Buns have long been a vessel for many popular foods. They are portable, accessible and easily paired with hot dogs, hamburgers and sandwiches. But a sizable percentage of sales occurs on seasonal waves. There is always a spike as summer holidays approach, and many companies depend on those sales bumps. However, in today’s market, buns face some stiff headwinds.

Premiumization and ethnic influences are changing the way consumers see sandwiches. No longer do they have to use a bun or roll; they can be wrapped or stuffed into a pita pocket. Buns must also compete with perceived healthier alternatives with reduced carbohydrates and other nutritional benefits. These factors have created an uncertain market for bun producers over the past two years, said Wade Henson, principal with Technomic.

Mr. Henson cited three factors driving the bun market: flat sales at quick-service restaurants lead many leading chains to implement cost control measures; the introduction of “healthier” bun alternatives challenges traditional products’ previous growth; and the success of select sweeter or spicier buns appeals to consumers’ cravings for new flavor profiles.

Ace Bakery, Mississauga, Ont., a Weston Foods brand, adjusted to the winds of change and created a strategy to producing buns that appeals to the shifting market.

“The expansion of globally influenced foods is elevating the bun industry and providing a different perspective on the everyday bun,” said Nicole Pekerman, director of marking, Weston Foods, Toronto. “There has been an influx of street food culture, creating a desire for portable sandwiches with different globally inspired flavors.”

Reaching consumers with shifting tastes might require bakers to make some slight adjustments in the sails to catch the right breeze and capitalize on current trends.

Watching the horizon

During the past year, sales figures for rolls and hamburger and hot dog buns have remained flat, and unit sales for the category have decreased slightly, according to data from I.R.I., a Chicago-based market research firm.

The numbers show that dollar sales for all fresh rolls, bun and croissants increased just 1% to $2.2 billion for the 52 weeks ended Feb. 25, 2018. Hot dog and hamburger buns, however, dropped 1.2% to $1.9 billion. These sales numbers may be influenced by the fact that people are eating out more today than in the past. But the numbers also may be affected by people considering alternatives to traditional buns.

There may be ways for bun producers to capitalize on these trends to keep sales numbers from plateauing or dropping. Vaughan, Ont.-based Ozery Bakery, Inc., recently introduced thin sliced square sandwich buns, which are retailed under the Ozery Bakery One Bun brand and available in Organic Ancient Grains and Organic Multi Seed varieties. The product claims to be vegan, high in whole grains and fiber, and free from G.M.O. ingredients, artificial preservatives, colors and flavors. One serving is 190 calories, contains 36 grams of carbohydrates and boasts 7 grams of protein.

“We saw a void in the marketplace, which was saturated with unhealthy, calorie-dense buns, so we created a heart-healthy, pre-sliced thin bun made with 100% whole grains,” said Guy Ozery, co-owner, Ozery Bakery. “The product is so versatile that a consumer can create different options throughout the day from avocado toast to burgers or pizza to something as simple as a ham sandwich.”

Adding value to buns through nutrition or better-for-you claims can differentiate products in the bread aisle.

Riding the waves

Consumer tastes, the time of year and restaurant trends all influence how people buy buns in a retail setting. Bun season, which traditionally runs Memorial Day through Labor Day and includes holidays like the Fourth of July, is right around the corner. Ms. Pekerman said this time of year is affectionately known as “backyard season,” and it is crucial for bun sales.

“You can see sales spike up to three times or more during these seasonal periods versus the rest of the year,” she said.

Ace Bakery has a line of buns including a classic burger bun and a cheddar ciabatta bun that are available year-round. The company also releases its seasonal sesame buns and classic sausage buns in anticipation of bun season. New this year, Ace is launching a brioche bun, made with real butter and eggs, as a way for people to elevate their burger experience at home. Competition to attract consumers during this time of year is intense, and bun producers must look for ways to stand out.

“We want to ensure that our buns don’t get lost on shelves, so displaying them visibly within the store or alongside key adjacencies such as burgers or condiments is important,” Ms. Pekerman said.

Brent Bradshaw, senior vice-president, fresh packaged bread, Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga., said the company sees a big spike in sales of hot dog and hamburger buns this time of year.

“We prepare by making sure our bakery teams are ready to ramp up bun production and by working closely with our retail customers and independent distributor partners to ensure consumer demand is being met,” Mr. Bradshaw said.

He said Flowers Foods uses a multilevel marketing approach to promote the company’s brands online and through traditional advertising, in addition to promotional tie ins, in-store displays and more. For example, Wonder Bread’s “Camo for the Cause” campaign began in April, and each bag of Wonder Classic hamburger and hot dog buns feature camouflage packaging in patriotic support of U.S. military.

In addition, Cobblestone Bread Co., another Flowers Foods brand, teamed up with Nathan’s Famous, Westbury, N.Y., to launch restaurant-style hot dog buns with no high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.

“While our retail partners are always looking to grow the bread aisle, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog bun encourages sales in not only the bread aisle but also the meat department for Nathan’s Famous Franks,” said Sherry Harper, Cobblestone Bread Co. brand manager, Flowers Foods.

Matt Lally, associate director of Nielsen’s Fresh Practice, said sales growth has been challenging in recent years for buns as consumers look to kick carbohydrates.

“There’s no doubt that carb-conscious consumers are taking note of what they purchase, with products claiming low carb experiencing 5% dollar growth in 2017,” he said.

To bring people back to buns, one option is leveraging the natural connections of products in merchandising and retail layout.

“They should merchandise or promote in one spot all of the ingredients for a summer barbeque with buns, condiments, chips, beverages and the meat,” Mr. Lally advised.

While critical to annual sales, bun season comes and goes, and bakers must be able to maintain sales year-round.