The low-carbohydrate craze meant different things to different bakeries. For some, it signaled the end. For others, it signified a nadir in profits and sales. For Aunt Millie’s, formerly Perfection Bakeries Inc., the low-carbohydrate craze was a turning point in the history of this more than 100-year-old Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based independent bakery.
“Low carb was quite possibly the best thing that happened to our company because it forced us to focus on the consumer and new products,” Bohn Popp, Aunt Millie’s vice president of marketing, says. “We had to focus on how to take a product that is full of carbohydrates and starch, and make it taste good, while changing the entire concept of the product. Essentially, the trials and errors with low carbohydrate bread granted us the knowledge we needed to develop quality tasting whole grain and high-fiber products.”
The company’s renewed focus on innovative bread products has paved the way for greener pastures in the last two years. The company’s sales are growing, and its product roster transforming to sync up with changing consumer trends. Central to the company’s recent success is an ambitious plan to convert its Aunt Millie’s Hearth breads to whole grain formulations. Throughout this process, the company learned how to innovate, communicate and sell better than it has ever before, resulting in the dynamic growth of this once niche bread brand into a dominant player in the Midwest market.
Birth of a brand
Aunt Millie’s was founded in 1901 as Wayne Biscuit Co., and originally produced a line of biscuits and wafers that it distributed in the upper Midwest. For the next 60 years, the company slowly shifted its product lineup to sliced breads, and changed its name to Perfection Bakeries. In the 1960s, the company started acquiring independent bakeries in the upper Midwest, including Muncie Bread Co., Schafer Bakeries and Gase Baking Co. With these acquisitions, the company established itself as a leading supplier of breads and rolls in the Michigan market. The company continued to grow with the acquisition of Way Baking in Jackson, Mich.; an expansion at the Fort Wayne bakery; a new bun plant in Coldwater, Mich.; and a new plant in Sidney, Ohio. The latter three expansions paved the way for the company’s growth in the Indiana and Ohio markets.
| From left to right: Rod Radalia, director of technical services; Melissa Dunning, marketing director; Dan Linnemeier, director of corporate accounts; Melissa Zimmerman, marketing manager; Bohn Popp, vice president of marketing; and Carmen Thompson, customer relations manager |
As the bakery grew, so did its brands and product lineup. “There was very little brand unification,” Bohn Popp says. “The goal back then was to have as many brands in the store as possible.”
In the mid 1980s, the company introduced Aunt Millie’s, with two varieties. In the early 1990s, the company discovered that these two unique items offered a premium point of distinction amid the company’s lineup of white bread products. This brand hit the big time soon thereafter, when the company launched a fat-free bread under the Aunt Millie’s name, the first of its kind in the Midwest market, Bohn Popp says.
The popularity of this bread introduced the company to new clients and established the Aunt Millie’s brand. The company, under the direction of then vice president of sales and marketing, George Jones, converted its entire bun line to the Aunt Millie’s name, and positioned the brand following three characteristics: quality, variety and a modern brand with old-fashioned values. It was Jones who pioneered the Aunt Millie’s brand as the unifying marketing brand for the company, Bohn Popp says.
Today, this brand maintains its core characteristics while leading the charge of better-for-you breads. The success of the brand also caused the company to change its name from Perfection Bakeries to Aunt Millie’s in 2005.
Righting the ship
The Aunt Millie’s brand success story is built on fat-free bread, and continues to grow based on better-for-you products. However, the company’s wave of innovative offerings may not have been possible without the low-carbohydrate diet, which temporarily knocked the company off track.
A little more than three years ago, the company started promoting whole grains and whole grain breads in various ads. At this time, the company’s modest whole grain product lineup consisted of three whole grain breads. This initial whole grain push was derailed in the fall of 2003 when low-carbohydrate buzz grew to epic proportions. However, this buzz quickly faded.
“Our 2004 ad campaign was focused on low-carb buns, and we put a lot of money in those items as well as the related marketing material. But once summer started, they didn’t go anywhere,” Bohn Popp says. “They fit the needs of what consumers wanted nutritionally, but they didn’t deliver a great-tasting product.”
The hype and collapse of the low-carbohydrate diet taught the company that healthful products are important, but the taste of these healthful products is even more important. The company quickly shifted its focus from low-carbohydrate products to whole grains, and by the beginning of 2005, the company expanded its whole grain bread products from four items to 11 items. The success of these initial products spurred the company to continue expanding its whole grain exposure, eventually formulating or converting 26 bread formulas to include whole grains.
Whole grain conversion
The task of converting or formulating more than 20 whole grain products in less than a year presented its fair share of challenges. First was getting everyone in the company on board, from senior management, to the sales staff, to the research and development technicians. “The only way you can introduce new products is through communication and support,” Melissa Dunning, Aunt Millie’s marketing director, says. “Fortunately, everyone in the company is supportive and believes in whole grains.”
Next, the company had to define its vision of what constitutes a whole grain product. “The industry is rather nebulous in its standards for whole grains,” Bohn Popp says. “Our rule of thumb is that whole grains have to be the first flour ingredient on the ingredient legend.”
If there is more white flour than whole grain flour in a product, the company may say it contains whole grains, but will not put “whole grains” in the name of the bread or principle display area. The company further clarifies its whole grain policy by using the Whole Grain Council’s Whole Grain Stamp. This program defines three levels of whole grain usage in bakery foods and illustrates the levels with three stamps.
Rod Radalia, Aunt Millie’s director of technical services, was charged with the task of formulating new whole grain products and converting existing formulas to include whole grains. The conversion process ran from smooth to complicated, Radalia says. Products with inclusions, such as multigrain breads, posed the biggest challenge. Despite containing multiple whole grain inclusions, these products included a lot of white flour, which balanced the flavor. “When we switched to whole grain flour, the product became bitter,” Radalia says. “So, we had to change all of our grain blends to get the flavor back.”
The company’s whole grain conversion also benefited from the growing availability of white whole wheat flour. This product alleviated many taste obstacles, but did create strength issues, which the company solved with increased gluten levels.
Fiber for Life
Besides converting many of its breads to whole grain formulas, Aunt Millie’s launched an initiative to improve the fiber content of many of its breads. Breads under this initiative are labeled Fiber for Life. Similar to the whole grain conversion, boosting fiber levels posed many challenges to Radalia and his staff.
“I tested more than 20 different fibers, and we’re still working with new fibers and investigating different fiber suppliers,” Radalia says. “After the tests, we quickly learned that one fiber is not the answer.”
| Aunt Millie’s converted its hearth bread line to whole grains. |
As a result, the company uses many forms of insoluble and soluble fiber. Working with soluble fiber is one step away from working with a gum, Radalia says. Therefore, the company has to walk a fine line between too much soluble fiber, which prohibits proper dough development, and too little soluble fiber, which inhibits ideal mouthfeel.
Insoluble fibers also pose formulation challenges because they absorb so much water. “Fiber companies have done a good job making fiber taste bland,” Radalia says. “But that can be a problem because the water also is bland, which together dilutes the flavor from the rest of the bread.”
The company also uses resistant starches to boost fiber content in its products. “It’s the easiest fiber to substitute flour with, but if you add too much, the product will dry out toward the end of its shelf life,” Radalia says. “So, we use it with combinations of other fibers.”
Aunt Millie’s transition to a bread manufacturer of better-for-you products has boosted the company’s sales and improved the stature of the bread industry. “All of these new healthful products are bringing equity into our industry,” Bohn Popp says. “Five years ago, we didn’t know the great extent that bread could influence health.”