The desserts category continued to do well over the past 12 months, with many subcategories increasing in sales.

Market data

The desserts category continues to flourish—according to Circana (Chicago) data from the past 52 weeks, ending on March 2024, the center store cakes subcategory took in $646.9 million, with a 0.7% uptick in sales. The center store loaf/pound subcategory was responsible for $301.9 million of that total number, with a 1.5% increase. Key players included Grupo Bimbo ($158.4 million in sales, up 2.4%); McKee Foods ($70.7 million, but with a 5.5% decline); and, interestingly, Starbucks ($32.7 million, 4.6%).

The center store angel food/bundt/sponge subcategory ($288.4 million, with 1.1% in growth) showed The J.M. Smucker Co. taking in $243.5 million, with a 1% increase. The center store layer cakes subcategory achieved $30.1 million, with a 3.6% upturn in sales, and Grupo Bimbo brought in $29.6 million, with a healthy 6.8% uptick. The center store specialty cakes subcategory finished with approximately $20 million, but a 27.2% decline, and the all other center store cakes subcategory took in $3.5 million, with a 25.7% increase.

In addition, the center store sheet cakes category took in $2.9 million, with an attention-grabbing 4,482.4% increase in sales, possibly due to consumers gathering more for celebratory moments like birthdays.

In the center store pies category, which brought in $445.8 million (a 6.2% increase), the center store individual/snack pies subcategory took in the majority of the category ($429 million, up 4.8%) and private label flourished, with $123.4 million in sales (up 37%). The center store whole pies subcategory took in $15.5 million in sales (75.1% increase), with PL again dominating the category ($11.15 million, 90.6% increase), and the center store tarts subcategory brought in $1.2 million in sales, albeit with a 24.1% decline.

The bakery perimeter desserts/sweet snacks category brought in $10.2 billion in sales, with a modest 2.9% increase. Companies of note include Carlo’s Bakeshop, infamous for its cake vending machines ($7.9 million, with 1,216,277.5% increase in sales), in the perimeter layer cake subcategory; The Cheesecake Factory’s bakery arm ($11 million, 16.4% increase) in the perimeter cheesecakes subcategory; and Rich Products ($4.7 million, 113.4% uptick) in the perimeter specialty cakes subcategory.

Looking back

“We have seen different flavors in the industry explode recently,” says Mike Joyce, sales support specialist, Golden Cannoli. “Consumers love to try new spinoffs and seasonal flavors of their favorite traditional items. With cannoli specifically, this past year we have seen lemon as a very successful flavor profile in the springtime. We also see people wanting new innovations of traditional items. “Customers are looking for smaller choices, smaller pack sizes, and are very price-conscious. Our innovation is driven toward making sure we do not have frequent price increases, but still allow for the customer to enjoy the cannoli experience.”

Sarah Duff Zupancic, director of marketing, Eli’s Cheesecake, says a notable trend is the ‘little treat culture,’ where consumers reward themselves throughout the day with small but indulgent purchases that provide a mood boost.

“[In addition,] the demand for vegan and plant-based food options continues to evolve. This year, consumers want plant-based foods made with better quality ingredients, putting the ‘plant’ back into plant-based items,” she shares. “Eli’s offers vegan Lemon Raspberry ‘Cheesecake’ and vegan Belgian Chocolate ‘Cheesecake’ available for the service case or a 7” dome for the in-store bakery. They’re made with locally produced, GMO-Free tofu, and are certified vegan. Our pastry chefs are currently working on fun new flavors to expand this dessert line.”

“Newstalgia” is still one of the hottest trends, incorporating retro flavors and childhood favorites into new desserts, she relates.
“Due to popular demand, Eli’s is re-introducing our Cookie Butter Cheesecake this fall for the in-store bakery. The cheesecake [is] swirled with cookie butter, sprinkled with crunchy speculoos spice cookie crumbs, and baked on a speculoos crust,” Zupancic finishes.

Lena Grobe, director of brand marketing, Rubicon Bakers, says in addition to newstalgia, she has noted other trends in the category:

  • Flexitarian/special dietary needs: Giving consumers vegan options (whether they are fully vegan or interested in taking a break/eating less dairy), as well as exploring low sugar and gluten-free options
  • Convenience and permissible indulgence: Providing different size options for consumers on-the-go or looking to have a small "treat yourself" moment
just desserts cupcake and chocolate cake
Courtesy of Just Desserts

“We've started to offer our Just Desserts products in more channels to address the consumer need for convenience, with our Single Serve Cupcakes now available in convenience stores nationally and in the food service channel, so consumers can find while on the go at airports [or other places],” says Grobe. “We’re [also] seeing larger retailers showing interest in vegan, gluten-free, and a variety of pack sizes. There is a need to address a diversity of diets, as well as smaller households and gatherings,” she adds.

Bill Heiler, senior manager, customer marketing, Rich Products, says that while consumers are managing their overall food expenses, they continue to indulge in affordable treats, such as the brand’s Tres Leches style cake cups, priced under $5.

“This trend is evident in the growth of the Grab & Go sector, which, according to recent Nielsen data, has seen a 4.6% increase in dollar value and a 5.6% rise in unit sales compared to the same period last year. We can attribute this surge to both the affordable indulgence and convenience offered by both product lines,” he comments.

“One of the main consumer shifts that impacted our business is increased demand for seasonal innovation. Consumers are looking for new flavors and global culinary inspiration. This trend led to the creation of Rich’s Tres Leches style cake cups, including chocolate souffle and creme brûlée,” he notes. “Some of our customers prefer to introduce new items seasonally, and based on demand, [we] will transition these items to everyday offerings. As an example, Tres Leches style cake cups might debut for Cinco De Mayo or Hispanic Heritage Month, before transitioning to an everyday assortment.”

Courtesy of Rich Products

Cathy Chavenet, chief marketing officer, Paris Baguette, says “everyone is trying to push the boundaries of what a croissant can do in terms of shapes, textures, and flavors to create the next trendy hybrid [dessert].”

sweet baguettes
Courtesy of Paris Baguette

“Both sweet and spicy flavor profiles are seeing a rise in popularity, in particular with younger generations searching for more complex flavors. More than ever, consumers are experimenting with flavors and becoming more adventurous with what they are buying,” she advises. “It’s important to stay current on menu innovation, new trends, and delivering on flavors that our guests are searching for. We like to maintain a seasonal calendar where we lean in on key moments throughout the year, but also introduce new and innovative products that are freshly made daily at all [of our] bakery cafes to create excitement, appetite appeal, and purchase intent.”

Looking forward

Grobe says the Rubicon Bakers portfolio released two-pack cupcakes this year in Vegan Mango Passion Fruit, Banana Cream, Double Strawberry, Cookies and Cream, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavors.

“We plan to expand our line of Just Desserts Single Serve Cupcakes with new seasonal flavors,” she adds. “Looking at expanding our Just Desserts Bites program, currently we offer 24 packs of Cinnamon Coffee Cake and Chocolate Brownie flavors, but we are exploring new packing configurations and additional flavors for the lineup.”

Chavenet notes that Paris Baguette was the first bakery café QSR brand to debut the Croissant Crisp: a flattened and pressed brûléed croissant that originated in Korea.

“Our unique take on it was to fill and sandwich the crisps with Nutella and raspberry jam varieties,” she adds. “Earlier this year, we also launched our Salted Butter Twist Rolls, which are handmade by our bakers—pillowy milk bread dough shaped and rolled like a croissant, topped with sea salt wrapped around a pure butter pat. While baking, the butter melts and infuses the dough while the outside becomes crisp.”

In addition, beginning this month, the brand will offer a new round shaped “Supreme” Croissant, filled with lemon custard cream or chocolate cream.

Heiler says that while Rich Products’ Tres Leches style cake cups are still relatively new to consumers, they have been seeing strong product growth. According to Datassential Flavor tracking data, 65% of consumers are aware of tres leches and 36% love or like it, with two-thirds of portion-sized tres leches desserts are purchased by non-Hispanic shoppers.

“By offering seasonal flavors and limited time offers, we’re helping our customers attract new consumers. The novelty and excitement of trying a unique variety often lead consumers to make an initial purchase, which in turn encourages them to explore and repeatedly buy our core, non-seasonal flavors,” he relates.

Zupancic says the brand is excited about its newest foodservice product, introduced in May: the “ultimate newstalgia product,” S’mores Cheesecake.

“It’s made with creamy graham cheesecake batter full of bittersweet chocolate chunks, topped with smoky chocolate ganache for a fun campfire flavor. It’s covered in hand-toasted marshmallow topping and crunchy graham crumbs, and baked on a salted graham crust for the ultimate contrast in texture and flavor. This 10” cheesecake is hand-decorated for a housemade look, and precut into 14 slices,” she shares.

Valerie Bono-Bunker, owner/chief sales and marketing officer, Golden Cannoli, says the company recently released multiple cannoli flavors in a 24-oz. chip and dip platter, as well as flavors in a square 12-oz. cannoli dip cup.

chocolate cannoli
cannoli dips
Courtesy of Golden Cannoli

“Our lemon filling this year went over very well, and we launched a brand-new frozen retail ready to serve cannoli line. In addition, we have created LTO flavors and custom formulation in shells, chips, and filings to meet our customers’ needs in bulk foodservice and retail,” she shares.

Golden Cannoli will be launching a line of 8- to 16-oz. deli dessert dips to rival chocolate hummus dessert dip. “This will be made with a spin on our traditional cannoli creams and dips, but sold in refrigeration at a 50-day shelf life,” Bono-Bunker specifies.

In addition, the brand will launch its 6-9” cannoli pie for both retail and foodservice. “This will be made with a cannoli crumb base, authentic cannoli cream filling, and garnished with chocolate chips, sweet cannoli crumble, and dusted with powdered sugar. We will also be launching our 1.5-3” cannoli crumb tart shells for foodservice sales. These tarts are made with cannoli crumbs pressed into a straight-edged tart shell and [can] be filled with cannoli cream, fruits, and other creams sold dry in bulk format,” she adds.

“Our business has also never been more innovative then now. We are constantly challenging the industry norms with our R&D team creating new items to bring to market. Being focused on cannoli products, we can push the envelope on new product innovation with all the resources we have available. We are also working with many co-packers in the industry on private-label brands and inclusions that allow for the cannoli experience in other types of items. Cannoli is trending, and we are at the center of its growth and opportunity.”