During the coronavirus pandemic, Bill Tine has seen a lot of real commitment.
"I think we've had two and a half million people visit our sourdough starter recipe," Tine, the vice president of marketing for King Arthur Flour, told Food Dive in May. "It's not hard to bake with sourdough, but it's certainly a committed baker when they're maintaining their own sourdough starter."
And with most Americans spending much of the last several months in their homes, many of them have found the time to grow and maintain a bubbly starter for the tangy yeast-free bread, a process that requires hands-on time for a week or more — let alone the hours to knead, refrigerate, let rise and bake the loaves that starter would make.
But the pandemic has given rise to more than just more homemade bread. Cakes, cookies, pasta, rolls and pizza have been produced in kitchens nationwide — both in the homes of those who often bake and in those where the oven might have previously been considered more of a metal storage cabinet.
Manufacturers making products that run the gamut of baking staples, from flour to spices to mixes, have seen sales go through the roof. And at several grocery stores, the baking aisle can look more like a ghost town, with all-purpose flour, baking powder, yeast and vanilla extract nowhere to be seen.
According to Nielsen, in the 52 weeks that ended May 23, Americans have spent $5.15 billion on baking staples — flour, baking powder, baking soda, pie crusts and yeast. This is a 12% increase over the same time last year. Consumers have spent the most on flour, with sales nearing $1 billion in the last 52 weeks. In March of this year, consumers spent 126% more on flour than last year. In April, they spent 105% more than in 2019.
But it's not just the baking staples seeing more sales. Baking mixes are also benefiting from the pandemic, with sales in the segment at nearly $2.6 billion in the 52 weeks that ended May 23 — a 13.4% increase from the previous year.
Rebecca Hamilton, a professor at Georgetown University who teaches classes on consumer behavior, told Food Dive that with all of the uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic, it makes sense that consumers have gone back to their kitchens.
"That's going to increase consumers' interest in doing things that make them feel safe and comforted, and absolutely baking is one of those activities," Hamilton said.
Baking has always been seen as a source of comfort — or at least a source of comfort foods, with the kitchen as the gateway to many treats. It is a way families connect, since most schools have been closed since around spring break. Children enjoy baking with their parents, and baking can be used to teach basic fractions. Megan Pence, senior brand manager for baking brands at B&G Foods, who has worked with the Clabber Girl baking powder brand since before it was under the company's umbrella, said baking is also extremely scientific, with measuring, mixing and baking needing to be precisely calibrated in order to get the best results.
In the months since the pandemic first emerged in the U.S., grocery store shelves in general have become less empty. But baking has stayed red hot, with empty shelves that once held flour, and Instagram feeds full of pictures of sumptuous looking breads and cakes.
As people can venture out of their homes to get something to eat, many have wondered if we will remain a nation of bakers.
"I think values have changed," Dan Anglemyer, chief operating officer of Hometown Food Company told Food Dive. "People consider what's important, and I think spending time with family and sharing meals together is something that is going to bring people back together. We're hopeful that this isn't a fad, but it's a trend, and it's something that people will continue after this because I think it's just such a wholesome activity."
Every day is like Thanksgiving
While consumers are always baking, the ingredients used for it definitely has a high season. Manufacturers said from about mid-November until the end of the year, business tends to boom. Consumers are hoping to impress relatives, tickle tastebuds at Thanksgiving dinner and use baking to spread holiday cheer.
Until this year.
"We shipped more last month than we did all of September and October last year," Tine said.
King Arthur Flour, which is synonymous with consumer baking, measures its popularity in another way. The brand's website is filled with recipes, how-tos, videos and other baking resources. Last year, Tine said, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving broke traffic records on the website. Since March 15, every day has broken that record.
Pence said the average amount of time it takes for a heavy home baker to finish a can of baking powder is six months. Nowadays, people are finishing them up quicker — and cans are hard to come by.
"Every day is game day," she said.
Hometown Food, which was spun off of Brynwood Partners in 2018 following the acquisition of baking brands including Pillsbury's shelf-stable products, Funfetti, Hungry Jack, White Lily, Jim Dandy and Martha White, is seeing sales exceeding the holiday high period, Anglemyer said. This April's sales were 90% above a year ago, he said.
"The big difference is you know October, November and December are coming," he said. "We didn't know this was coming, so certainly we hadn't planned for that level of activity. We're fortunate that we were able to ship so much product out, but it's not been without its challenges."
"We're hopeful that this isn't a fad, but it's a trend, and it's something that people will continue after this because I think it's just such a wholesome activity."
Chief operating officer, Hometown Food Company
B&G Foods bought the Clabber Girl brand from Hulman & Company last year for $80 million. The more than 150-year-old brand is a long-trusted name in baking powder, and Pence said the acquisition by B&G is helping secure better distribution, which helped get the baking staple in more locations, including club stores.
At the time of the acquisition, B&G expected Clabber Girl to generate about $70 million to $75 million in annual net sales — a figure that this year's actual sales could dramatically overshadow. According to a transcript of the investor call from B&G's earnings report last month, CEO Ken Romanzi said Clabber Girl is one of several brands the company owns that had twice the sales this March compared to 2019.
McCormick, which makes many of the spices, herbs and extracts that flavor home baked items, has also seen its business soar. Jill Pratt, the company's chief marketing officer, told Food Dive total business has been up 60%. Focusing in on just baking staples, sales were up 85% in April. Vanilla extract is especially seeing a boom in popularity, with sales up 120%.
Hamilton said the run on baking staples may have started at the beginning of the pandemic, when consumers rushed to the grocery stores to fill their pantries, knowing they faced quite a long time stuck at home. And while grocery stores had a bit of time to prepare, many shoppers in those early days found empty shelves.
"A lot of us going to the grocery store thought, 'Wow, what if I can't get this?' " she said. "... Baking is one of those things we can do to counter any possible shortages. So if you buy flour, you buy dried beans, you buy salt, with those staples, you can cobble something together regardless of what you find at the grocery store."
But these sales aren't just from a one-time stock up as stay-at-home orders came down in March. Pratt said continuing sales trends show that consumers made those purchases then, and are coming back for refills of extracts and spices.
Tine said he's seen similar things from King Arthur's sales. Nobody's just stockpiling, he said, and baking is becoming more of a habit.
Keeping shelves filled
With so many empty shelves, consumers may assume that companies have been running out of flour.
The problem is not flour supply, Anglemyer told Food Dive. It's more getting that flour packaged and moved to grocery shelves.
"As soon as we get it produced, it's on a truck going somewhere," Anglemyer said. "...We're shipping it as fast as we can make it."
The company is making it as quickly as it is able. Because the summer is usually slower for baking, Hometown had initially planned for three weeks of down time at its facilities in Ohio and Texas. Anglemyer said those plans quickly changed. Workers' schedules also changed to meet higher demand. The facilities now all have three shifts per day, and factories run seven days a week. Since the pandemic began, Anglemyer said the factories have only stopped on Easter Sunday, Mother's Day and Memorial Day. And they've scrutinized where to add capacity. A 22-ounce Arrowhead Mills flour product, which has low distribution, has been sidelined to produce some of the more popular items.
But Hometown is also relying on other companies to meet these needs. Anglemyer said Hometown has qualified new co-packers to help with capacity. They have quickly found and qualified new suppliers to make bags and get them delivered to the mills the company works with. They have negotiated with retailers about getting shelf space for additional products. And they have worked closely with packaging suppliers to ensure they are producing what's needed — like flour bags or frosting labels — as the items that go inside them are being produced.
"We're running as much as we possibly can and will slow down when we start to see our our days of stock go up," Anglemyer said.
Hometown Food is also in the process of opening a new 50,000-square-foot distribution center in the Columbus, Ohio area, Anglemyer said.
"Baking is one of those things we can do to counter any possible shortages. So if you buy flour, you buy dried beans, you buy salt, with those staples, you can cobble something together regardless of what you find at the grocery store."
Business professor, Georgetown University
The pandemic has provided the company with a reason to reevaluate its supply, manufacturing and delivery processes. Anglemyer said it is important to discover if there are adequate supply, equipment and sourcing redundancies.
"We really had a lot of that underway, but it's [the pandemic is] clearly a wake up call that you know you've got to be prepared for it," he said. "We're doing our reviews a little bit more different. I think we're scrutinizing things more than we ever had in the past, too. It makes everyone just sharpen their pencils and makes sure that they can answer questions about, 'All right, if this happened, what would you do next?' "
Tine said that King Arthur Flour has been producing two to three times its normal yield in the beginning of 2020. While the vast majority of the company's business is for the consumer market — most goes to stores, but about a quarter is sold direct-to-consumer — they do make some products for bakeries. The flour destined for bakeries is the same quality and consistency as what goes to grocery stores, but those mills can only produce 50-lb bags or truckloads of flour and don't have the packaging capability for more consumer-friendly sizes.
Creativity has been a necessity, since there are not many home consumers who could deal with that much of an ingredient. Changing the factory is not an option; it takes about a year for the correct machinery and packages to be produced and put into place. Tine said the company has worked with what it has, and they came up with a new 3-pound bag of all-purpose flour that is exclusively available through King Arthur's website.
The new 3-pound bag is important, Tine said, because it not only creates a lighter and more shipping-friendly product, but it also adds additional flour to the pipeline.
"That allows us to keep all of the 5-pounders going to the retail shelf," Tine said. "... It's great to see the team working [on] innovative ways — to be selling this 3-pound bag, when we we didn't even know we could make it a month ago."
King Arthur has been working to speed its products to grocery store shelves as well. Tine said they've ordered more packaging material, worked with its warehouses in order to quickly move flour where it needs to go, and has shifted a significant amount of its product shipping to trucks instead of rail.
"It's a little more expensive, but it's faster," Tine said. "And so, because demand is still far outweighing supply, the faster we can get our production to the retail shelf, the better."
Interest in baking usually cools off over the summer, which Tine hoped would be a chance for King Arthur to get caught up and ready for another big push in the fall. But he said he's still prepared for out of stocks to be prevalent through the beginning of July.
Pratt said that McCormick spends a lot of time building inventory for times that it knows its products will be in demand, like the holidays. This year's run on ingredients has been unexpected, and processing and packaging products has been a challenge. The company is prioritizing more popular items, which means baking staples like vanilla and cinnamon.
"We are focused fully on trying to get our retail partners in stock and have consumers find the products that they want, and we're doing OK versus our industry peers, but we're not at the levels of in-stock that we would be normally," she said.
Though demand has been unprecedented, McCormick is not yet concerned about the supply to meet it. While many of the company's products are grown or produced overseas, advance planning using the long growing cycles and McCormick's vast network of connections has helped assure the company that supply will be available. They have started to budget in additional shipping time in order to get the raw materials in place when they are needed, she said.
As the dough rises
As more people are baking, they have been turning toward manufacturers for recipes, advice and tips. The ingredient manufacturers see this as a way to make consumer connections.
General Mills — which owns the Betty Crocker, Gold Medal and Bisquick brands — has engaged more with consumers through social channels.
"We found that people really need the basics right now, whether that is easy access to food, solutions that bring joy and comfort or ideas on how to stretch their pantries," Kelsey Roemhildt, corporate communications manager for General Mills, told Food Dive in an email. "Because of this insight, we’re connecting with consumers through relevant recipes and tips from the brands they know and love."
The Betty Crocker brand pivoted its strategy toward millennials and Gen Zers who are living on their own, and probably not too adept at cooking, she said. It has a social content series called “Mix It Up” that features simple, innovative ways for consumers to bake using basic pantry staples.
As a brand, Clabber Girl has an active social media presence. Pence said they have actively been responding to consumer demand for recipes to get started baking. Most baking mixes are pre-measured blends of different staples — including baking powder — so they pay attention to where those mixes might have sold out.
"Resurrecting some of that stuff again touches on the nostalgia and the emotional tie that people have to baking. So it's been fun to see."
Senior marketing manager, B&G Foods
"We focused on putting recipes out there for biscuits and quick breads and things that you have to make if you couldn't find a loaf of bread at your local grocer," Pence said. "... Bisquick [owned by General Mills and a mixture of flour, shortening, salt and baking powder] is something that is, in most homes, a household staple. It's a quick pancake If you're not a from-scratch baker, you can grab that. And we saw a lot of spikes on our baking mix recipe because folks couldn't find that particular product. And so it's just no educating folks on how they can create these things at home using things they already have in their pantries."
Anglemyer said that videos and tips from professional chefs go far.
"We found out that [chef] Carrie Morey is an avid user," he said. "She owns several restaurants that make biscuits, so we're letting her tell her story and using a lot of our assets to tell the White Lily story and what makes that unique."
But useful advice isn't just coming from well-known professional chefs nowadays. King Arthur Flour has two baking schools with world-class instructors who teach all levels of baker, from novice to professional. The company also has a bakers' hotline, which anyone can call for free advice. Tine said that the hotline has been extremely busy, with 50,000 calls in April alone. The company has redeployed the baking instructors to answer hotline calls, meaning nobody has been laid off and home bakers truly might be getting advice from some of the world's experts.
Clabber Girl has doubled down on kids' interests. The brand's website has a large set of baking lesson plans with easy recipes followed by discussion questions, fun facts or history lessons. And for fun in the kitchen that doesn't end with something to eat, Clabber Girl also has a full page featuring a recipe for corn starch slime and things kids can do with it.
The goal is to help build another generation of people with fond memories of creating in the kitchen with family, Pence said.
"Baking has this emotional reaction with people," she said. "You'll hear [people] say, 'I remember when I was 10, baking with my grandma' or 'My grandpa did this.' ...They just have these real nostalgia-type feelings. So during this time, when folks need some comfort or they need something good or positive, it seems like baking has really become that helpful staple again that people really lean toward, which is a really cool thing to see."
But Clabber Girl also is stoking interest with nostalgia. With a brand that's more than 150 years old, Pence said, there's a treasure trove of recipes from years gone by.
"Resurrecting some of that stuff again touches on the nostalgia and the emotional tie that people have to baking. So it's been fun to see."