Some years ago, these cable networks launched shows such as Cake Wars, Top Chef: Just Desserts and Cake Boss to intertwine cake, artistry and TV drama, and Americans just couldn’t get enough. In many cases, gluttony met glam, and millions debated fondant’s correct pronunciation. Cake became pop culture.

Sure, it did wonders for the small retail bakeries and cupcake shops … not to mention the wedding business. But it also often left the in-store bakery in the dust; to some, “supermarket” birthday cake was considered second-rate.

Today, though, it’s a different story. Cake producers have stepped up their game, and as this indulgent ­product scoffs in the face of health-and-wellness, commercial bakeries are helping in-store operators boast signature products that reflect fashion, pop culture and individual personalities.

Donut Cake

A big piece of the pie

In the in-store bakery, cakes are dominating the dessert category, according to Nielsen Fresh’s Fresh Facts data, which was published in the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery (IDDBA)’s What’s in Store 2018 annual report. Although this segment experienced slightly more than 1% growth for the 52 weeks ended March 31, 2018, cakes still represent a whopping 57% of market share.

What’s more, in 2016, cakes outpaced bread in the in-store bakery, according to IDDBA. Nielsen data revealed that while desserts make up half (50.3%) of all in-store bakery sales, cakes scooped up an almost 29-point share of dollars, with bread a distant second with just 13.6.

As consumers up their standards for these types of products, quality often trumps price. In fact, cake is one of the highest dollar rings in the in-store bakery, noted Jennifer LaPaugh, senior director, global market research and insights, Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich.

“When consumers come into the bakery and spend money, when they buy a cake, it’s often a significant spend,” she said.

Within in-store bakery cake sales, Nielsen pointed out that specialty dessert cakes experienced 2.1% growth. And while decorated cakes took a dip last year, the segment still has a 25.5% foothold on the share of dollars for fresh cake sales. To give in-store bakeries the most opportunities to capitalize on cakes, Dawn offers cake products that check a number of boxes, from finished product that’s ready for the display case to plain cakes and all the components to finish it onsite.

Eli's Cheesecake

Trendspotting in the perimeter

Consumers consistently claim loyalty to health-and-wellness. In fact, NPD Group told IDDBA that calories and sugar are tied for the top item people look at on nutrition labels, and, for the first time, sugar is the top item American adults want to avoid. But in the in-store bakery, certain trends are taking precedence over sugar and calorie consciousness.

Through extensive trend research based on internal and third-party sources, Dawn has identified eight key consumer trends, some of which bode well for cake sales. For example, “luxury found” is one that taps into the evergreen need for indulgence.

“People want to have that moment of indulgence and a little escape for themselves,” Ms. LaPaugh said. “With this trend, it’s very personal, so cake is a great product to use for that because it’s so versatile.”

Being a timeless classic, cake opens itself up to hosting not only new trends but also products it might not have otherwise been associated with. For example, Brill, a division of Sandy Springs, Ga.-based CSM Bakery Solutions Co., offers cool twists on other classics in cake form.

“Unique shapes and sizes along with new flavor pairings bring excitement to the category,” said Mike Docherty, Brill’s vice-president of marketing, North America. “Mashups are the perfect example, using smaller desserts such as donuts or cookies to create a new style of dessert cake.”

Although those traditional dessert cakes serve their purpose — classic white and chocolate flavors and old-school buttercream still bring shoppers in for those quick, retail-ready options — updated flavors and combinations can expand options and maintain interest at various points in the year.

“There’s an opportunity to use smaller, retail-ready cakes for seasonal events,” Mr. Docherty noted. “This allows our customers to take advantage of incremental holiday sales without the need for additional labor.”

Dawn’s finished cake products come in a variety of sizes that free the in-store bakery to mix-and-match and create memorable cake options.

“We partnered with one customer who wanted to show off a variety of cake sizes,” Ms. LaPaugh said. “We not only provided a number of high-quality ready-to-serve dessert cakes, but the customer was also able to offer the same cake in half-sizes for smaller occasions and mix it up for families that want different options in the same cake. Customization has been really important, and it gave that customer flexibility.”

Retail-ready cakes also fit what Dawn calls the “25/7” trend. American consumers constantly are chasing that magical extra hour in the day. Ms. LaPaugh said it’s also about stealing some time for oneself for a moment of personal luxury so decadent, it feels like a newfound wrinkle in time. This is a product that can easily be sliced up for single-serve, grab-and-go options, but cake’s versatility really shines through when it also becomes a component in upscale portable desserts as well.

“When you think about versatility, one thing we’re seeing is that the ‘celebration occasion’ is expanding to leverage dessert cakes more,” said Becky Loveland, vice-president, marketing and R.&D., North America, Dawn Foods. “Consumers want something a little bit more chic for certain occasions.”

To meet the need for versatility, Dawn maintains high quality in its finished cake products so they can meet any number of trends, occasions and sophistication.