Bagel producers respond to consumer trends to reinvent the category.

Back in the 1990s, it was a bull market in more ways than one. In addition to stocks, the decade featured the great bagel run. However, during the low-carb craze in the early 2000s, sales of bagels came down to earth. Now, bagel producers are striving to reinvent their category’s image with bite-sized, portion-controlled and nutrient-filled products that are relevant to today’s fickle, calorie-conscious consumers. In the first part of our series on this category,Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery magazine talks to Heather Collins, director of marketing at Sara Lee North American Fresh Bakery, based in Downers Grove, Ill.

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery:What are the consumer trends impacting the bagel category and how have you responded to these trends with new products?

Heather Collins:Families today lead increasingly busy lives and are looking for nutritious products that can be prepared quickly and consumed whether they are in the kitchen or in the car. That was our aim with the newSoft & SmoothMini Bagels launched in August 2009. They are easily portable for an on-the-go food option and can be used as both a snack or incorporated into a lunch or other meal.

SF&WB:How are bagel producers adding whole grains, fruits and other ingredients to compete against other baked goods in this segment?

Collins: We know whole grains are an important part of healthy eating and are in high demand by parents – with experts recommending Americans consume 48 g. of whole grains per day – but some consumers may be turned off by the grainy texture or whole wheat flavor. When we developed theSoft & Smooth Mini Bagels, our goal was to increase nutrition by adding whole grains in a way that the product would still appeal to any family member. By using the combination of whole grains, mild flavor and soft, smooth texture seen in our otherSoft & Smooth products, we were able to appeal to a wide range of consumers in terms of both taste and nutrition. The new mini-bagels were a natural line extension of ourSoft & Smooth portfolio.

SF&WB: What have been the challenges that bakers face in taking bagels into the sandwich-eating arena?

Collins:One of the biggest challenges of incorporating bagels into the sandwich area is getting consumers to look at bagels beyond breakfast. Because bagels have become such a mainstay in that area, consumers do not consider bagels for snacking or other meal times. From a marketing perspective, our focus has been to provide moms and consumers with lunch and dinner sandwich recipes and non-traditional options utilizing bagels as the main ingredient to their nutritious meal.

When it comes to taking the bagels into the snacking space, newSoft & Smoothmini bagels provide the most relevant opportunity. Smaller sizes and portion control lend themselves to a wider range of uses, including mini pizzas for parties or a simple nutritious snack at work, which goes beyond the traditional meal ideas.

SF&WB:Who are the core consumers of bagels? What are some of the other demographics or age groups who can be targeted to grow the category?

Collins:Our core target with both the130 Calories & Delightful bagels, which [will] launch in January, and the newSoft & Smoothmini bagels is mom. Our options provide both simple snack- and meal-addition options for children and options for moms actively trying to manage their weight or trying to make better-for-you food choices. Often as the primary purchaser of groceries in the household, moms will continue to play the role of the core bagel consumer. However, continuing to provide moms with a variety of options to meet the needs of her family will be crucial to growing the category. 

SF&WB:It used to be that bigger was better with bagels. Now it seems that mini and portion- or calorie-controlled bagels are in vogue. Why is that?

Collins: Mini, portion- or calorie-controlled bagels have gained popularity because consumers are looking for options that take the guesswork out of calorie counting. These types of bagels provide an option for consumers to not think about calorie intake but are still able to consume the foods they have always enjoyed. However, it will be important to the category to provide a range of size, flavor and caloric-quantity options to meet the needs of the broad consumer.

SF&WB:While sales of bagels have rebounded, what sort of challenges do bagels face from a nutrition perspective and how has the industry responded to these challenges?

Collins: Bagels can still often have a negative reputation for being high in calories and low in nutrients, causing consumers to shy away. By creating products such as the 100-calorie Mini Bagels, which have 2-3 g. of fiber per bagel, and the130 Calories & Delightful bagels, we are providing options to these consumers who still crave bagels but want to consume them in moderation. Providing consumers options that fit their diet or nutritional needs is key to regaining consumer interest and driving sales in the bagel category.

SF&WB: What product innovation do you see fueling sales of bagels going forward?

Collins: We believe nutrition will continue to play an influential role in shaping the bagel industry and fueling sales, with the focus being on lower calorie and increased nutrition. Mini and portion-controlled bagels will be a dominant focus as consumers look for simple snack or meal addition options.

Editor’s Note: Check out our upcoming report with another bagel category expert next week and our Market Trends feature in the upcoming December issue of our magazine.