For the four weeks ending March 28, 2020, total unit sugar sales excluding substitutes were up 64% vs the same time period year ago, according to IRI sales data provided by the US Sugar Association, whose members include sugar beet and sugar cane growers, processors, and refiners.
Even before the pandemic hit, baking and scratch cooking were already on the rise (according to a September 2019 study conducted by Mintel), and the shelter-in-place mandates across the country only accelerated the trend, said Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the US Sugar Association.
“Social media is the #2 teaching [method] of baking skills, and made from scratch has been trending even before this happened,” she said.
Conversations around sugar across social media platforms have increased by 1,774% between March 1 and April 13, 2020 compared to pre-coronavirus lockdowns (Jan 17, 2020 – Feb 29, 2020).
“At least when it comes to sugar people are talking about it a lot more online and significantly more positively. Obviously, we’ve had a rough ten years or so, so that’s really nice to see,” Gaine told FoodNavigator-USA.
Men and women are baking
The audience of consumers who are baking is also skewing younger and becoming more balanced between men and women, signaling a new future for the tradition of at-home baking.
Nearly 50% of the audience talking about baking online is between 18- and 24-years-old, another 27% is between 25- and 34-years-old, according to the association’s research.
“So many people are being introduced to baking. Basically 75% of the people talking about baking are under 34-years-old, which is not probably the preconception people have about baking,” said Gaine.
Parents, she added, have been the largest demographic to search for baking activities to keep their kids busy during quarantine with many viewing baking as a constructive activity as it builds skills in math, science, reading, coordination, and problem solving.
Bread baking soars to new heights: ‘It’s a bit of a reminder that people love bread’
Online search data by NYC-based tech firm Chicory revealed that from the week of March 8 to the week of March 15, online views for ‘basic homemade bread’ increased by 342.76%, ‘how to make banana bread’ by 171.54%, and ‘how to make your own sourdough starter’ by 517.98% (this went from the 543rd most popular recipe in Chicory’s network to the 9th).
“Bread has become the food and recipe of choice for most Americans,” said Joey Petracca, Chicory COO and co-founder. “Playing a comforting role in our lives during these unstable times, basic bread and its infinite variations are staple pantry items that offer a sense of normalcy."
The latest IRI data provided by the American Bakers Association shows a 220% increase in flour sales at retail compared to this time last year.
CEO of Ardent Mills, Dan Dye told FoodNavigator-USA, “It’s a bit of reminder that people love bread.”
And while bread baking at home is proving a popular activity during this period of mass quarantine, Dye also believes the trend will continue post-COVID-19 when consumers track their dollars and spending more closely.
“I think we’re going to come out of this time in a recessionary period and these products are affordable and available.”
Consumers show new-found appreciation for eggs
Eggs, another in-demand item for consumers cooking and baking at home, have seen a huge surge in demand during the COVID-19 health crisis, said Dan Arnsperger, CEO of free-range egg producer Happy Egg.
According to Arnsperger, the company has seen an increase in order from its retail customers ranging from 30% to 200% as eggs experience a new wave of consumer interest because of the animal protein's natural versatility as a baking ingredient or main protein on the dinner plate.
A consumer survey of 1,500 adults conducted by market research firm Field Agent revealed that the #1 grocery item shoppers said they have bought more of during the coronavirus outbreak has been eggs.
“As long as people are spending more time at home, they’re not only going to eat their food at home but they’re going to shift into more egg consumption, which will be an ongoing event,” claimed Arnsperger.
Supply chain plays catch-up
To meet demand, Ardent Mills has adjusted several components of its supply chain, starting with prioritizing the health of its employees, the most critical part to any business, Dye said.
“People are the critical part of our industry and they’ve just been doing a tremendous job. That’s really been where our focus has been,” said Dye.
Ardent Mills has implemented several additional measures to protect its workforce including ensuring appropriate social distancing between workers and providing appropriate protective equipment. The company has also provided appreciation pay, emergency paid time off, virtual onboarding for new hires, employee-cross training and 1:1 real-time calls with leadership.
“We’re trying to partner with our customers to create some creative solutions,” he added.
For example, working with a few of its customers, Ardent Mills has begun delivering directly from its mills to grocery stores instead of transporting the flour to distribution centers.
'There is flour available and it will be coming'
Ardent Mills has also streamlined its flour packaging at many plants, added Dye.
“We’ve gone to where we’re only producing 5lb bags for extended runs so that we can produce more and more efficiently. It allows us to produce more flour and it actually simplifies things for the grocery store,” he said.
“I know it’s frustrating sometimes when you go the grocery store and see the empty shelves and we understand that, there is flour available and it will be coming.”
The egg industry is also working around the clock to meet the unprecedented demand COVID-19 has presented.
According to Arnsperger, Happy Egg's business model wasn't exactly built for a crisis situation like COVID-19 (as its free range chickens can only produce one egg per day), but the company is adjusting to meet retail demand as much as possible.
“We’re still in a situation where we are struggling to meet the demands of the retailers from a supply standpoint,” Arnsperger said.
The majority (80-90%) of egg sales are open market, which can lead to dynamic pricing based on demand, while Happy Egg’s prices, due to its cost-plus model which keeps price consistent for retailers and consumers, has not dealt with the same market volatility as the rest of the egg industry, explained Arnsperger.
“We can’t get the chickens to produce more and our product expires so it’s not like we built these big stockpiles of eggs that we could then flood the market with. Our supply chain was actually geared towards retail and we’ve done some things to access some more egg supply, but that is only through the lens of keeping up our brand standards and making sure our farmers and our birds get the love that our consumers expect.
“The egg industry has been challenged because it has had to figure out how to shift this egg product from foodservice into retail, and that’s been hard as that’s what caused a radical rise in prices and price volatility that seems to now be correcting itself.”