they can change mobile devices … and they’re using those devices to sway their peers’ preferences, too. Knowing this, Jackson, Mich.-based Dawn Foods’ research team works diligently with R.&D. to produce mixes, bases and finished baked foods for the in-store bakery and retail bakery markets. At the American Bakers Association Convention in Scottsdale, Ariz., Carrie Jones-Barber, chief executive officer, Dawn Foods, sat down with Joanie Spencer, editor,Baking & Snack magazine, for an exclusive Q.&A. on the fast pace of consumer trends and how Dawn is keeping up with them. 

Joanie Spencer: There’s a relationship between health-and-wellness and indulgence. How are these two types of foods sustaining each other? How are trends from Dawn’s research helping them do so?

Ms. Jones-Barber:These two types of foods sustain each other with a yin-and-yang type of relationship. While people are going to have health and wellness top of mind at certain times, they’re also going to balance it with indulgence. It’s almost like, ‘I’m going to do this, so I can treat myself to that.’ They very much coexist. 

The goal for Dawn Foods is to make products that, even if people feel like they have to give up part of the indulgence, will still taste good. If you make something that has a health-and-wellness connotation, you better make it taste good, or it’s just going to go by the wayside. There are a lot of offerings that compete with what we do at Dawn — whether it’s a granola bar, yogurt or a bakery treat — whatever we do, it still has to taste great. 

Our R.&D. team has done a great job incorporating protein and other ingredients that have the added benefits people are looking for into our product mix, while also incorporating the burst of flavor and texture that people want. Because of this, consumers don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.

Add-ins are really important as well. At Dawn, our products that are geared more toward a clean label can provide the fundamentals — the mix or the base. Then all the baker needs to do is add a unique ancient grain, flax or some kind of seed to it. This helps give the product differentiation and can attract consumers while also adding texture and additional health and wellness benefits. Add-ins allow our customers to add all kinds of varying ingredients to make their offerings go even further for their customers.

Carrie Jones-Barber is the chief executive officer of Dawn Foods.

When balancing health and wellness with indulgence, how can you market one product to meet both needs? How can one product meet a specific need based on the consumer’s mindset?

Ms. Jones-Barber:At Dawn, we do this really well through our Baker’s Truth line of mixes — which includes crème cake, brownie and donut mixes. The products themselves are cream cakes, lending themselves to a coffee cake-type of an item. We offer a chocolate variety, brownie mix and yeast-raised vanilla cake donut. Another factor for consumers when balancing health and wellness with indulgence is looking at the time of day. For example, our entire Baker’s Truth line offers morning and afternoon blends that are designed for our customers to take maximum advantage of them throughout the day. Our bakery experts also ask customers, ‘Do you want to do a breakfast item or afternoon goods?’ Then working within our customer’s four walls — understanding the equipment and processes — they’ll help them understand which specific products they should run, like one with granola on top or something else depending on the equipment.

Balancing health and wellness with indulgence is all about the versatility of the items and the creativity — it’s truly an art and a science. That’s what’s so great about our technical experts here at Dawn. They get the equipment piece of it, and they have extensive bakery expertise and are also extremely creative. It’s amazing to see what they can come up with after listening to a customer’s needs. That’s where our partnerships work really well. 

Dawn's R.&D. team uses customer insights to develop products that appeal to a wide range of consumers.

Consumer preferences change so fast; it’s been on everyone’s radar thanks to modern technology. Dawn’s research team is on top of trend watching, so how are they keeping up … and staying ahead?

Ms. Jones-Barber:Our Global Market Research & Insights team works together to ensure each region across our footprint works together to keep our customers updated on the latest trends impacting the industry. My dad (Ron Jones) was very visionary in the way he grew the organization to ensure we always work hand in hand across our global offices to ensure we’re bringing out unique offerings. And then we think of how to make it stand out even more.

Think of churros. They came from Latin America, and we have different flavors of sugar that can very simply add variety based on what the customer is doing. This is where we get our competitive advantage — making sure we get that versatility in one single product.

We also partner with expert market research agencies like GlobalData, Innova and Nielsen to understand global consumer and market trends. In fact, as part of our ongoing commitment to making sure our customers make informed business decisions and meet the demands of consumers in the marketplace, we regularly refresh our consumer trends report, which includes analyzing more than 100 data sources and 85 marketplace products and services.

We have a lot of technical expertise around the globe and are constantly absorbing all of what’s going on. We also closely partner with customers to ensure we know what’s driving demand and learn about what they’re seeing in the marketplace. These things together constantly keep Dawn in the know on what’s going on and shaping our industry. We then hone in on it all to find the common factors and distill it all down.

The last piece of this is our Circle of Excellence: ‘People, Products and Customers.’ You have to surround yourself with great people; that’s the way you stay ahead of things. They’re always hungry and looking for the next big thing. We have great people.

And we want to have fun. Some of the formulas our team comes up with are purely, simply fun stuff. We developed a carrot cake cinnamon roll — it’s a traditional cinnamon roll base with carrots added in. And it’s fantastic. That creativity, it brings fun to what we do, starting with our great people.

Dawn Foods adds different varieties of sugar to its churros to keep the product on-trend.

How does Dawn leverage trends insight and R.&D. expertise to market finished baked foods? 

Ms. Jones-Barber: We start with the consumers. What are they looking for? Then, we incorporate that into our offerings and help share with our customers. For items like brownies, a great way to do that is with the add-ins and added texture. 

At Christmas, we do a peppermint brownie where we actually crush up peppermint sticks and put it in. It’s a fantastic flavor, it adds eye appeal and it adds crunch … and you can just keep going with it. You can add a chocolate drizzle on top of it. But I don’t come up with those ideas. It’s the global market research and insights team — they are the link between marketing and the bakery. It’s the bakery knowledge and expertise. Marketing can come up with the idea, but R.&D. and our technical staff determine if it’s scalable. It’s that collaboration that makes a difference.

Let’s talk about the Innovation Studio. Why did you develop it, and what’s it doing for product innovation?

Ms. Jones-Barber: The Innovation Studio is a test kitchen-like environment where we co-create with customers to help them ideate on product ideas on a small scale and allows them to see if an idea is even possible before preparing it to scale. We work with our customers every step of the way to see what works, and, if we need to, we can go back to the drawing board.

We recently brought a customer — a pizza company that wanted to add a brownie to their menu — into the Innovation Studio. At the start of the day, we knew the customer was unclear on the direction they wanted to take with their brownie offering, but in one day, they walked out of the studio with a completely new menu item. Following consumer testing, the customer found that the recipe we created was exactly what they were looking for. Even with a couple iterations after leaving the studio, it was a much faster process than they were used to. We brought creativity — and because we had the production staff onsite — we were quickly able to guide the customer through the process.

The whole purpose of the Innovation Studio is to partner with our customers. Since opening one year ago, we’ve had more than 20 customers come through to experience it firsthand.

We know — and we did a lot of research on this — that if you can bring customers to a third location, they don’t get distracted. And when you bring your experts from marketing and R.&D., then it’s ideation. We have 11 stations in the studio to ensure the team can work on many different items at one time. It also means that we can be trying out two or three variations of a product simultaneously and scaling them up and trying them right there. 

It was, at the most basic level, a way of improving speed to market for our customers. 

Customization and personalization are gaining momentum. How do Dawn products create customized solutions?

Ms. Jones-Barber:That comes down to the versatility of our mixes, fillings and icings and is also the combination between our marketing team and technical experts on how to co-create. Some of the huge benefits of what we do at Dawn are the versatility and robustness of our products. You can take one product and make a full line out of it — 17, 18, 19 items — and that’s where that robustness is really important to that ultimate customer. Our customers can keep providing new products with one basic ingredient that they can add to.

It’s always exciting to attend industry events and see what new magic Dawn’s creating.

And that’s very typical of our base products and mixes. It’s all about showing off what the customer can add to it and produce product after product ... it’s actually hard to tell that it comes from one core item.

Our products aren’t just artisanal, either; they’re also simple enough that even bakers who are just starting out can create something new from a Dawn base product. This is important because bakers consistently need to update their product offerings to remain competitive. Consumers want to see different things. Today they might want an orange blossom muffin; tomorrow, they might want lemon ginger. So, having one basic starting point and changing what you’re adding to it really makes it easy.