The ongoing pandemic has certainly shifted consumer attitudes and behaviors when it come to foods and the foods they choose. Consumers are looking to connect with food and are gravitating to more familiar comfort foods and indulgent items.

Based on a survey commissioned by General Mills Foodservice and conducted by the Harris Poll, 26 percent of Americans are craving more baked goods and 28 percent are eating more baked goods. Baked good items such as cookies (57 percent) and cakes (42 percent) are consumers preferred choices when it comes to consuming baked goods. Consumers are eating more baked goods during the pandemic for a number of reasons:

  • 48 percent of consumers state because they crave something sweet

  • 42 percent to get a sense of comfort

  • 41 percent to induce happiness

  • 27 percent because they are giving themselves permission to indulge

While comfort, nostalgia, and indulgence are important, consumers also have a heightened awareness and interest in their health and wellness as a result of the pandemic as well.

Market data

The market data shows consumers are eating more desserts and baked goods during the pandemic, as the majority of the dessert segments experienced growth again this year. The cakes and pies category grew 2.9 percent to $2.0 billion, based on the 52-week period ending April 18, 2021, per IRI, Chicago.

The cake segment grew 2.6 percent to sales of $1.5 billion. The majority of the companies in the segment demonstrated growth. Private label has the largest market share at almost 64 percent and was up 2.4 percent, increasing to $971.9 million. Grupo Bimbo, the No. 2 player in the segment, saw growth of 1.9 percent leading to $126.7 million.

Additional bright spots in the segment were:

  • Rich Products Corp., up 42.0 percent to $34.6 million
  • The Original Cakerie, up 28.8 percent to $21.3 million
  • Old Home Kitchens, up 16.6 percent to $16.2 million

The pie segment grew a solid 3.8 percent coming off flat performance the prior year, resulting in $447.0 million. Similar to the cake segment, private label accounts for the majority of the volume and was up 2.9 percent to $306.7 million. Jesse Lord Bakery had another strong year-over-year performance, growing 12.3 percent to $38.0 million.

The refrigerated cheesecake category had a stellar performance, achieving the fourth straight year of positive sales growth. The category grew a 22.5 percent to $423.9 million. Private label leads the way in the category with another strong performance, up 21.8 percent to $260.3 million. The top brand in the category, The Fathers Table, saw impressive double-digit growth of 32 percent to $86.9 million. Other brands to watch include:

  • Atlanta Cheesecake Co., up 50.2 percent to $16.4 million
  • Chuckanut Bay, up 40.5 percent to $10.9 million
  • Eli’s Cheesecake Co., up 45.7 percent to $4.5 million

The frozen cheesecake segment, part of IRI’s frozen desserts and toppings category, grew 33.8 percent to $198.3 million. Private label again leads the segment, up 11.7 percent to $52.1 million. Branded leader The Cheesecake Factory grew 58.5 percent to $48.3 million. Schwan’s brand Edwards had a great year, up 80.6 percent to $26.7 million.


Looking back

Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, NY, is keeping its fingers on the pulse and aligning its new products to address these important trends and shifts in consumer behavior. Krista Corigliano, director of cakes, shares the keys trends the company has seen over the past year and the corresponding new product launches:

  • Nostalgic desserts are becoming more popular as consumers look for comfort in their dessert choices, gravitating toward familiar flavors and items that give them a feeling of happiness and bring back good memories
  • Growth in DIY dessert kits and “make at home” solutions as consumers are staying at home more, but still want to create fun and exciting moments for their family, prompted creation of new dessert kits to help in-store bakeries offer take-home solutions for their shoppers, focusing on decadent indulgence, yet with familiar flavor profiles across the entire dessert platform, including cookie dough ice cream cakes and products made with Oreo cake layers
  • Smaller-sized items have become more prominent as consumers are having smaller gatherings and buying dessert as an everyday treat, not just a celebratory occasion, so the company focused on producing smaller-sized cakes
  • Rich Products is also seeing a rise in individually wrapped, portion-sized items that are both convenient for on-the-go and appeal to consumer demand for increased food safety with a sealed package

Schwan’s Co., Marshall, MN, is seeing indulgence as a form of self-care—whether that be to connect with family around a shared dessert or moments of relaxation and personal escape. In assessing the business performance, innovation has been a strong growth driver for the Edwards brand with buyers increasing purchase frequency and items per trip for both their favorite Edwards desserts or trying the new items, shares Jaylon Rosenblum, director of marketing. This past year, Edwards Desserts launched its new Edwards Signatures line which elevates the brand experience for its consumers

“Cheesecake has been one of the main drivers of frozen dessert category growth over the past year and we think this trend will continue. In 2019, Edwards introduced a Whipped Cheesecake that delivered on the light, airy creamy filling and crunchy crust collision that our consumers love,” shares Rosenblum. The company will be launching two new varieties that were developed in partnership with Jasmine Weiser, pastry chef, Edwards Desserts.

Rosenblum shares a description of the new decadent products:

  • Edwards Chocolate Whipped Cheesecake: featuring balanced whipped layers of chocolate cheesecake and classic cheesecake on top of a fresh-baked cookie crumb crust and sweet chocolate chunk topping
  • Edwards Berry Whipped Cheesecake: a decadent whipped cheesecake featuring ribbons of blackberry and raspberry swirl on top of a fresh-baked cookie crumb crust

“We’re also seeing trends in fruit and citrus flavors—with the nostalgic familiarity of fruit pies resonating with consumers. We leaned into this trend with a fresh take on the familiar flavors of apple and peach. We debuted two fruit-forward desserts, the Edwards Peach Crème Pie and the Edwards Caramel Apple Pie. These modern fruit pies are new to the category, as they are the first to include a real layer of fruit and don’t require baking,” states Rosenblum. In August, the company will be adding Edwards Lemon Crème Pie which features refreshing layers of lemon crème pie infused with pockets of tangy lemon filling on top of a fresh baked cookie crumb crust to the line.

All of these new products will be available in August 2021 and sold under the new Edwards Signature line.

Debbie Marchok, vice president of marketing, Eli’s Cheesecake Co., Chicago, shared the trends the company has been seeing this past year. “Pre-packaged desserts were the heroes this past year. Eli’s Individually Wrapped Single Serve Cheesecake popular flavors, including Original Plain, Strawberry Swirl and Chocolate Chip, reflected consumers need for comfort food and nostalgia.”

For those celebrating at home Eli’s offered 7-inch cheesecake and desserts pre-packaged in dome containers and were right sized for the smaller scaled down celebrations. Based on the double-digit growth in shipments, the company is launching Eli’s Cheesecake new 7” Chi-Town collection of products in 17 new flavors for in-store bakeries. “This dessert line has no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives with the exception of the one-of-kind Green River Cheesecake made with Green River soda. From classic to trendy, the retailer can select flavors relevant to their shopper,” shares Marchok.

The innovation pipeline is strong, as Eli’s has received a National Restaurant Association 2021 FABI Award for its newest desserts: Confetti Cheesecake and Mini Dulce De Leche Pie. The FABI Awards recognize innovation in the food and beverage products that make an impact on the restaurant industry. Marchok describes the new winning products:

  • Confetti Cheesecake: scratch-recipe double birthday cake: a layer of moist yellow birthday cake topped with birthday cake cheesecake, hand-piped vanilla mousse, and sprinkles
  • Dulce de Leche Pie: creamy dulce de leche caramel, baked in an all-butter shortbread crust and sprinkled with coarse sugar

To celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary, it created a new Eli’s Ruby Jubilee Cheesecake, rich vanilla cheesecake mixed with a mosaic of cherry cheesecake squares, bursting and topped with Michigan cherries in holiday red (note -the traditional 40th anniversary gem is ruby), to mark this milestone.

Rick Hoskins, president, Colborne Foodbotics, Lake Forest, IL says the biggest trend he has seen this year is a shift to Retail Frozen and In-Store Bakery options for pies and cheesecakes. “There really was a lack of capacity for retail ready and in-store offerings to meet the demand caused by COVID-19. This caused the industry to invest in new lines to adapt to the changing consumer trend.”

Looking forward

While comfort and indulgence remain important in the dessert categories, plant-based options / products are gaining popularity. “We are now exploring introducing plant-based dessert solutions and new color technology to swirl different colors in cakes and icing to capitalize on broader trends like ‘unicorn’ and ‘whimsical.’ In these cases, color and application go a long way toward creating an impressive and memorable dessert that wows,” explains Corigliano.

Marchok sees elevated levels of storytelling about the product, its ingredients and suppliers, its social consciousness and community involvement, as an opportunity to further engage the consumers in connecting with a dessert that’s fits their own ideals. For example, the company’s Vegan Belgian Chocolate Cheesecake tastes just like the traditional dairy dessert but is plant-based and certified vegan and dairy-free.

With health and wellness being on the minds of consumers, hazelnuts offer the following nutritional benefits:

  • Rich in unsaturated fats (mostly oleic acid)
  • High in magnesium, calcium, and vitamins B and E

“Confectionary hazelnuts are on the rise and are also used in alternative dairy products,” says Matthew Gillespie, marketing and innovation manager, Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, Aurora, OR. “Spreads and butters are definitely on trend as a consumer good, a source ingredient and as an identifiable component in several finished goods.”

From a manufacturer perspective this past year has been about minimizing COVID related supply chain disruptions and implementing new safety protocols. As we emerge from the pandemic consumers are going to have a heightened interest in immunity and health and wellness. Malt Products Corp., Saddle Brook, NJ, is seeing both manufacturers and end consumers inquiring about the functional benefits of sweeteners beyond mere sweetness and texture. “We’re increasingly seeing discussions include factors such as gut health, nutritive and immunity benefits, proteins and antioxidants, to name a few,” notes Amy Targan, president.

The company offers all-natural sweeteners such as MaltRite malt extract and OatRite oat extract, which are made from whole grain. “Because they are minimally processed, they maintain much of the nutritious attributes of the whole grain and contribute proteins, minerals antioxidants and vitamins. Malt and oat extracts also offer nutty, toasted flavor profiles, and assist with the Maillard browning effect,” explains Targan. Both MaltRite malt extract and OatRite oat extract profile provides approximately half the levels of sweetness as sugar.

Malt Product Corporation’s sister company, International Molasses, recently introduced CaneRite Panela, an all-natural, free-flowing granulated sweetener made from the freshly squeezed juice of the whole cane plant. “CaneRite Panela is unrefined and non-centrifuged, so that it authentically and comprehensively retains all of the cane plant’s original favor and nutritional benefits. Characterized by mellow notes of toffee and caramel, CaneRite Panela’s flavor profile delivers a satisfying ‘sweet but not too sweet’ taste. It is complex like molasses, but more subtle. Its nutritional profile is equally impressive: by keeping all nutrients inherent to the whole cane plant—including magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc,” states Targan.

Batory Foods, Rosemont, IL anticipates the continued growth of health and wellness-related trends such as plant-based, free from claims and reduced sugar to continue to grow. “Consumers want to live a healthier lifestyle but they are definitely not willing to remove sweet treats from their diets! I believe we will see more functional, healthier and ‘clean’ bakery items launched: organic ingredients, less dairy (vegan / plant proteins), less sugar, no additives. Snackable options that have a health benefit associated with them are an emerging trend in this category. Utilizing the benefits of ingredients such as soluble vegetable fibers, plant and dairy based proteins, sugar replacement blends, and others to meet functional health claims is also a growing trend in this space,” shares Melissa Riddell, head of innovation and technical services.

Batory Foods has introduced Batory Sweet Essentials, a new line-up of scientifically developed high intensity sweeteners blends that are replacements for sucrose. Riddell shares a few examples and the corresponding applications:

  • B-TRU features erythritol, allulose, and stevia extract, with equivalent sweetness to sugar, suited to use in fillings and sauces
  • B-FIBER features erythritol, soluble corn fiber, allulose, and stevia extract, with equivalent sweetness to sugar, suited to use in various baked goods, as well as sauces
  • B-CLEAR (A) features allulose, steviol glycosides, and stevia extract, approximately two times sweeter than sugar, suited to use in various baked goods, as well as frostings, fillings, syrups, and sauces

Batory Foods also offers cold swelling starches from multiple suppliers that offer varying types, different claims and a wide range of functionality. “These cold-water starches require no heat for viscosity development, contribute to easier processing and faster production capabilities and support a more consistent finished product. This is especially helpful in high solids environments such as fruit fillings where starch hydration can be a problem,” explains Riddell.

FoodTools, South Haven, MI, has seen its customers of its slicing equipment looking for greater efficiency through increased throughput, or automation while still meeting the required sanitation and cleaning requirements. “Over the years, we have perfected the process of Ultrasonic slicing. This allows our customers to portion the most difficult and beautiful creations without the final product being compromised. We can provide the solution to cut Neapolitan type desserts, multi layered cheesecake, or cakes with multiple inclusions like cherries or nuts. FoodTools has also developed the ability to cut our customers products into just about any shape they can dream up. This is done without the use of a waterjet but rather with ultrasonics. The result is an economical, clean and compact solution. Our customers can provide a visually pleasing product in the shape of heats for Valentine’s Day or a Christmas tree during the Christmas season. Every shape they could want can be programmed into our machine and the customer can produce it with a simple push of a button,” shares Matt Wermund, general manager.

Hoskins notes the areas the company is focusing on going forward. “We have really been focusing our efforts on improving existing designs to limit the amount of mechanical components and be more sanitary from the older designs. Through the use of integrated servo controlled systems, we have been able to eliminate 30–40 percent of the mechanical components, drastically reducing maintenance and operating costs, while making the machine easier to clean.”

However you slice it, cakes, pies, and cheesecake will continue to comfort and delight consumers, though maybe with a slightly better-for-you spin going forward.