Easily adaptable in size and health benefits, muffins continue to make customers happy.
Buehler Food Markets merchandise muffins, topped with premium ingredients, in self-service carts.
Muffins are the chameleons of bakery products. They can be sweet as cake, ultra-rich or lush with fruits, nuts, or even chunks of chocolate. Not prima donnas, they are more than amenable to trimming down the sugar, fat and carbs or bulking up with oat bran or whole grains to keep customers happy. From petite one-or two-biters to jumbo meals-in-themselves, muffins can adapt to any meal or snack occasion and any size appetite.
No wonder this congenial coffee companion is such an unshakable staple for retail and in-store bakeries that cater to the morning crowd. According to research from the national marketing firm, Information Resources Inc. (IRI), supermarkets sold more than 86 million muffins last year (not counting those produced in-store).
Modern Baking's research for 2004 revealed that super-markets also sold $1,288 million in store-made muffins, representing 6.8 percent of total in-store bakery sales (compared to $1,081 and 6.1 percent for 2001). For full-line retail bakeries, muffins accounted for an average of 3 percent of total sales.
Blueberry reigns supreme
At the four family-owned Sunset Foods Gourmet Grocery Stores in the Chicago area, muffin sales have risen from 2.5 percent to 6 percent of total sales over the past two years, says the chain's central baking Facility Manager Robert Bugiel. Sunset offers at least eight flavors, including a "killer zucchini," as Bugiel describes it, that ranks second in popularity only to blueberry, just about everybody's perennial top seller. Bugiel attributes premium ingredients (such as chocolate chunks) and intriguing flavor twists (Cinnamon French Toast, for example) for Sunset's continued success in the category.
At Buehler Food Markets, an 11-unit chain based in Wooster, Ohio, muffins make up 8 percent of bakery sales. Bakery Merchandiser Roland Krueger believes that exotic flavors, such as pistachio, mocha, orange pineapple, butter rum, cinnamon chip and piña colada, are big enticements.
At Quebrada Baking Company's two retail stores in the Boston area, regulars like to see a lot of variety. So Owner Kay Kretchmar offers a minimum of 10 choices, some featuring seasonal ingredients, such as strawberries, and some with sweet surprises, such as the cream cheese filling in her lemon poppy seed.
At Woodlands Market in Kent, Calif., where muffins account for 5 percent of bakery sales, customers prefer their morning tradition with a minimum of tweaking. While coconut pineapple and a "donut muffin" (a sponge muffin rolled in cinnamon sugar) do very well, an Italian cornmeal variety with sour cherries seemed to push the envelope a little too far.
However, sour cherry definitely caught on with customers at Quebrada. So much so that Kretchmar knows they must make their annual appearance on her menu right after Christmas and stay there until after Washington's Birthday.
At a number of in-store and retail bakeries, certain seasonal specialty flavors have turned into full-time favorites. That's true at Buehler's, where cranberry orange is in demand on a daily basis. At Servatii Pastry Shop and Deli's nine locations in the Cincinnati area, pumpkin has become a year-round regular.
Toppings also substantially add to muffins' sales appeal. At Buehler's, which uses a pre-deposited batter, "finishing" can be as simple as a sprinkle of crystal sugar or a smear of donut glaze, or as elaborate as the addition of orange icing fruit to the buttercream atop the orange pineapple muffins or the coup de grace, peanut butter icing with chocolate string and peanut granules on the double chocolate variety.
Showing off the temptingly topped muffins also is key to sales success, industry experts say. In all but one of Buehler's stores, dedicated self-serve carts made of oak and glass have a ledge for sampling. Sunset uses a self-serve case with tongs for its full-size (3-oz.) muffins and packages its mini muffins (1.5-oz.) by the dozen for grab and go convenience below the case or on a separate rack.
Muffins remain mostly a morning item for many bakeries. Woodlands Market sells at least 100 a day, all before noon, says Rocky Packard, the chain's bakery production coordinator. But, others report that muffins are moving out later in the day as well. Sunset's Bugiel observes that, in addition to buying tomorrow morning's breakfast, later-day customers are eating muffins as anytime snacks. To make sure customers get fresh muffins whatever time of day they shop, Buehler's bakes off batches twice a day on average and as much as four times a day.
Muffin sales are not immune to food trends. In a recent survey conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, 66 percent of shoppers said they are looking for products "made with whole, unrefined grains." In addition, the recently published new USDA Food Pyramid, recommends that Americans consume more whole-grain products every day. Consumer awareness of healthful foods is likely to increase.
Unlike the low-carb trend, that's good news for retail, wholesale and in-store bakeries. Quebrada has been ready for the whole grain trend for close to 28 years. The company has been making almost all of its muffins with whole wheat pastry flour or, as in the case of raisin bran, whole wheat bread flour. The primary sweeteners are maple syrup and/or honey.
"When we opened in 1977, we emphasized that our muffins were made with whole wheat, but even though the flour is light, there was a while there when kids as well as some adults wouldn't even try them," Kretchmar said. "Now about 50 percent of our customers are totally unaware that our muffins are whole grain.
"We're going to be putting that information back into our advertising and promotion," she notes.