Purpose, Strategy & Culture

Is Baking’s Pandemic Popularity Just a Flash in the Pan?

Many consumers used increased time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to start new hobbies, like baking. Approximately 30% of consumers reported acquiring new baking skills during the pandemic.
Ellen Byron
Wall Street Journal

Key Takeaways:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic changed the activities consumers could enjoy. Most people had to find new hobbies—which for many, included baking.
  • The Hershey Company found that 34 percent of consumers were using baking as a form of self-care.
  • Companies are beginning to promote baking as a year-round activity, instead of just around the fall baking season.
Originally published by the Wall Street Journal

Many people started baking during Covid-19. Food companies want to make sure they keep it up.

by Ellen Byron

May 25, 2021 10:00 am ET

Last spring, 27-year-old Grace DeWitt had a lot of free time when her hours were reduced at the pub she manages. She started watching baking shows, including “The Great British Baking Show” and “Sugar Rush,” and inspiration struck.

“I realized that I could do this,” says Ms. DeWitt, of Addison, Texas.

She started making basic cakes and cupcakes, then moved on to experimenting with different flavors and textures, such as Strawberry Meringue Buttercream frosting. Now, she says, she bakes a few times a week.

The baking industry wants to keep it that way.

During the pandemic, people fought stress and boredom by whipping up cookies, breads, cakes and brownies. Enthusiastic new bakers cleared grocery aisles of flour while millions hunted online for recipes. Now, as lockdowns ease, the baking industry is pulling out all the stops to make sure new bakers keep baking.

To convert pandemic rookies into lifelong bakers, companies are rolling out new baking kits and recipe collections, along with bigger promotions and package sizes to remind shoppers to bake more often.

General Mills ’ Betty Crocker, for example, recently launched new cookie and cupcake kits aimed at keeping young families baking even as their schedules fill back up. “We’re keeping that next generation in the fold,” says Amanda Burlison, senior brand manager for Betty Crocker. “We’d love to have people enjoy baking for the rest of their lives.”

Companies are also helping new bakers cultivate more advanced skills. Sales of General Mills’ cake mixes and refrigerated dough increased over the last year, but from-scratch baking is also on the rise, says Jeanine Bassett, General Mills’ vice president of consumer and market intelligence.

“Cookies really are the gateway category—that’s your way in, that’s where you start,” she says.

The pandemic surge reversed years of lethargy in the baking aisle. After flat or declining sales since 2016, sales of baking mixes and ingredients rose 25% in 2020 to $8.3 billion, according to market researcher Mintel Group.

Sales are expected to decline 6% this year to $7.8 billion, but will still be 17% higher than sales in 2019.

According to a January survey of 2,000 adults by Mintel, nearly one-third of U.S. adults said they are baking more often this year than last year and plan to continue doing so. When asked why, 47% said alleviating boredom during the pandemic, 41% said for a fun experience with children, and 39% said relaxation.

One strategy companies are using to hang on to baking newbies is making the process as convenient as possible. Betty Crocker’s new cookie- and cupcake-baking kits will include mix, frosting, toppings and liners, in kid-friendly themes such as dinosaur, rainbow, galaxy and unicorn. The company also wants to make baking easier for the health-minded: It recently launched a line of oat-flour muffin and brownie mixes.

Over the last year, Hershey Co. closely tracked bakers’ improving skills and motivations as it looked for clues about how baking activity would be affected as the pandemic wanes. The company found that roughly 30% of consumers said they had acquired new baking skills, including trying new recipes, and 34% said they used baking as a form of self-care. “It’s an emotional way to relax, de-stress and sink yourself into something that maybe you wouldn’t have made time for, or knew that you had the ability to do,” says Susanne Prucha, U.S. director of sweets, refreshments, snacks & grocery at Hershey. About 40% of consumers told Hershey that they would bake more post-Covid than they did before the pandemic.

“We honestly think there is going to be quite a different post-Covid landscape for baking,” says Ms. Prucha. “People invested and they have the equipment, the bakeware. There’s that much more reason to say ‘I’m going to keep using these things.’”

To help make sure they do, Hershey has started promoting baking as a year-round activity instead of focusing on the traditional fall baking season, when back-to-school, Thanksgiving and colder weather typically inspire more baking projects. This spring, Hershey’s highlighted spring baking with ads and displays inside grocery stores. Online, it promoted springtime recipes such as carrot cake with its Reese’s Peanut Butter Chips and Bird’s Nest Cookies made from its Cadbury Mini Eggs. This summer, picnic-friendly recipes include S’mores Sandwich Bar Cookies and Hershey’s Best Brownies.

The most popular recipe on the Hershey’s website is the brand’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake, which is also found on the back of Hershey’s cocoa canisters. Since the cake and frosting recipes require much of the eight ounces of cocoa in the canister, the brand is testing plans to launch a new 23-ounce package to encourage households to keep a bigger supply of cocoa in their pantry, according to Ms. Prucha.

Amid the rising popularity of bread baking, King Arthur Baking Co. says it sold more than 156 million pounds of flour in 2020, and dollar sales rose 61% over the year before, according to King Arthur Vice President of Marketing Bill Tine. In the first two months of this year, overall sales are up 47% over last year. To continue the momentum, King Arthur launched an online campaign called “Extraordinary Breads,” which includes 12 bread recipes such as cheesy Georgian Khachapuri and Braided Lemon Bread.

To give bakers fresh inspiration, the food media company America’s Test Kitchen is developing a new cookbook called “The Savory Baker,” scheduled to publish in February. The cookbook is in response to increased interest in savory baking as people look to move beyond the sweet foods already in their repertoire, says Jack Bishop, America’s Test Kitchen’s chief creative officer. Recipes will likely include Feta Dill Zucchini Bread and Blue Cheese and Chive Popovers. “As people gain more skills, they want new challenges and want to try new things,” says Mr. Bishop.

America’s Test Kitchen also has a television cooking show, publishes Cook’s Illustrated magazine and offers online cooking classes. “Our core audience pre-pandemic was probably between intermediate and advanced home cooks,” says Mr. Bishop. But over the last year, he says, the company has focused on catering to its growing audience of new cooks. Social media sent many rookie bakers to its websites, he says, and they required more details in recipes and online lessons. “We are making sure they feel heard,” he says. “They don’t want things dumbed down.”

Mr. Bishop expects that these new bakers will keep baking even as their lives get busier away from home, because the activity offers an effective antidote to their digital lives. “We’re desperate for these sensory, tactile experiences,” he says. “People want to do something with their hands.”

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.