New product introductions and reintroductions have come and gone, consumers have had flings with mini desserts, cake pops and bacon-infused sweets, but the love affair with cupcakes continues.
Although some would argue that the enduring cupcake trend has finally begun its decline, in-store bakery statistics indicate this is hardly the case, as sales remain strong and new product introductions continue at a significant pace, according to Jonna Parker, director of account services at Nielsen Perishables Group, Chicago.
“With regard to distribution of cupcakes they haven’t yet hit their mass,” Parker says. “Retail bakeries may be over them, but we’ll still see growth in in-stores for the next couple years.”
Indeed, cupcakes had another big year in 2011, growing dollar sales in the in-store bakery by 18.3 percent and unit volume by 14 percent. The category saw 17 percent growth in item count compared to 2010, fueled in part by supermarket bakeries releasing 70 new red velvet products in 2011 alone, Parker says. Overall, red velvet flavored cupcakes were up 131 percent in 2011.
“There are still distribution opportunities for products everyone thought had plateaued,” Parker adds. “We see a wide disparity of consumers who respond to cupcakes–from urban to rural, moderate income all the way up to affluent. Cupcakes’ wide appeal indicates we will still see new rollouts.”
Cupcakes were a significant contributor to retail bakery sales as well. According to Modern Baking’s 2011 Full Line Retail Bakery Survey, cupcakes accounted for 5 percent of overall sales as of June last year.
Food, like fashion, goes through trend cycles. As consumers seek what’s new in fashion, certain color palettes or cuts of fabric will become all the rage–as is the case with certain flavor combinations, decorating styles and ethnic influences in bakery products.
And much like clothing, where trends trickle down from the runway to mass retail stores, trends in bakery typically start with the boutique, urban independents before they hit mainstream supermarkets and chains.
“Trends start on the coasts or with key retailers and then move through the life cycle of any trend,” Parker says. “There are some early-adopting grocery stores and retail bakeries, then things trickle down.”
Because retail bakers are more nimble, they can adapt to trends more easily and even start them. Before something can hit the masses, however, it has to have supplier ability to mass produce and retailer acceptance, she adds.
Move over cupcake?
In the past few years, various baked products have been proclaimed the next cupcake. Cake pops surged in popularity in 2010, popping up in the bakery case at Starbucks and even prompting various cake pop-specific bakeries to open, including Sweet Jane Lynn (where they’re known as cake balls), Paterson, N.J., and Stick & Pop in New York City.
Then, 2011 was supposed to be the year of the pie, as market research groups, including NPD Group and Nielsen Perishables Group, released their predictions and gained substantial support from the media.
“I don’t know where that came from,” says Mike Busley, founder of Grand Traverse Pies, Traverse City, Mich. “Since we’re all about pie anyway I was happy to hear it. We just want to focus on what we do, and if somebody wants to think it’s a trend then great.”
However, Nielsen Perishables Group reported that pie sales in supermarkets actually declined during the 52 weeks ending Sept. 24, 2011. Nationally, the category averaged weekly per-store sales of $644, a decrease of 0.9 percent.
Still, pie sales remained steady in full-line retail bakeries, accounting for 6 percent of overall sales last year, up from 4 percent in 2009, according to Modern Baking’s 2011 Retail Bakery Survey.
“Some retailers had a great year with pies. Some retailers are having a wonderful year with smaller pies. But you can’t just expect there to be heat on a national scale because of that,” Parker says. “Just because something is a trend doesn’t mean it will translate to sales across the board.”
Grand Traverse is known for its largely traditional pies–apple crumb and cherry crumb have been the most popular varieties for more than 10 years. Busley attributes the brand’s success to the enduring appeal of pie, rather than what’s trendy.
“Our recipes have changed very little, but we’ve added new pies,” he says. “Mini pies are outpacing others in terms of growth, and we’re playing around with some other ways to make them. But when it comes to handling trends, we pretty much try to gauge what our guests like and what we think they would like to see from us. Trends come and go, but I don’t think pie is going anywhere, just like I don’t think baseball is going anywhere.”
Another humble American dessert that has potential to unseat the cupcake is the whoopie pie, a treat that originated in the northeastern United States but has steadily grown in popularity.
“We’re not seeing it yet in grocery, but we are seeing a supplier get behind whoopie pies in production, and we’re seeing grocery stores showing interest in picking them up,” Parker says.
Isamax Snacks, Gardiner, Maine, produces roughly 10,000 whoopie pies per day for nationwide shipping and its two Wicked Whoopie retail stores. Founder Amy Bouchard never thought the whoopie pie would sell outside of Maine when she launched 18 years ago.
“When I first started, if I had tried to sell my whoopie pies outside of Maine, I would have been laughed at. So I got lucky selling to Mainers, who knew what they were. But after we opened our first retail shop in 2003, we got on Oprah, and that really helped get the word out there.”
Flavors range from best-selling classic chocolate to red velvet to coconut, peanut butter and orange creamsicle. Bouchard says the whoopie pie is popular because it’s an approachable, feel-good food, much like the cupcake.
“You eat it with your hands. You get messy and sticky. It’s almost a little naughty; its just fun food,” she says. “I think the whoopie pie can definitely overtake the cupcake. All the flavors you have in a cupcake you can make in a whoopie pie. You can make big fat ones, little tiny ones. With the whoopie pie, it’s just so unexpected. All that said, people can relate to it. It’s fun and makes you feel good.”
Niche treats go mainstream
Some products, such as the French macaron, have entered the limelight as consumers seek more sophisticated products and flavor profiles.
Pistacia Vera, Columbus, Ohio, sells about 20,000 macarons per month, up from a few hundred when the bakery first started offering them more than seven years ago.
“We never thought the response would be so great when it comes to something so simple,” owner Spencer Budros says. “We definitely see this growing and consistent appreciation for French pastry in America unlike ever before. You can certainly call the macaron trendy, but the technique is never going to go away. It’s such a simple experience but the process of making it is what sets it apart. Just like a cupcake. They’re very simple but they’re wonderful when they’re done really well.”
Customers are becoming more interested in quality and the art of fine pastry than buying the next “it” product.
“One of the reasons I think the macaron will never become trendy is the process isn’t easily replicated by the home baker,” he says. “The cupcake is easily replicated. The macaron is being put on a pedastal as the new cupcake, but I don’t know if appreciation for quality and trend are the same thing.”
The wide appeal of donuts
Trendy bakery products typically are both convenient and indulgent, much like donuts, which are gaining ground and accounted for about 4 percent of overall sales in the retail bakery last year, according to Modern Baking’s retail survey.
“We’re seeing healthy growth in the donut category in store,” Parker says. “One key there is it ties into the nostalgic trend, much like the cupcake, which is appealing to children. Another key is they are breaking out of the breakfast category and becoming something people can enjoy at all times of day.”
Much like cupcakes, donuts are nothing new. It’s the packaging, flavor variations and toppings that can breathe new life into these products. One of the donut bakeries made famous for unusual toppings and presentation is Portland, Ore.-based Voodoo Doughnuts. Best-selling yeast-raised donut varieties include the Voodoo Doll filled with raspberry jelly, a pretzel “stake” and chocolate icing; the Bacon Maple Bar topped with maple icing and bacon; and the Portland Cream filled with Bavarian cream and topped with chocolate and two candy eyeballs.
The menu doesn’t shy away from subversive themes or unusual toppings like cereal or lemonade/ice tea “dust”–which adds to its slightly offbeat charm. Founder and co-owner Tres Shannon attributes Voodoo’s massive following to both the quality of the product and the uniqueness of the brand.
“It’s mostly just this phenomenon in Portland, and we’re synonymous with Portland,” he says. “When my partner Kenneth ‘Cat Daddy’ Pogson and I started, we just wanted to make great donuts. We agreed that this was a pretty great idea, but I didn’t anticipate the ferocity of the fanaticism of people’s love for donuts. It’s just fried dough and we put crazy toppings on it.”
The Doughnut Vault in Chicago, which sells a few varieties of cake and yeast-raised donuts every day until it runs out, carries an almost speakeasy appeal with its nondescript, tiny location on a side street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The shop barely fits a counter, one employee and one or two customers at a time. A live feed on Twitter and its blog tells customers how much product is left. The shop sells nearly 4,000 donuts each week.
While the unique concept of the Doughnut Vault has certainly helped build buzz, owner Brendan Sodikoff says the quality of the product is what makes the place so popular.
“I’d say our popularity is all product-based,” Sodikoff says. “I think you can get away with entertainment value or a theme in some ways for a couple months, but it just goes away really quickly. When you see a line of 100 people standing in line in a snowstorm on a 15-degree Saturday morning and they’re out there for an hour, they have to be getting something out of it.”
But for bakeries like Marge’s Donut Den, Wyoming, Mich., which has been in business since 1975 and sells about 18,000 donuts each week (making up 75 percent of overall sales), what’s trendy is unimportant to the business.
“I think there’s a demand for quality; it doesn’t matter what the product is,” says founder Marge Wilson. “People are eager to have quality because it’s been missing for so long.”
She notes that donuts were trendy long before cupcakes, and the two share a similar appeal because they’re handheld, easy to eat and great for a crowd.
“I think cupcakes and donuts sell very well because the individual dessert is so popular. They are both individual desserts, and you can buy a dozen of either one that’s great for the office or a gift and very colorful.”
Nielsen’s Parker says that quality is key to the donut trend taking off in the in-store bakery, as consumers’ expectations have gone up.
“I definitely think donuts could be the next cupcake. What I worry about is a retailer can’t just go putting out more cheaply made glazed donuts and expect them to fly,” she says. “Just how cupcakes had to be reinvented, I think it’s more about flavor variety and certainly quality. They need to be on par with a great donut outside of major metro areas.”
Parker notes that while trends will bubble up from time to time, bakery’s cornerstones–cookies, pies, cakes, brownies–aren’t going anywhere, meaning it’s up to the producers to make a great product that will carry over time.
“The cornerstones are here to stay. It’s how the product is packaged, or the size or flavor,” she says. “Retailers have to look at it as cannibalizing their opportunity. Taste makers have to realize they are making trends happen, and that a retailer is going to make sure it is a viable trend before they get behind it. So the product has to be good.”
And while the cupcake is holding its own, some bakers argue that a movement toward higher quality in the baking industry could phase out the concept of trends.
“The expectation for quality is replacing what’s trendy,” Doughnut Vault’s Sodikoff says. “And I’m personally a fan of seeing the idea of trends disappear. I think it’s really healthy. What generally happens in a trend cycle is one person does something really well and a couple more people do it really well. Then, a lot of people do it and not everyone does it really well. And that’s bad for us because it devalues what we’re trying to do.”
Pistacia Vera’s Budros adds that as consumers appreciate better-quality products, bakeries will be challenged to improve their product offering as opposed to simply replicating what’s trendy.
“Now that we have a greater appreciation for technique, it’s about the pastry; about the technique, detail and nuance of making fine pastry,” he says. “I think it’s going to take small business and artisans to be able to take classic recipes and strive to do it better and better and not be afraid to take something classic and try to improve it and challenge it.”