CHICAGO; RENO, NV; DOWNERS GROVE, IL — For those looking for a quick and tasty bite to eat, the humble bar answers the call. A snack that can be devoured during carpool, between meetings or en route to the gym, perhaps no other food is up to snuff when it comes to palatable convenience. But when day-to-day errands and work obligations ground to a halt during lockdown, consumers found they had time for a more complex snack.

Now, as the pandemic landscape continues to morph, here’s what bar producers are seeing in terms of equipment needs and formulation challenges amid the rise of new ingredients and more.

A bar’s recipe for success requires equal parts good formulation and reliable equipment. Mark Lindsley, director of R&D at Downers Grove, IL-based Hearthside Food Solutions, said both elements are critical, especially when dealing with single extrusion, co-extrusion with fillings or even triple extrusion. Without a solid understanding of the base formula, how it performs in the oven and what the right equipment is, adding new flavors and ingredients becomes even more challenging.


“It’s like a perfect marriage of equipment technology and formulation,” Lindsley said. “Formulating is complex in respect to having it be thermally stable. And as it gets more complex, you need a highly trained operator — almost at an engineer level as far as competency — to be running that operation.”

As new ingredients debut and dietary demands from consumers skyrocket, a well-versed operations team that understands ingredients is essential. Trends like high-protein bars, plant-based products and gluten-free offerings take time to navigate when product quality is a top priority. Mijeong Kim, process engineer at Reno, NV-based Nature’s Bakery, knows this firsthand.

“One of our biggest challenges comes with our gluten-free fig bars,” Kim said. “We have high standards when it comes to making sure they maintain a certain taste and texture and that they’re as good as our whole wheat products.”

Gluten-free is also a popular demand for Chicago-based Schulze & Burch Biscuit Co., a private-label and co-manufacturer of cold-formed, granola and cereal bars. Some of the company’s products are naturally wheat-free, so there are no extra steps involved, but cleaning challenges still loom.

“We’ve got bars that are naturally non-gluten containing, but the big challenge is making sure the line is sanitized,” said Joshua Current, R&D manager at Schulze & Burch. “On the cereal bar side, when you’re looking at a grain-based product, wheat is typically the big one, oats being the second and then pulse flours, which are more difficult as far as texture and flavor replication.”


Nature’s Bakery also holds itself to a high standard when it comes to facility cleanliness, especially with the variety of bars it produces. From baked-ins to oatmeal crumble bars to fig bars and more, it’s important to run a tight ship.

“We work hard to make sure our baking process is efficient and sanitary,” said Phil Stringer, senior process engineer at Nature’s Bakery. “We really take pride in having a clean facility, so we need equipment that is optimized to avoid any overspill.”

When it comes to flavor innovation, it’s all over the board for bar producers. Some see the demand fall more into the better-for-you and high-protein categories, but many manufacturers also see a strong demand for the classics.


“High-protein systems were and still are a big challenge, but all that work we were doing pretty much vanished overnight with COVID because nobody wanted them anymore,” Lindsley said. “People just wanted what tasted good. And in some food systems, protein has begun to resurface, but we’re not really seeing any of that yet. We’re making classic bakery products that taste good, but those healthier days might return.”

Current echoed Lindsley’s sentiment, saying the classics were still holding strong and, if anything, people want their snacks to turn back the clock.

“Our flavor requests are usually pretty static with popular options being chocolate, trail-mix type bars or peanut butter, as well as strawberry and more seasonal flavors,” he said. “We’ve also been looking at breakfast cereal-style flavors, almost going back to childhood. I have seen a lot of innovation in that space with people taking big flavors and expanding on them.”

And as innovation keeps pushing forward, companies need equipment that can handle both classic and new ingredients that may be outside the box.

“One of the innovations happening in the baking industry is going after those novelty ingredients like plant-based proteins, different sugars and different fibers,” Stringer said. “It’s important to have processing equipment that can handle those ingredients or smaller-scale pilot equipment to do rapid prototyping. It has to be affordable, efficient and effective with ingredients that smaller companies are using.”


And of course, supply chain issues further complicate changing trends. Experimenting with new ingredients already takes time, but now it’s even more challenging when bakers can’t get their hands on those raw materials because of delayed deliveries or cost increases.

It’s impacting everyone, but especially those who use niche ingredients.

“Our purchasing group does a good job with contracts to keep us going, but the pandemic has been tricky for all ingredients,” Current said. “It seems like every week something is running short, so sometimes it’s based more on logistics than related to costs skyrocketing. Especially when you get into specialty ingredients, the costs are already up, so any hiccup in the supply chain adds to it.”

As bar producers navigate hurdles from every direction, having flexible equipment is a must. Whether it’s in packaging or sanitation, equipment that is reliable and adaptable is key.

“A lot of suppliers are keying in on changeovers and sanitation, and I don’t really see that demand going away,” Egizio said. “I remember when we used to do changeovers on weekends or an off-shift, but there are few opportunities for that anymore. Now you’re losing an hour of production a day, so equipment that can handle those faster changes with built-in flexibility is key.”

Although the world of food trends has taken a beating, the bar presses on as a dependable snack. Whether it’s providing a childhood favorite flavor or meeting a new dietary trend on the go, the bar will remain a cornerstone in the foundation of American snacking.

Read more in the October | Q4 issue of Commercial Baking. Photo courtesy of Nature’s Bakery.