KANSAS CITY — Even as they scrambled to keep supermarket shelves filled, selling more bread than ever in many instances bakers over the past year have been planning for the future. A future after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than add to their product lines, many bakers were forced for parts or much of the past year to reduce stock-keeping units in order to streamline operations, maximize production and keep supermarket shelves filled. This pressure eased as the year progressed, and virtually all bakers in 2020 either introduced new products or planned for significant new product introductions for 2021 or beyond.

Sales of fresh bread totaled $10.1 billion in the 52 weeks ended Jan. 24, according to data from Information Resources, Inc., up 10% from a year earlier. Unit sales were up 6%. Each of the top baking companies tracked by IRI enjoyed higher branded sales over the past year, capturing share from private label, which declined 5% in dollar sales and 7% in unit sales.

Among the leading bakers, Martins Famous Pastry Shoppe Inc. experienced the widest gains, up 34% in dollar sales and 31% in unit sales. But even the largest bakers scored double-digit gains, with the US business of Grupo Bimbo up 13%; Flowers Foods, up 16% and Pepperidge Farm, Inc., up 12%.

Private label continued to lead the category as measured by unit count. At 1.037 billion units, private label was 14% larger than the 910 million units sold during the year by Bimbo.

Take & Bake line strong for La Brea

Overall new product introductions in the bread category were down last year, but the effect was especially pronounced for suppliers of in-store bakeries, said Christine Prociv, senior vice president of marketing, innovation and research and development for Aryzta North America in Chicago.

While the difficulties experienced by in-store bakeries represented a challenge in 2020 for Aryzta’s La Brea business because of the pandemic, the year brought positives as well. Even before COVID-19, the company was placing greater emphasis on building its Take & Bake brand, a par baked loaf finished at home with 8 to 10 minutes in the oven, Ms. Prociv said.

“In 2019 we had begun optimizing the Take & Bake product line to better solve consumer needs, focusing on rolls and demi baguettes,” she said. “Then as consumer demand for our Take & Bake breads increased during COVID, we enhanced automation at our bakery in late 2020 and will be launching our new breads within this portfolio shortly.”

Ms. Prociv said the landscape for new product introductions this year is more attractive than has been the case in some time.

“Bread experienced a resurgence in 2020 because of the pandemic,” she said.

Still, the challenges posed suppliers of in-store bakeries like La Brea were formidable, Ms. Prociv said.

“Our customers essentially were not taking appointments during COVID and were not taking new items,” she said. “They were going the other way, with stock-keeping unit rationalizations. Everyone was facing supply chain constraints during COVID.”

La Brea had entered 2020 with plans to extend the Take & Bake line of baguettes, ciabattas and other bread and roll varieties, plans that were put off until 2021 as were planned limited-time offers.

Unable to introduce new products, La Brea “refreshed” many of its core products with numerous changes. For instance, the ends of the company’s popular French baguettes were tapered and flour dusting was added. The bread’s interior was lightened and hydration was increased. Other products updated included a French loaf (lighter interior, darker bake and flour dusting), Italian round (deeper score, increased hydration, darker bake and flour dusting), sourdough loaf (darker bake and increasing scoring) and whole wheat grain loaf (topped with seeds and grains).

The five refreshed products account for 62% of the company’s artisan bread sales. La Brea said the changes were meant to enhance consumer perception of authenticity and freshness.

The products were renovated to “keep them interesting and enhance the artisanal heritage, yet leaving the core recipes as is,” Ms. Prociv said.

She said La Brea’s activities in 2020 were aimed at the twin objectives of keeping consumers engaged and also, amid unusually heavy demand, keeping supermarket shelves stocked.

“La Brea Bakery has also focused on expanding the availability of our breads to include more grocery store partners on a nationwide scale,” she said. “We also enhanced the packaging graphics across all of our portfolios, which was completed in 2020. The innovative new look of our packaging offers more information for consumers — including flavor profiles, recipe suggestions, wine and beer pairings — plus a slightly updated logo.”

Challenges related to the pandemic extended to products introduced in 2019, Ms. Prociv said. New petite loaves were introduced at that time to meet the needs of smaller households. After briefly “experimenting” with the product, they were withdrawn in 2020.

“We know there is a need for smaller households,” Ms. Prociv said. “People don’t want their bread to go bad. We need to spend a little more time fine-tuning the line and will bring it back this year.”

Without divulging details of other items to be introduced this year, Ms. Prociv suggested sourdough-based products likely will be included.

“Our Sourdough loaves and our Take & Bake breads were by far La Brea Bakery’s top performers,” she said. “In fact, this year, our Country White Sourdough has overtaken our Whole Grain as our No. 2 behind the French baguette at Kroger. I’m sure it’s based on all the press around sourdough, its nutritional benefits and home bakers who have now re-acquired a taste for sourdough while realizing that it really is a significant amount of work.”

Anecdotally emphasizing the latter point, Ms. Prociv said she has friends who continue to feed their sourdough starter.

“But they aren’t baking as much bread,” she said.

Adding to the appeal of sourdough bread are immunity benefits it is believed to confer with prebiotics naturally occurring through the yeast, she said.

“More and more consumers are aware that 70% to 80% of the body’s immunity is in the digestive tract,” she said.

Additionally, sourdough is thought to provide gut health benefits, with naturally lower levels of gluten, making the products more easily digestible, she added.

Asked whether 2020 was a breakthrough year for sourdough, Ms. Prociv was emphatic.

“Absolutely!” she said. “The data show it. Our sourdough loaf is up 28% versus a year ago. That’s huge. Where some people didn’t like the taste, that is changing. Add on top of that the nutritional benefits related to immunity and gut health. When they baked bread, everyone was talking. I really think their palates have changed or adapted.”

To succeed going forward, La Brea and other bakers will need to adapt to increasing consumer concerns about sanitation and hygiene, Ms. Prociv said.

“On the in-store front, consumers wanted to know which companies were keeping their employees safe while producing safely packaged foods easily available to grab at the grocery store,” she said.

This sanitation concern is heightened for in-store bakeries, many of which traditionally have had loaves or other products partly or full unwrapped. Products on lower shelves often were within reach of the exploring (and not necessarily clean) hands of young children. Such product arrangements largely came to an end with the pandemic.

“With consumers spending more time at home this past year and food safety a key concern, our Take & Bake breads —  which are packaged entirely enclosed — have steadily increased in sales,” she said.

New varieties of Take & Bake are expected to be introduced “very shortly,” she said

Fully closing the Take & Bake line does not adversely affect quality, since the crust crispens when heated in the oven, Ms. Prociv said. She said La Brea is looking for packaging solutions for its other products that provide more complete closure but without giving up quality.

Flowers focusing on bun extensions

For Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga., 2020 was a year for several product line extensions, and more will be forthcoming in 2021.

After the successful 2019 launch of Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted Brioche Style bread, Flowers in 2020 expanded the concept to hamburger and hot dog buns and butter rolls, said Brent Bradshaw, senior vice president, core brands. The line features a brioche-style texture and a subtly sweet flavor.

“Through extensive consumer research we had learned how consumers use our products and what needs we could meet, and we saw a real opportunity with this expansion,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “We also have engaged consumers with online recipes, offering them a little of inspiration and confidence to elevate meals or learn fun and innovative ways to use these products. Overall, we have been very pleased with the growth of the Perfectly Crafted line.”

He said the buns and rolls have had strong trial and repeat. The entire line has no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors and also is Non-GMO Project verified.

This year, the Perfectly Crafted line will expand with the addition of a soft rye.

“It will feature a flour-dusted crust, soft, thick slices consumers know and love from Perfectly Crafted, and an authentic, balanced rye flavor,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “Consumer research and in-home usage testing showed high interest from consumers who are currently buying or interested in buying rye and this was an area where we were underrepresented.”

In 2020, Flowers launched a pair of bun varieties under the Dave’s Killer Bread brands. Dan Letchinger, senior vice president, growth brands, said buns for years had been atop the list of products DKB customers, dubbed “Breadheads,” had sought.

“Knowing that this category is dominated by economically priced white buns, we wondered if consumers would pay a premium price for the organic, whole grain nutrition for which the DKB brand is known and loved,” he said. “After more than a year of extensive consumer research and our own R&D, we confidently launched two killer hamburger buns, with flavors that are a nod to two of our best-selling loaf breads: 21 Whole Grains and Seeds Bun, and Burger Buns Done Right.”

The launch was the most successful in DKB’s history, Mr. Letchinger said, easily beating the company’s goals.

Rye bread also is slated for a new product introduction under the Dave’s Killer Bread brand.

“Over the years, we have often heard from Dave’s Killer Bread loyal fan base that a rye bread would be a great addition to the DKB loaf bread line-up,” Mr. Letchinger said.

The product will launch this spring and is “anything but ordinary,” he added.

Named Righteous Rye, Mr. Letchinger said it features a seed-coated crust for crunch, and a distinct caraway flavor balanced with a bit of sweetness. Each slice has 10 grams of whole grains and a marbled dough.

Buns also were viewed at Flowers as an opportunity for the gluten-free category, and Canyon Bakehouse Burger buns were introduced in spring 2020, Mr. Letchinger said. He said there are many product areas in which gluten-free suppliers are ”playing catch up.”

“In this relatively underdeveloped segment of the gluten-free bread category, something as simple as a burger bun can have a tremendous impact when it lives up to the expectations of great taste, wholesome, high-quality ingredients, while also being able to hold up to many burger toppings,” Mr. Letchinger said. “Given the success of our product extensions beyond loaf bread, including bagels and English muffins, launching a burger bun was a natural fit for the Canyon Bakehouse brand.”

The buns are offered under the Canyon Bakehouse Stay-Fresh line, which uses modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) technology to extend the freshness and shelf-life in the fresh bread aisle. A similar hamburger bun is sold in the freezer aisle.

“Having both options allows retailers to sell a gluten-free bun in the two parts of the store where gluten-free consumers shop the most,” Mr. Letchinger said.

This coming spring, Flowers will introduce two new gluten-free bread products under the Canyon Bakehouse brand — a sub roll and a Hawaiian sweet 18-oz loaf. Mr. Letchinger described the sub as a complement to the hamburger buns, suitable for sandwiches and meal uses.

“We’ve had tremendous success with our similar Hawaiian Sweet bread in Stay-Fresh shelf packaging, and this launch is an expansion to the freezer where we’ll be able to reach more consumers,” he said. “In the gluten-free category, the Hawaiian sweet bread flavor is unique to Canyon and will add another offering to our current frozen 18-oz loaf lineup, including our No. 1 and No. 2 gluten-free loaves, Mountain White and 7-Grain.”

Bimbo steps up innovation late in ‘20

Quiet through much of 2020, Bimbo Bakeries USA stepped up its new product introductions late in the year. In October, BBU announced it was partnering with Land O’Lakes, Inc. to introduce Arnold, Brownberry and Oroweat branded Country Style Butter Bread baked with Land O’Lakes butter. BBU said the line is baked with simple ingredients, including whole milk and sea salt and is free from artificial preservatives, colors and flavors.

“As the largest premium bread brand in the country, we are delighted to partner with the leading branded butter, Land O’Lakes, to elevate a classic pairing,” said Jessica Grane, marketing director of premium and artisan bread at BBU, a subsidiary of Grupo Bimbo SAB de CV. “This strategic alliance brings America’s favorite butter to the bread aisle and is sure to become a household staple.”

Also in October, BBU announced it was rolling out The Rustik Oven signature artisan bread line nationwide. The roll out marked an expansion following a test marketing of the line in California since 2019. The Rustik Oven is available in three varieties — Sourdough, Artisan White, and Hearty Grains and Seeds. The bread is Non-GMO Project verified and made without any artificial colors or flavors. Produced with a sourdough starter, The Rustik Oven bread is baked slowly in a stone oven, ensuring even baking and allowing the loaf to develop a firm, golden crust. The sourdough variety ferments 24 hours before baking.

“For so long, we heard our consumers’ feedback over the struggle of choosing between the superior quality of bread from their favorite local bakery and the longer shelf life and convenience of bread from a grocery store,” Ms. Grane said. “Thanks to our signature baking process, we’re proud to bring this unique offering to the artisan bread category and offer our fans the taste that they love in a more convenient way.”

A month later, BBU launched Sara Lee Artesano Potato Bakery Bread. The bread features thick slices containing sea salt, butter and the flavor of potato bread. BBU said the introduction was prompted by research showing consumers gravitating toward more savory bread varieties, including brioche and potato.

“With potato bread becoming a growing go-to for the American consumer, Sara Lee is thrilled to add this favorite to our family of varieties,” said Ben Buch, marketing director of Sara Lee Bread. “We hope this new addition to our Artesano Bakery breads portfolio will spark inspiration for new family-favorite recipes this fall and winter as they indulge in the flavors of the season.”

BBU introduced the Artesano brand in the United States in 2015 under the Sara Lee banner. The product, which originated in Bimbo’s business in Colombia, has enjoyed great success over the past five years.

Reflecting the persistent prevalence of carbohydrate avoidance, BBU in January expanded its Sara Lee Delightful line with a new variety — Sara Lee Delightful White Made with Whole Grain. The company described the bread as “keto-friendly.” It contains 6 grams of net carbs per slice and 12 grams of net carbs per two-slice serving. The bread features 90 calories per two-slice serving. The Delightful line was launched in 2003 by Sara Lee amid another wave of carbohydrate avoidance.

In addition to its all-new variety, BBU has refreshed the packaging of Sara Lee Delightful to feature clean and bright colors that reflect the simplicity of the premium product.

“As 2021 kicks off, we at Sara Lee know that diet-based New Year’s resolutions are top-of-mind for many consumers who are looking to start the year off on a healthier note,” Mr. Buch said. “With a sleek new look for our Delightful packaging and a delicious new variety, we’re proud to continue providing our fans with flavorful options that are made with whole grain and prove healthy can be delicious, too.”