Pies, Pastries and Desserts: Trends in the Perimeter

Baked goods reflect conflicting demands for indulgence, health, and novel flavors and formats
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
a piece of bread
As the holidays approach, shoppers are returning to the in-store bakery to purchase such baked goods as pies.

You don’t need a pie chart to know that the market for baked goods, including pies, pastries and desserts, comprises more and narrower slices, thanks to consumers’ splintering preferences and tastes. On one hand, the perennial craving for satisfaction and nostalgia for tradition keep category stalwarts on the shelf. On the other hand, the equally reliable quest for something different fuels the development of products that align with current trends and circumstances.

Baked goods as a slice of modern life? Just maybe.

Having Dessert, and Eating It, Too

“Permissible indulgence” has been a buzzed-about term over the past few years, and it isn’t an oxymoron: Consumers are seeking to balance their desire to stay in bounds with diet and health while also being able to enjoy sweets.

Health is definitely on the minds of many consumers as they survey the sweet baked goods landscape in grocery stores. A recent survey from Euromonitor International showed that just about half — 50.8% — of consumers describe their diets as “healthy” or “extremely healthy,” up 7.2% from pre-pandemic 2019. Other research, from Mintel, shows that 69% of consumers want snacks that balance health and taste, including items in the dessert category.

Permissible indulgence means different things to different consumers, of course. For some, being able to enjoy things like pies, pastries and desserts means having smaller portions. Downsizing desserts can involve eating smaller slices and pieces, but it also includes the consumption of diminutive products that provide built-in portion control and also offer a bit of the “cute factor” in merchandising.

There are a lot of these littler items in the pie, pastry and dessert categories. Products like two-bite brownies or one-bite cream puffs have been available for years, for example.

In keeping with trends in foodservice and on social media sites like Pinterest, small desserts served in jars have made their way to grocery stores. Jar Joy Desserts now offers a line of multilayered desserts packaged in 4-ounce jars described as stackable and transportable, with a longer shelf life than traditional baked foods. Varieties include Key Lime Pie, Peanut Butter Fudge Pie, Coco Loco Caramel and Mississippi Mud, among other cheesecake flavors. Another example comes from the U.K.-based Pots & Co., which is planning to expand its reach in the United States with indulgent desserts baked in ceramic pots.

The Thomas brand, from Bimbo Bakeries USA, has its own fresh take on itty-bitty indulgences. The brand, known for its English muffins, recently added new chocolatey mini croissants billed as a snack or a permissibly indulgent morning meal.

In addition to branded products, in-store bakeries also offer tinier portions of indulgent desserts for shoppers who want “just a taste.” Products like mini muffins, mini cupcakes, individual pies and bite-sized brownies have long been perimeter staples.

Not content with the status quo, however, in-store bakeries are upping their game in this area. Publix Super Markets, for example, offers a line of petite decadent desserts that are hand-decorated in-store daily; shoppers can choose from mini fresh fruit tarts, petit fours and chocolate-covered strawberries.

For other consumers, having permission to enjoy sweets means buying products made with better-for-you ingredients or those that fit their particular dietary needs.

One case in point: Although baked goods are known (and loved) for their inherent sweetness, a swath of the population is seeking to cut down on sugar, for medical or wellness reasons. According to Euromonitor’s health survey, 37.4% of consumers said that they look for products with limited sugar or no added sugar, a modest 2% increase from the previous year. Lower-sugar pies, pastries and desserts aren’t new, but consumers can now choose from among more varieties at their local store.

Grocers that want to offer choices to shoppers following keto or other low-carb eating plans can add some of those kinds of baked goods and desserts to their assortments as well. The Diamond of California brand, for example, offers a line of low-carb ready-to-use pie crusts made with nuts, including a newer chocolate nut pie crust.

There’s also been a bump in free-from baked goods in these categories. Shoppers following gluten-free or -restricted diets can opt for products like Raised Gluten Free’s line of savory pies or Ethel’s Baking Co.’s gluten-free dessert bars, among several other items.  

Vegan products are encroaching in these segments as well. Raised Gluten Free, for its part, also offers a Vegan Quiche made with organic tofu and spinach. On the sweet side, the Just Desserts brand includes a vegan chocolate-dipped vanilla Bundt cake, and natural food grocer Fresh Thyme Market sells its own brand of vegan pumpkin pie.

In keeping with consumers' quest for permissibly indulgent smaller portions, the Thomas brand has introduced mini chocolate croissants.

All-Out Indulgence

Even as many shoppers seek to satisfy a hankering for something sweet with options that they believe fit into a healthier diet, others are going for pure comfort and taste.

Decadence doesn’t have to mean gluttony, however, and several pies, pastries and desserts proudly tout that all-out indulgent appeal. In the refrigerated dessert segment, The Cheesecake Factory at Home Decadent Dessert line, from Lakeview Farms LLC, now includes a series of mix-in desserts in Crème Brûlèe, Café Mocha and Red Velvet varieties.

The reward factor is also evident in the rise of premium and artisan desserts, including items from smaller or niche bakers, expanded product lines from major dessert manufacturers, and goods made in-house. Whole Foods Market, for example, has found success with artisan pies from Michigan-based Achatz Handmade Pie Co. in varieties like Everyday Michigan Four-Berry Pie, Bumble Berry and Caramel Nut Apple.

In addition to its traditional best-sellers, Wegmans Food Markets’ in-store bakery sells a host of artisan and premium-style desserts prepared by the grocer’s own bakers. An example is a rustic cherry crostata, a fruit tart made with cherries set atop an almond paste smear and garnished with toasted slivered almonds and a coating of snow sugar.

Grocers that have found success by touting locally made products are also differentiating their baked goods by carrying artisan-style offerings from nearby bakers. Dom’s Kitchen & Market in Chicago, for example, has teamed up with a local bakery known for its over-the-top cookies. “Big Fat Cookie has been a phenomenon here,” notes Dom’s Co-CEO Don Fitzgerald, adding that collaborations with local vendors align with the neighborhood-store vibe that the owners wanted to create. “We talked about wanting to be a part of the community, and it’s also about supporting local — in some cases, those who haven’t made the foray into retail yet.”

a sign in front of a cake
The Marie Callender's brand from Conagra has added a new Birthday Cake variety to its lineup, reflecting trends toward nostalgia and comfort.

Authentic, Interesting Flavors

Tradition with a twist: That’s a consumer demand common in many food categories, including sweet baked goods.

Chocolate cake is good, but at Walmart, it gets an even more luscious spin via Marketside Mexican-Style Hot Chocolate Decadent Cake. Even as Marie Callender’s sells perennially popular cream pies in such flavors as coconut cream, key lime and banana cream, it has also added a new Confetti Birthday Cake variety.

Meantime, artisanship and authenticity collide in Raymundo’s Small Batch line of ethnically inspired desserts. Made in small-batch kettles, the Latin-inspired line consists of premium caramel flan and cinnamon rice pudding.

Entertaining in the Late-Pandemic Era

As the holidays approach, traffic picks up in the in-store bakery and baking aisle. In the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation, the level of traffic for the upcoming season is still anyone’s guess.

Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association thinks that holiday entertaining in 2021 will be somewhere between last year’s subdued season and the blowout-level festivities that some had predicted in a post-pandemic era. “Earlier in the summer, we thought, ‘We’re doing great now — we’ll have 200 people in our house!’ It won’t be to that extent, but the holidays will be different this year than last year. People missed out on a year’s worth of celebrations,” Richard observes, noting that this trend bodes well for pies, pastries and desserts, which are central to most holiday celebrations.

What about shoppers’ preferences for this holiday season — will they want traditional favorites or something different in flavor and variety in their desserts? “I think it will actually be both,” Richard predicts. “There’s a certain degree of nostalgia around pumpkin pie, and people want that, but they also may pick up something a little different to try.” 

  • Pies, Pastries and Desserts by the Numbers

    The see-saw effect of the times in which we live shows up in market data for pies, pastries and desserts.

    Although the COVID-19 pinnacle of from scratch baking at home has waned, there are a number of consumers who are still picking up ready-to-make or -serve bakery items from the center store. The Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) latest research has found that baked goods from the center store area rose 2.9% in September 2021 compared with September 2020, with the biggest gains in desserts and morning bakery, and the largest declines in doughnuts and pies.

    As in-store bakeries have rebounded — and as the big occasions like the holidays draw closer — the perimeter is picking up. According to IDDBA’s latest research, fresh bakery is driving growth in 2021, with fresh bakery sales recovering above 2019 levels by more than 9%. Here, too, desserts and morning bakery posted gains in September 2021.

    “It’s painting an interesting picture,” says Eric Richard, IDDBA’s industry relations coordinator. “It’s not just playing catch-up to 2020 compared to September 2019 — the in-store bakery is doing really well.”

    Data from IRI also shows some upticks in the perimeter. For the last 52 weeks ending Aug. 8, sales of perimeter pies topped $1.09 billion, a 5.3% increase from the previous year, according to the market research firm. Perimeter sales of morning bakery items like pastries, danishes and coffee cake also rose, up 5.6% in that time frame to reach more than $3.4 billion. Bars and squares in this part of the store jumped 32.1% to $15.9 million, while perimeter brownies notched a 12.6% increase to hit $323.8 million.

    Overall, grocers that sell pies, pastries and desserts in the center store and perimeter can take heart from shoppers’ appetite for the plethora of products that fall within those categories. As Richard notes, “Looking at the bakery category as a whole, both in the aisle and the in-store bakery, it’s up 3.6% year over year.”

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