With no one knowing what the future holds, consumers turn to the superheroes of the snack and baking
industries to provide comfort and enjoyment, thus saving the day, every day, in just a small way.

By Dan Malovany

Get the mayor on the hotline. Light the beacon in the sky. Send the telegram to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There’s a disaster just waiting to happen.

Don’t believe it? Go ahead and talk to the millions of Americans who are unemployed, the thousands of folks who have just given up hope and the countless others who live in fear because their dealership, production facility or restaurant may downsize or close.

Listen to the minions of mere mortals whose pay has been cut by companies aiming to operate leaner and meaner or to those people who struggle to pay their underwater mortgages as they watch their promised pensions and underperforming 401k’s take years of their hard work and flush it all down the toilet.

That MBA was supposed to be a passage to a better life? Some pundits now claim it’s a ticket to nowhere. 

Okay, the planet is not just about to be destroyed, but it seems like it has as the stress-ridden lives of everyday Americans are being battered by e-mails written in all caps demanding that the job be done immediately… OR ELSE!

The forces of evil seem to be zapping regular Americans of every iota of energy that they have. Even on the home front, teens find themselves pummeled each day by text messages from their backstabbing friends or by overbearing parents whose expectations exceed the pressure that the public exerts on the greatest of superheroes.

Ah ha! Yes, superheroes. That’s what this world needs in these uncertain times.

They don’t need to be as fast as a speeding bullet, as powerful as a locomotive and be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Once upon a time to be a superhero, snacks and baked products just needed to taste good, but that’s no longer the case. Today’s superheroes must offer a whole lot more, such as Omega-3s that provide memory and brain power, antioxidants that fight off the risk of heart disease or cancer, protein to make bodies strong and fiber to make everyone feel like a regular guy.

Just ask Felicia Carlson, marketing manager for Hill & Valley, the Rock Island, Ill.-based company that specializes in producing sugar-free and no-sugar-added products in the cookie and dessert categories to help fight diabetes and other medical villains.

“To be a superhero in this category, it takes great taste, great texture, commitment to premium quality along with variety and a commitment to improve our customers’ overall quality of life,” she explains. “The trends that are saving the day are 100-calorie portion control, quality, variety, and above all, great taste.”

In the current environment, for instance, cookie, cracker and snack producers often need super-speed to react in an instant. They require superhuman reflexes to respond to the constantly changing dynamics of the market. Under certain circumstances, they may even have to defy certain laws of physics to get the job done in what seems to be parallel worlds at one time.

In other words, having the powers of The Flash is often the best way to save the day in these often crazy times, according to Michael Simon, senior vice president and general manager of Pepperidge Farm’s snacks business.

“With a volatile commodity market, a very challenging and difficult economy and retail customers who are consolidating and applying increased pressure on their suppliers, the ability to be agile and react in nanoseconds is critical to succeeding in this marketplace,” Simon explains.

Last year’s commodity crisis along with this year’s recession have forced food manufacturers like Pepperidge Farm to become increasingly nimble, almost to the point where companies find themselves in a state of perpetual planning, adds Tim Hassett, senior vice president and general manager of Pepperidge Farm’s fresh and frozen bakery business. At the beginning of this year, he notes, the company had to readjust its fresh baked goods portfolio to respond to the new realities in the marketplace.

“Gone are the days when you can put together your annual plan and your respective innovation and just execute accordingly,” Hassett explains. “You have to have a plan to re-plan, if necessary, based on the environment. It’s forced us to stay pretty flexible and adapt to the environment. It’s also forced us to stay more in tune with the day-to-day swings that we’re seeing within the category.”

The snack and baking industries, however, are well positioned to make it through this current economic slump, adds Kent Spalding, vice president of marketing for Barbara’s Bakery, Inc., Petaluma, Calf.
He says the economy may be slowing down a bit, but the fundamentals are still there. The challenge is not to overreact but still be cautious.

Such caution has prompted many companies to cut back on new product rollouts since the so-called “economic Pearl Harbor” hit last September. However, Spalding says, Barbara’s Bakery has actually accelerated introductions. In June, the company is coming out with a new snack mix that has about two-thirds less fat than natural potato chips and lower sodium than leading national, non-natural brands of snack mixes.

“We think that this is a great opportunity for us to continue to [create] really good, quality products at a value,” Spalding says.

Making a Difference

For Tina Battistoni, marketing manager at Eagan, Minn.-based French Meadow Bakery, becoming a superhero means offering a point of difference from a price competitive manner. It also means creating products that are on trend, especially in the functional food and gluten-free arena. For some consumers, it seems that evil lurks in every corner from trans fats to multisyllabic ingredients that only a chosen few can pronounce.

“Consumers are seeking to avoid processed foods, those with artificial ingredients or preservatives and are moving toward products with simplified ingredients,” she says.

Of course, consumers need to beware of imposters who act like they’re doing good, but they’re really not, says Penny Pearl, founder of Penny’s Low Fat Desserts, Inc., Grass Valley, Calif.

Take, for example, the energy, nutrition and granola bar segments, which has long operated under a suspicious halo of health.

“There is an overload of snack bars on the market, but if you take a look at their nutrition panel, they are very high in calories, usually have more than 4 g. of fat and are low in fiber,” Pearl says.

The company’s portfolio of healthful cookies, muffin tops and other treats, she says, provide an alternative to such dastardly impersonators of goodness. Truth and justice are truly the American way.

“People love to eat dessert or a sweet breakfast [product],” Pearl adds. “What makes Penny’s Low Fat Desserts unique is that we address the many facets to make our desserts as perfect as possible. These include flavor, all-natural ingredients and exclude preservatives and artificial sweeteners. Additionally, we package our muffins and cookies individually wrapped for portion control and portability, and because of our unique formulation, we are able to provide a generous single serving.”

Often wholesome goodness provides the simple pleasures for everyday life. That’s why Flowers Foods has seen sales of muffins provide the company with a growth segment in the sweet goods category, which generally has been an underperforming part of the market.

“When you look at units, most segments of the sweet good category are flat to down. The one bright spot are muffins, which are enjoying some growth due to new product launches,” says Janice Anderson, vice president of marketing for the Thomasville, Ga.-based company. “We have tapped into this with the rollout of Mrs. Freshley’s 100-Calorie Mini Blueberry Muffins and two-pack blueberry muffins and three-pack, 100-calorie single-serve muffins under both the Mrs. Freshley’s and Blue Bird brands. We introduced these muffin items about a year ago.”

For its part on the savory side, Glenview, Ill.-based Kraft Pizza Co. is cashing in on the increasingly popular trend with the launch of DiGiorno Crispy Flatbread pizzas, says Tim Cofer, Kraft Pizza’s president.
The extra-thin pizzas are topped with premium Italian-style ingredients such as oven-roasted tomatoes, Italian sausage and a blend of Italian-style cheeses. Varieties include Italian Sausage & Onions, Pepperoni & Fire-Roasted Bell Peppers, Tuscan Style Chicken and Mushroom Medley. The thin flatbread crust also slashes the calorie count, too. Each serving - about a third of a pizza - has 400 or fewer calories, Cofer says.

Solving Everyday Problems

Rolling out new products is one way - albeit a critical one - to win the battle for innovation, but to be a superhero in the bread aisle, it takes a whole lot more, according to Tim Zimmer, vice president of marketing for Sara Lee Brands, Sara Lee Food & Beverage, Downers Grove, Ill.

“Being a superhero means you have to understand the customer, add real value and provide the solutions they want and need,” he notes. “When we listen and engage the customer, understand their perspective and really tap into the benefit they’re looking for, that’s when you make a huge impact in your category and become a true superhero. It’s about providing real solutions in real time that translates to sales in the bread aisle.” 

Providing solutions is like creating a superpower that comes in all shapes and forms. It means focusing on consumer benefits while giving them value.

For example, Sara Lee is taking Ball Park hot dogs and teaming them up withBall ParkandSara Leebranded buns to create a program that provides consumers with meal solutions and value.

Yes, Americans want value in these troubling economic times, and with consumers searching to stretch their food budgets, it’s not surprising that private label sales are strong. For instance, sales of private label crackers are up 25% versus category growth of 4.4%, according to Pepperidge Farm’s Simon. Private label cookie sales have increased 11.5% while the overall cookie category is flat.

So how does a premium-branded company like Pepperidge Farm define “value” in these times?

“Innovation - those special touches, what makes a Milano cookie a Milano - has always been what drives us,” Simon notes. “In this environment, though, we are filtering our efforts on differentiation and offering innovation, particularly against health and wellness, with an increased focus on price. We’ve seen our investment in trade or reducing price in-store delivery more than it has over the last couple of years.”

For Snak King, which copacks and contract manufactures for a variety of private label customers, being a superhero means acting like the Invisible Man and staying off the radar, says Joe Papiri, vice president of sales and marketing for the City of Industry, Calif.-based company.

“We kind of stick to our niche game plan, and we don’t make a lot of waves,” he says. “We’re in a lot of spots where folks don’t know that we’re in. We’re off-the-radar guys.”

Recently, however, Snak King has stepped a bit more into the limelight withThe Whole Earth brand of snacks. Snak King acquired the brand after it purchased Granny Goose several years ago. Now, this brand seems to be a perfect fit with the current trend toward high-end products that are supernatural - and possibly even organic - while providing great taste that even a connoisseur of fine wines might even enjoy.

“From a marketing perspective, I still think the health and wellness and the indulgent category can be the same thing,” Papiri says. “We’re seeing that morphing of the gourmet business with the natural business.”

The Whole Earth line features products such as baked pita chips that are made with real olive oil. The product concept involves creating an innovative snack that’s made with oil that that’s good for you, albeit in moderation. It also leverages the growing popularity of hummus and the Mediterranean Diet much in the way that tortilla chips and salsa have done with the Mexican food segment for decades.

“It contains 100% extra virgin olive oil, and it’s super-premium,” Papiri says. “We’re actually going to tout the health benefits of olive oil on the bag with the [Food and Drug Administration] claim that it may help reduce the risk of coronary hearth disease.”

The movement toward health and wellness not only includes fiber and whole grains, but also a product’s sodium or fat attributes. By substituting olive oil for other types of oils, Snak King is addressing one of the key issues that have challenged snack producers for eons.

“Here, you can get a snack with a fat that you actually need in your diet,” Papiri says. “It’s not about less is more. It’s about more is more. It’s like I need my olive oil today.”

Yes, today’s superheroes deliver again and again when it seems that all else has failed.

In our exclusive report, check out how these wonders of the snack and baking industries continue to defy the odds to save a little bit of fun in everyone’s day.

Editor’s Note: SF&WB's managing editor, Marina Mayer, and Kathie Canning contributed to this article. Go to www.snackandbakery.com for extensive online-only interviews of players within these categories.