CHICAGO — At BEMA’s inaugural Breakfast with Bakers event held at the association’s annual summit held Feb. 22-24 in Chicago, BEMA members shared a meal with baker guests and discussed topics such as labor, automation and sustainable packaging. Afterward, five bakers — Chad Larson, vice-president of manufacturing, Milwaukee, Wis.-based Villa Palermo Pizza; Greg Boyd, vice-president, supply chain, Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods; Tim Ramsey, vice-president of procurement, Downers Grove, Ill.-based Hearthside Food Solutions; Brian Dwyer, vice-president, manufacturing, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.; and Joe Turano, president, Berwyn, Ill.-based Turano Baking Co. — comprised a panel that represented a wide swath of commercial bakery operators.

Health and wellness are driving many consumer demands, and their preferences can often change at the speed of Google. To remain efficient, bakers must often be flexible in order to keep up. Some, such as co-manufacturer Hearthside, thrive on that need for flexibility.

“That’s our business model: fast and flexible, no matter the market trends,” Mr. Ramsey said. “That’s what we do.”

While traditional loaf bread’s decline in sales has been no secret in recent years, Mr. Dwyer called attention to growth in organic bread and specialty styles such as enrobed and seeded.

“The other big trend we’re seeing is on the sweet goods side,” Mr. Dwyer said. “People are still battling that indulgence versus the good-for-you trend, and we’re seeing products like donuts, cakes and pies still selling. But we also see more people going for portion control, and the smaller sizes are in higher demand than what we’ve typically seen.”

Allergen sensitivities have not slowed, and that is affecting operations across all products, Mr. Ramsey said, and that’s affecting areas from formulations to changeovers.

Along those lines, Flowers recognized steady demand for gluten-free products, regardless of celiac diagnoses or other needs driving the purchase. That demand was a factor in Flowers’ 2018 acquisition of Johnstown, Colo.-based Canyon Bakehouse.

“The need is still growing,” Mr. Boyd said. “It’s not a fad anymore.”

These health-focused trends are impacting every niche of commercial baking, including pizza production, Mr. Larson said.

“You wouldn’t expect someone to go to the pizza aisle looking for a healthy or better-for-you product,” he said. “But we’re still being challenged with that.”

Palermo’s extensive product portfolio has the capability to meet a variety of demands, and that means changeovers become an issue not only with crust production but also in automating the topping process.

“If you have to do a changeover, it could be a whole day worth of cleaning, especially if you’re dealing with allergens versus non-allergens,” Mr. Larson said. “The biggest challenge is that consumers want this, but for us, it comes with inefficiencies and often extra costs, and customers aren’t necessarily ready to pay for that value. It’s a conversation we have all the time in operations: ‘How do we do this more efficiently?’”

To help bakers find solutions for flexibility and efficiency, BEMA hosts events such as BEMA Connect, where bakers are strategically placed with association members for a series of 15-minute “speed networking” style conversations.

The next BEMA Connect will take place at BEMA’s annual convention, to be held June 18-22 in Beaver Creek, Colo. Bakers interested in participating can visit BEMA's website for more information.