As summer ends and temperatures cool off, demand for fall flavors heat up, providing a significant sales opportunity for bakeries.

According to research from Datassential, fall marks an extremely popular time for foodservice businesses of all types to add limited-time offerings to their menus: Over the course of the calendar year, the largest number of seasonal items are introduced in September.

And this year, amid a global pandemic that’s completely altered everyday life, helping consumers celebrate fall traditions can provide them some much-needed comfort during uncertain times.

“Fall is a time for tried-and-true classics,” Trimmer says. “This year, it’s all about nostalgia. People have been pushed socially so far out of their comfort zone that they want to experience some of the flavors they had in childhood.”


Creating fall bakery mashups

Satisfying consumers’ appetite for nostalgic foods doesn’t mean bakeries can’t get creative. In fact, using traditional flavors in unique and unexpected formats can spur interest—and sales.

In recent years, bakeries around the world have introduced mashup desserts  that merge classic, well-loved sweets with other components. Leveraging seasonal ingredients in everyday baked goods can help bakeries present fall flavors in a festive, yet accessible way, says Elena Taylor, senior marketing director, wet ingredients, at Dawn Foods.

“We have a coffee-flavored cake mix I’ve seen paired with pumpkin [in] a cake and cupcake—an unexpected way to bring that flavor profile together,” Taylor says. “I’ve seen [flavors] blended in brownies, whether it’s caramel or pumpkin; apple as a topping on donuts and apple and caramel in a variety of things.”

That may be because we strongly associate fall with very specific moments, experiences and foods.

“When we think about the tree fruits—pear, apple—we think about going to a football game in fall and having hot apple cider; you can taste it and picture it in your mind,” says Melissa Trimmer, CECP, senior bakery application chef at Dawn Foods. “You can also take those [seasonal] hot drink flavors and incorporate them into baked goods: an apple cider donut or mulled wine cake.”

Along with produce like apples, sweet potatoes and cranberries, autumn-oriented baked goods can include spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and rosemary, as well as flavors like salted caramel and, of course, pumpkin—an ingredient that’s become extremely popular in recent years.

From fall 2018 to 2019, pumpkin-flavored products earned a whopping $511 million in grocery sales, a 4.7 percent increase from the prior year, according to Nielsen data.

“Pumpkin spice is one of those quintessential American flavors we have all grown up with; no matter where you are in the U.S., it’s a shared collective memory,” Trimmer says.


Delicious fall bakery beverage pairings

With hot drinks an essential part of fall, Taylor says bakeries and other eateries can offer specials that pair baked goods with beverages, such as coffee served with an apple streusel donut or pumpkin gingerbread.


Spotlighting seasonal produce and freshly prepared bakery goods

With hot drinks an essential part of fall, Taylor says bakeries and other eateries can offer specials that pair baked goods with beverages, such as coffee served with an apple streusel donut or pumpkin gingerbread

At Meckley’s, the apple fritters—which are made using apples gathered the same day—and other fresh treats help draw customers, according to Meckley.

“People have been really interested in fresh [items]—they’ll wait 45 minutes in line to get a donut that’s warm, when they can walk right outside the bakery and get them prepackaged,” he says. “Everybody is always very excited about the harvest; and that’s obviously a big part of what we do.”

Bakeries that use large amounts of the season’s bounty in their products can do things like roast their own sugar pumpkins, instead of using a canned version, to make pumpkin creme brulee, Trimmer says. She recommends using football-shaped blue hubbard pumpkins in pies or incorporating multiple varieties of apples in a dessert for nuanced flavors and textures.

“There are apples just [used] for cider that are so sour you can’t eat them, and ones so sweet they might fall apart when you cook them,” she says. “A good rule of thumb is six varieties for pie or fritter or whatever it is you’re doing.”

If sourcing various types of apples or other fruits isn’t sustainable due to cost and storage concerns, bakers can leverage high-quality bakery fillings that are made with a similar mix of varieties.


Overhauled special occasion sweets

Pies are often big sellers in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Meckley’s bakery, for instance, produces roughly 4,000 to 5,000 pecan, caramel apple, pumpkin praline, cranberry apple and other pies the week of Thanksgiving, according to Meckley.

This year, however, the treats consumers buy to celebrate fall holidays and events will likely look different, Trimmer says.

“Indulgence will factor in; but on individual portions,” she says. “For example, if you think about a back-to-school treat, even if kids aren’t in school [physically due to COVID-19 concerns], we still are going to want to get those for our kids. But instead of getting a whole tray of cookies to bring to the classroom, it might just be a couple to bring home to your children.”

“Bakeshops are focusing on taking what might have been a large cake and reimagining it into individual or mini-sized things you can take home for a nuclear family to split,” Trimmer says. “We may see different cake slices packaged together or a pie multi-pack—slices of different ones—because families don’t need four pies like usual.

Consumer needs may have changed, at least temporarily, due to COVID-related social distancing guidelines; however, with the right mix of nostalgia and innovation, the coming months can still provide ample chances to increase bakery sales.

“Fall holidays—back to school, Halloween, Thanksgiving—are huge bakery holidays,” Trimmer says. “[There] can be sensory or savory applications for fall flavors—something like mashed sweet potatoes with pumpkin for empanadas, caramel apples, turning trick-or-treating candy into a cake. It’s important to remember, as we head into the season, that you don't have to just do what you’ve done before.