Forget the no-fat and no-taste approach to developing new products. Today’s consumers want the real deal when it comes to indulging on snack cakes and other sweet goods.

By Dan Malovany

What the heck? Go for it.

That’s the attitude that consumers have adapted these days, and it’s good news for producers of snack cakes, donuts, Danish, muffins, brownies and other sweet goods.

At a time when the outlook for jobs remains grim and pessimism still supplants optimism in consumer confidence surveys, disgruntled or simply disheartened Americans are looking forLittle DebbieSwiss Rolls to pick them up, and not for Debbie Downers that simply fill the belly.

Instead of dining out, they’re eating at home more often and bringing lunches to work, which is more good news for sweet good manufacturers. In between meals, moreover, they’re looking for heritage brands with products such asTastykakeKrimpets,Hostess Twinkies,Mrs. Freshley’sHoney Buns and other feel-good foods to provide a little escape, a bit of comfort and perhaps some momentary satisfaction.

“Generally, the sweet snack category is growing as consumers gravitate to enjoying more meals and snacks at home, and they continue to seek comfort foods,” says Rich Seban, chief marketing officer at Hostess Brands. “This has signaled an increase in more indulgent snacking.”

Fairytale Brownies, for instance, has positioned itself at the high end of the indulgent spectrum by marketing itself as the best gourmet, high-quality brownie in the market, says Eileen Spitalny, co-founder of the Phoenix-based company.

Its product lines include its top-selling traditional original and walnut brownies. However, the company recently added a cream cheese variety that adds a little complexity and flavor to its signature 3-oz. brownies. It also rolled out a line of truffles, which are 1.5-in. square caramel, raspberry swirl and walnut brownies enrobed in 60% chocolate and can compete in the baked sweet goods and confectionary categories.

“We have an advantage because it is a family recipe, a Belgium-chocolate brownie baked with butter and sugar and all of the good stuff,” Spitalny says. “It has our little secret steps, but it has authenticity.”

That authenticity, she adds, differentiates the company’s brownies from other sweet goods. Consumers want the real McCoy from a company they trust.

“There is interest about where a product comes from, what’s in it and who produces it,” he says. “That seems to have a lot to do with how people are choosing their products. They just want to have more of a connection with the company and the product.”

Although Fairytale Brownies has been around for 17 years, mostly serving consumers through mail order, the company opened a wholesale bakery three years ago and has branched through specialty retailers, high-end supermarkets, in-store bakeries and, most recently, foodservice chains.

Indulgent, however, doesn’t necessarily mean only super-premium products. In fact, many classic, home-style sweet goods - some of which were out of fashion a couple of years ago - have found a home sweet home in these troubled times.

Hostess Danish, for instance, has become the Irving, Texas-based company’s second most popular brand in that category. Additionally, Seban notes, the company’s core line ofHostessCupCakes and other iconic products continue to be best sellers and show strength across multiple distribution channels ranging from supermarkets and mass merchandisers to convenience stores and drug store chains.

Flowers Foods reaches consumers through many avenues of the market with itsBlue Birdbrand, which is distributed regionally via direct-store delivery, and itsMrs. Freshley’sline, which is available in most markets nationally through the warehouse channels to retail and vending customers.

In addition to serving multiple channels, many of which aren’t tracked by scanning data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., Flowers Foods targets meal and snacking occasions around the clock with its full array of impulse-driven items, notes Janice Anderson, vice president of marketing for the Thomasville, Ga.-based company.

These include traditional breakfast items such as donuts, pecan spins, cinnamon rolls and Danish. Its sweet snacks include honey buns, crème-filled cakes, snoballs, Swiss rolls, peanut butter bars, brownies, fruit pies, crème-filled cookies and even cereal bars, which are positioned as on-the-go breakfast items or for the increasingly popular brown bag lunches.

“On the indulgent side, it seems that consumers seeking decadent snack cakes want them ‘fully loaded,’” Anderson says. “One new item that fits the decadent descriptor is our Banana Pudding Cupcakes, sold under both theMrs. Freshley’sandBlue Birdbrands. We’ve been very pleased with how the item has been performing.”

Overall, Anderson reports, Flowers Foods’ snack sales are growing at a moderate rate, despite a slight downturn in some distribution channels due to the sluggish economy. However, she adds, sweet goods sales tend to be resilient in even the toughest of times.

“Snack cakes are affordable indulgences, and consumers will continue to purchase them if they deliver quality and taste,” she says.

What’s Better for Me?
In the sweet goods category, Flowers’ strategy has been to offer consumers a choice so its lineup includes both indulgent and better-for-you (BFY) snacks.

“The growth of BFY snack cakes has leveled off this year, perhaps because people have a need to indulge more during times of economic stress,” Anderson notes.

Healthy snacking has been the talk of the town for decades. In the sweet goods category, however, the highway to health often ended up drawing less traffic than hoped as both regular and diet-conscious consumers realized that the low-fat and lower calorie options fell way short of taste expectations.
Consumers, it seems, don’t like to feel cheated by the taste of a product when they’re cheating on their diet.

More recently, however, sweet goods producers adjusted their strategy. Instead of relying on just fat replacers and other formulation tricks, bakers such as Tasty Baking Co. turned to portion control, 100-calorie packs and good ol’ Mother Nature to add a little health benefit at a competitive price. With portion control, consumers get a little bit of a great-tasting treat that leaves them wanting more. Adding fruit and fiber provides a value-added benefit that enhances a product image as well.

In fact, value and health are the primary trends that seem to be going hand-in-hand in today’s economy, says Jon Silvon, director of marketing for the Philadelphia-based producer ofTastykake snacks.

“We provide consumers value through new pack sizes and alternatives, as well as through coupon offerings and dynamic trade promotions,” he notes. “With respect to better-for-you alternatives, we’ve recently announced the launch of Coffee Cake Cupcakes that are fruit-filled and have a good source of fiber.”

Instead of only targeting consumers who are dieting, Tasty Baking also provides choices for consumers who need to watch what they eat for health reasons, Silvon adds.

“Many consumers are looking for a sweet treat, but due to diet restrictions, they may not be able to have one,” he says. “Our sugar-free products allow them that small indulgence. Additionally, for those looking for lower calorie offerings, we remind them that our icon products have always been 90 to 100 calories per cake.”

Food companies, he explains, must embrace consumer demands and meet their unarticulated needs.

“For some, that will mean portion control, and [for] others, it will mean fortified offerings,” he explains. “We leverage research to define the optimal paths for us to leverage for the long term.”

For niche operators such as Raw Creations, LLC, allergen-free and vegan items attract a loyal, if not fanatical, following, says Jason Janiak, president of the Justice, Ill.-based company.

Children and adults are seeking alternatives because of their lifestyles or because of medical conditions such as Celiac disease, which requires that products be gluten-free.

“Also, people are looking for products that do not use refined sugars and are seeking those that use natural or unrefined sugars,” Janiak says. “We have introduced our line of products which contain no gluten, wheat, soy, corn, dairy, eggs, processed sugars, no-added sodium and certified organic.”

Raw Creations’ top sellers are its Cacoa Ganache Tart, Cacoa Cake and Carrot Cake. Other popular items include its macaroons and cookies. Consumers, Janiak says, are searching for guilt-free indulgence, and a marriage of all-natural and organic ingredients provides a fresh alternative to what’s on the market.

“The wide array of ingredients that exists today allows for desserts to be produced that are more nutritious, but do not sacrifice taste or quality,” he says.

For Fairytale Brownies, however, developing so-called healthy snacks is not a priority.

“We feel that it’s not our role to figure that out, being a producer of brownies,” Spitalny says. “We see ourselves as ‘Yes, it’s a dessert. Yes, it’s indulgent.’”

The company, however, does offer a 1.5-in. square Magic Morsel that packs a pound of taste in an individually wrapped 0.8-oz. brownie bite.

“That’s the size that people should be eating,” Spitalny adds. “We’re not trying to do a fix on a couple calories here and there. It’s a brownie. It is what it is.”

So dang the calories, and enjoy those feel-good foods once and awhile.