While wholesale bakeries supplying center-store bread aisles saw a sales boom in 2020, those businesses that serve mostly foodservice and in-store bakeries went through a different experience. None was more public than the challenging year Aspire Bakeries endured. But while the Zurich-based company underwent leadership changes and restructuring, subsidiary Aspire Bakeries quietly pivoted its operations to better serve its in-store bakery and foodservice customers. That ability to quickly assess, adapt and innovate has Aspire Bakeries emerging with a strategy for the future and new ownership on the horizon. In March, it was announced that private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg will be acquiring Aspire Bakeries. The deal is set to close before the end of summer.

This story is most apparent in how the company’s La Brea Bakery brand weathered the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. La Brea Bakery supplies bread to in-store bakeries as well as a range of foodservice customers, so a slump would be expected. And it did at the beginning of the pandemic. But plans to expand its Take & Bake line and renewed consumer interest in artisan breads empowered the company to shift gears and innovate its way to future growth.

To say the pandemic affected La Brea Bakery and Aspire Bakeries’ business would be an understatement.

“It was a big impact for two main reasons in the grocery store,” said Chris Prociv, Aspire Bakeries’ senior vice president of marketing, innovation and research and development. “La Brea Bakery is in the in-store bakery where bakers bake up our product, and that labor was constrained, so our breads weren’t being baked as consistently as they were in the past. And secondly, our package is an open bag, which was a real problem in the early days of the pandemic.”

While Aspire Bakeries offered in-store bakery customers best practices for wrapping La Brea Bakery’s open-bagged product, the Take & Bake line provided a way to meet consumers’ desire for artisan bread while still assuaging their food safety concerns. The par-baked products come in a sealed package and can either be baked at home within a few days or frozen for later, allowing consumers to enjoy them at their leisure without worrying about shelf life. This insight was confirmed during a fortuitously scheduled consumer focus group on March 11, 2020, that gave Aspire Bakeries an early view into how COVID-19 was changing consumers’ priorities when it came to bread.

“Our original objective was to optimize the Take & Bake line of the business because we knew it had the most opportunity,” Ms. Prociv said. “But when consumers came in, all of a sudden they were into hygiene, so the focus group naturally encompassed the new perspective people had and what this meant for how this product could fit into this new environment.”

Since then, the Take & Bake line has seen double-digit growth, proving to Aspire Bakeries that it had been underleveraged and was hitting all of consumers’ buttons. While Aspire Bakeries already planned to grow the Take & Bake product and invest in La Brea Bakery’s operations to support that initiative, the consumer response during the pandemic made that project even more urgent. The company invested and installed an automated packaging line to streamline efficiencies and fully meet demand for the Take & Bake product line.

With La Brea Bakery’s Van Nuys facility equipped to handle more capacity and the end of the pandemic in sight, Aspire Bakeries is nothing but optimistic. Channels that experienced a slump are starting to bounce back. Consumers have rediscovered not just a love of bread but a passion for artisan bread. And the Aspire Bakeries customer development and marketing teams have not been idle. Innovation is leading the way at Aspire Bakeries as it focuses on being customer-centric, building strategic long-term partnerships, focusing on growth customers and its core categories.

“Our teams have an opportunity because we’ve learned from the past and adapted, and now we can provide solutions that will continue to meet consumers’ needs,” Ms. Prociv said. “We need to really work closely with our retail customers and our consumers. We listen to what their needs are and provide them with the solutions that they’re looking for.”

With the support of its new owner, Lindsay Goldberg, Aspire Bakeries will be even more empowered to meet its customers’ needs.

“They have the same strategic thoughts we do to grow our business and invest in it, which you see in Van Nuys,” Ms. Prociv said. “Our future is exciting. We’re going to be able to put resources against growth and maybe even some new categories after we maximize our opportunities in the short term.”

With a focus on customers and innovating within its core categories, Aspire Bakeries is building on La Brea Bakery’s successful pivot and efficiencies to leave 2020 behind but not forgotten.

This article is an excerpt from the May 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on ANA and La Brea Bakery, click here.