KANSAS CITY — The home baking renaissance that unfolded as consumers locked down to slow the spread of COVID-19 reversed a decades-long decline in demand for consumer yeast and created shortages at the retail level.  Eighteen months into the pandemic, surveys indicate some of that increased attention to baking generally and yeast specifically had sticking power and demand for yeast products remains above pre-COVID levels.

These findings on the state of home baking with yeast were presented during a panel on “COVID-19 Impacts the Baking Aisle” during the Home Baking Association Annual Meeting, which convened Oct. 17-19 at the Inn and Spa at Loretto in Santa Fe, NM.

Kelly Olson, team lead for marketing and consumer relations with Lesaffre Yeast Corp., Milwaukee, manufacturers of Red Star yeast products, spoke about COVID-19 impacts on the consumer yeast category.  

Prior to the pandemic, the consumer yeast category was in decline, part of a decades-long megatrend of decreased home baking as women closed the equality distance and joined the workforce in greater numbers, shifting meal prep and dining patterns and increasing reliance on microwaved and fast food. The decline in demand for yeast was quantified in Neilsen Consumer Yeast Category Consumption Data and exemplified by surveys that found more home bakers indicating they no longer had the time for yeast-based baking projects. At the same time, gradual shifts in American culture over recent decades included a pull away from some traditional occasions or commonplace traditions that once offered the home baker a chance to display their skills in the kitchen, such as fewer Americans cooking daily evening meals taken as a family.

When COVID-19 broke free from its region of origin and rapidly evolved into a global pandemic in March 2020, yeast demand skyrocketed to six times typical late-winter-early-spring levels and four times the recent average fall baking season volume, Ms. Olson said. National and local media outlets regularly transmitted images of bare shelves, which added fuel to the demand surge for a wide range of products in the grocery space.

By April and continuing through July 2020, retail shelves were cleared of yeast products within hours of stock replenishments and fresh yeast distribution ramped up. Consumers with the skills or determination (or both) to bake did so in greater numbers, whether it was practiced hands with rolling pins or crafty, curious recipe aficionados who suddenly found themselves with far more free time for kitchen experimentation after their commutes were eliminated and all public gatherings were X’d from the calendar.  Traffic to yeast product websites shot up 600% as social media engagements mentioning yeast multiplied, Ms. Olson said. Would-be bread bakers and those who fancied a loaf but faced time crunches stemming from work-from-home adjustments and corralling children for online classes sent web searches for bread machine purchases, instructions and tips up 400% from pre-pandemic levels, she said.  

Beginning in August 2020 and continuing through the fourth quarter of that year, yeast product stock levels at retail gradually normalized as orders or delivery frequencies increased. Demand also eased from the frenzied pace of the spring-summer of Pandemic Year One, but remained 50% to 80% above normal levels, Nielsen consumption data indicated, and web traffic to yeast sites was up about 70%.  

Ahead of the 2020 year-end holidays and anticipating a second coronavirus-caused lockdown with potential to initiate a demand surge, grocers stockpiled significant quantities of yeast.  Though holiday sales levels came in above normal, retailers had significant carryover inventory at the dawn of 2021. As the year progressed, consumer yeast demand gradually eased, but remained 20% to 40% above normal in the first and second quarters, and up 10% to 15% over the recent average for the July-September period, Nielsen data showed.  Retailers, uncertain about a Pandemic Year Two fall baking season beset with widespread labor and logistical shortages made their purchases earlier than usual.   

Meanwhile, yeast website traffic in the first 10 months of 2021 was up 38% over the same period in 2019. Recent consumer surveys were conducted in order to assess yeast end users’ baking frequency, their perception and response to purchasing challenges and to gain insight on their baking habits and occasions. Ms. Olson shared some of that data in her presentation to the millers, bakers and flour manufacturers assembled in Santa Fe.

Fifty-two percent of retail buyers found sourcing yeast a challenge, 21% of them denoting significant difficulty, Nielsen surveys found. Baker response to yeast retail availability issues were measured in nine categories, including a multi-store search (36%); online orders from mainstream grocery sites, mass merchandisers and Amazon (34%); borrowed from acquaintances or bought from a bakery (26%); and bought from non-grocer sites such as eBay and Etsy (18%). Fewer respondents decreased their baking frequency (8%) or initiated a non-yeast sourdough starter. Of the 28% of bakers who stocked up when they did find ample retail supplies, 49% bought double, 39% bought triple and 13% bought quadruple their anticipated nearby needs.   

Baking habit questions found “new bakers” (baking with yeast from zero to two times a year) made up only a single digit percentage of yeast buyers at the start of the pandemic, while experienced bakers deploying yeast-based recipes from five times a year to weekly or even more frequently were behind 82% of yeast sales, Nielsen data indicated. As home baking frequency shot higher by 75% in the early weeks of the pandemic, new bakers made up 92% of purchases, followed by intermediate bakers at 83% and experienced bakers at 72%.

 Home bakers’ projections for their post-COVID baking frequency found 67% felt they would continue to bake more than they did prior to the pandemic, Nielsen data showed. Of that group, 21% indicated they would bake at the same level as they did in the early months of the pandemic, while 16% felt they would bake at the rate they established as the coronavirus scourge stretched into its 18th and 19th month. Forty-one percent of new bakers said they would return to pre-pandemic baking levels, compared with 26% of occasional bakers (those who bake three to four times per year) and 26% of experienced bakers.

On average, the pandemic-era home baker experimented with four types of items, from the most popular category (pizza/flatbreads at 66%) to the less common (bagels, 21%), Nielsen survey results showed. More than half of home bakers tried their hands at sweet bread and regular bread, while relatively few ventured to attempt flavored bread and pretzels. Thirty-one percent of respondents baked a sourdough loaf, 42% of them using a store-bought sourdough yeast and 67% of the group adding a store-bought yeast to a homemade sourdough starter.

Surveyed home bakers indicated their increased attention to baking soothed and relaxed them (46%), provided a sense of accomplishment (42%), filled the increased free time at home (40%) and helped involve and entertain child bakers attending virtual school (27%). Others sought the cost savings versus store-bought bread (25%) or found it hard to find bread on store shelves (18%), Nielsen data indicated.

Thirty percent of survey respondents continued to bake at mid-COVID frequency. Those whose home baking frequency declined over the course of the pandemic said they had gained too much weight (25%), had returned to an office outside the home (21%), increased their reliance on delivery and restaurant food (18%), or found it too costly to keep baking so often (16%) Nielsen findings indicated. A relatively small percentage found their baked goods weren’t being consumed (13%) or lost interest or enjoyment in baking (11%).

 Ms. Olson concluded her talk with HBA meeting attendees by sharing comments from survey takers that showed signs for optimism for consumer yeast demand post-COVID.  While some experienced bakers cited a lack of time for the late-COVID baking decline, select new users indicated their newfound experience will have them more inclined to turn to a yeast recipe on the occasions when they do bake.

“It’s something cool I can show off,” a new baker said.