KANSAS CITY — Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) struck, the baking industry has taken on challenges in several forms: scrambling to make up for lost foodservice sales, seeking technical help when technicians no longer can visit plants, and staying informed on supply issues like the availability of yeast.

Suppliers to the baking industry are responding in several ways: offering ways to switch to making retail items like pan bread, setting up visual technical sessions that allow technicians to see inside a bakery and increasing communication to help bakers stay updated on ingredient supply.

Preliminary projections from Chicago-based Technomic, Inc. show US restaurant sales in March dropping between 31% and 48% when compared to February. Yet food sales growth is happening at retail. Sales at food and beverage retail stores were up 28% in March when compared to March 2019, according to a report released April 15 by the US Census Bureau.

BreadPartners, Inc., Cinnaminson, NJ, is helping bakers move to making retail items, which often means a switch to pan bread from crusty bread sold at foodservice.

“It really doesn’t take a long time,” said Michelle Lacovara-Birkey, director of sales for BreadPartners. “One of our strengths at BreadPartners is how quickly we respond to the customer’s needs, and now they need it.”

Enzymes and antimicrobials are required for the longer shelf life needed in pan bread sold at retail.

“We know these recipes,” Ms. Lacovara-Birkey said. “We know how to help people. What we have to find out is, what kind of equipment they are using, what kind of equipment they have available to them such as pans, but it’s rather quick.”

Puratos US, Pennsauken, NJ, has introduced MyAdvantage, an online resource that focuses on ready-to-use products and offers information on adjusting recipes to accommodate the shift in consumer demand to packaged goods and online shopping.

“To be able to move into those new businesses was obviously a significant challenge where people were calling us, and they were saying, ‘We need help really quickly,’” said Andy Brimacombe, president of Puratos US.

Not all Puratos’ customers are ready to manufacture finished baked foods that they normally do not, said Guilluame Bourneau, vice president of research and development for Puratos US.

“So we tried to put in place a very simple process here so that they can shift from crusty breads to long shelf-life breads,” he said. “So it’s not only the availability of the workforce. It’s the training of the workforce to (make) very quickly products that they are not used to doing.”

Puratos offers a full mix for pan bread that needs only oil and water, Mr. Brimacombe said.

BakeMark USA LLC offers a range of bakery mixes, bases and concentrates that streamline the process in a bakery, said David Lopez, director of marketing and based in Los Angeles.

“I think that is one area of the industry whenever we face different types of challenges, that always becomes a very viable solution to a lot of our customers,” he said.

He gave the example of a bakery making muffins from a traditional scratch formula that requires a certain number of ingredients that need to be purchased inventoried, scaled and mixed.

“That can be somewhat of a complex process,” Mr. Lopez said. “When you have eight or nine ingredients going into a formula, that increases the risk for inconsistencies, that increases the variables that may cause problems.”

Baking mixes simplify the situation.

“Sometimes all you have to add is water and oil,” Mr. Lopez said. “There’s no more scaling of nine ingredients. There’s only two. You really streamline the process, and it helps out with labor challenges as well.”

Zooming into bakeries

COVID-19 not only cut into restaurant sales. The pandemic led to travel restrictions as well. Technicians no longer may visit baking plants to troubleshoot.

Visual programs like Zoom appear to be effective alternatives.

BreadPartners offers visual technical support to bakeries through a webcam.

“As the senior technical service manager, I enjoy interacting with customers on problem solving, and the video chat has allowed us to stay connected during these difficult times,” said Michael T. Mulloy of BreadPartners.

Ms. Lacovara-Birkey added, “So we can go live into the bakery and see exactly the issues they are having. Our technicians are able to troubleshoot with the bakers live. So if they’re having a breakdown on the line, they can call us that moment and talk live to one of our technicians, and (the technician) can essentially be in the bakery with them and walk them through on their cell phone.”

BreadPartners technicians will work with bakers through visual technical calls at virtually any hour, be it 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., Ms. Lacovara-Birkey said.

“We work bakers’ hours,” she said.

Changes such as the increased use of visual technical support might continue once COVID-19 subsides, she said.

“We’re all going to have a new normal once everything subsides,” she said.

Besides MyAdvantage, Puratos US also has launched MyLink digital services, which provide customers with resources for product support, including a direct technical support hotline and an online request for interactive technical support.

Mr. Bourneau said Puratos has more than 20 technical advisers available every day to take customer calls. The company is making use of digital video programs like Zoom as well. Puratos advisers want to see inside the baker’s facility without being physically next to the baker, he said.

“We want to make sure we see what they see: That we can give them immediate feedback, immediate recommendations,” Mr. Bourneau said.

Cain Food Industries, Inc., Dallas, has turned to phone calls and video conferences to help if a customer has run out of a specific ingredient in their formula or is having trouble getting the ingredient, said Matt Feder, senior vice president of sales at Cain Food Industries.  

“Due to the coronavirus we have implemented and used online meetings for internal purposes as well as interactions with our customers,” he said. “It has been nice to have this technology and have somewhat face-to-face meetings or trainings.”

Keeping yeast in supply

Changes in demand for yeast have AB Mauri North America, St. Louis, communicating more with its customers.

“We are staying very, very close to our customers,” said John Heilman, vice president of yeast manufacturing for AB Mauri North America and based at a yeast plant in Memphis, Tenn.

Since the sales team is not traveling, they may call customers more frequently, he said. The yeast situation has had more of an impact on smaller bakeries, leading to more schedule changes and cancellations, he said. Fresh yeast, because of its shorter shelf life, requires more communication with customers.

AB Mauri North America operates yeast plants in Memphis, LaSalle, Que., and Calgary, Alta. Only the plant in LaSalle makes dry yeast for retail.

“We are running everything we can in that plant,” Mr. Heilman said. “We are postponing vacations. We’re working overtime as much as possible.”

Dry yeast is a focus for Lesaffre Corp. as well. The company, which has a US office in Milwaukee, took actions to secure raw materials and made suppliers part of the plan, said Tom Benner, president and CEO.

“The people in our supply chain from plants, logistics and customer service were all involved to turn the whole system on a dime,” he said. “Needs changed, and changed again. We quickly realized that the system needed to be modified to meet the challenge. For example, in our dry products we consolidated our flows around fewer warehouse locations. This gave us the ability to adjust quickly to changing needs and be more agile.”

Lesaffre always maintains close relationships with its baking customers, Mr. Benner said.

“In normal times, that means something,” he said. “During tough times, it means even more.”

Lallemand, Inc., Montreal, is keeping in close contact with customers, too.

“Lallemand continues to be very flexible with customers, regarding changes and delivering solutions on the bakers’ needs,” said Audrey St. Onge, president and general manager for Lallemand North America Bakers Yeast. “This is a time where we see over-communication being practiced, checking in more frequently than normal and asking further if there is anything we can do to assist. I believe this has helped us to ask further questions and learn how we can help bakeries beyond how we may assist in a normal environment. For example, helping provide educational opportunities to customers’ innovation teams or tech teams who may have some additional time for learning.”

Staying in touch with bakery customers on many ingredients has become more important for suppliers during COVID-19.

BakeMark mainly uses the company website and social media to send broad messages to customers, Mr. Lopez said.

“For the most part, we work through our salesforce,” he said. “They are our bakery ambassadors out on the street.”

BakeMark offers a range of products for the baking industry. Besides bases, mixes and concentrates, they have items such as fruit fillings, flavors, colors, eggs, cookies, bread, bagels and donuts.

“We work very closely with our suppliers to make sure that any disruptions or any issues within the supply chain, we can address them before we see the impact out on the market,” Mr. Lopez said. “We’ve been able to stay on top of that very well.”

Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., has created a pandemic project management office to monitor the rapidly evolving situation, to manage the impacts across Ingredion’s global supply chain and to address the business continuity concerns for customers, said Jim Zallie, president and CEO of Ingredion.

“Our goal is to continue delivering our customers’ products on time throughout these unforeseen events,” he said. “Considering the global nature of our supply chain and the unprecedented challenges that we are experiencing, we have initiated the appropriate contingency plans by contacting our key suppliers and contractors to verify that we have suitable plans in place and are engaging with alternative suppliers as a precaution.

“Our customers will continue to hear from Ingredion as we provide regular updates as warranted as the situation changes. Our focused teams continue to manage these challenges with determination guided by our company values and purpose-driven culture. I am immensely proud for how we have all come together and are finding creative ways to work and collaborate.”