CONWAY, AR — Since the last International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), the baking industry’s retail side has experienced massive upheaval that changed many businesses … some for better, some for worse, but all for good.

Regardless, one thing is certain: The transformation that has taken place will impact how retail and artisan bakers view IBIE when they walk through the Las Vegas Convention Center doors on Sept. 17.

“COVID was tough,” said Patti Stobaugh, owner of Conway, AR-based PattiCakes Bakery and Retail Bakers of America (RBA) board chair. “Like everyone else in the beginning, we were unsure of what would happen, and we worked hard to hold onto our employees. Not knowing how we’d be able to keep those families fed was really tough.”


Although the severity of challenges varied state-to-state, retail bakeries suffered the same plight of foodservice during the pandemic’s shutdowns. But the heart of a retail baker beats with tenacity, and many — including Stobaugh — found ways to emerge, perhaps even better than before.

Some business models had to be restructured, but in some cases, what looked like a COVID response was actually the pandemic granting bakeries permission to make lasting changes they’d been otherwise reluctant to try.

For example, PattiCakes chose to discontinue custom wedding cake offerings last year in lieu of generally customizable occasion cakes available online. The decision wasn’t directly COVID-related in the sense that it may not have been derived from the hit taken by the bridal industry. Rather, it was in response to poor customer behavior and a pandemic-driven reality that screamed life is just too short.

“COVID gave many bakers permission to make changes they’d been avoiding.” — Bernadette Shanahan-Haas | executive director | Retail Bakers of America


“[The wedding cake business] had become unbearable,” Stobaugh recalled. “So, we lined out as a team where our biggest frustrations were. But had COVID not forced us to look at some things, I don’t know that we ever would have made a decision like that. We were talking about cutting around $400,000 in sales.”

In an era when unpredictability is the IBIE new status quo, the gamble paid off. PattiCakes made up sales in other aspects of the business with savory offerings like sandwiches and heat-and-eat casseroles.

“COVID gave many bakers permission to make changes they’d been avoiding,” said Bernadette Shanahan-Haas, RBA’s executive director. “But by making COVID the ‘bad guy’ in the background, they could do things like cut items that were too expensive or didn’t have a good profit margin, and that allowed them to take hold of their business and go after customers in new ways.”

While record inflation is hitting consumers hard, independent retail bakeries are still positioned as a destination where consumers get not only a specialized baked good but also an experience that can’t be found anywhere else.

“There’s a ‘shop local’ mindset happening,” Shanahan-Haas said. “People want to support their community, and retail bakeries are still a big part of that.”

While community support is often keeping these shops afloat, it doesn’t exempt them from the labor crisis. The overall baking industry is no stranger to the workforce shortage, but on the retail side, it’s ushering in a “gig” mentality spurred by ride share and delivery mobile apps, services that offer workers ultimate flexibility.

To accommodate for scheduling flexibility, PattiCakes can break shifts out by stages of the process for certain products. For instance, the bakery’s croissants are produced over three days, so Stobaugh relies on three separate people to make them.

“Not one person sees it all the way through,” she said, noting that the shifts are divided into mixing and makeup, lamination, and shaping and forming. “The only requirement we have is keeping it in that line; Person ‘B’ can’t come in to work if Person ‘A’ hasn’t done their job. But other than that, it’s flexible. I don’t make anyone work overnight like we used to. Quality of life is just too important now.”

All these changes are putting a new lens on how retail bakers view their priorities for navigating IBIE, especially emerging from what has felt like a three-year vacuum for many bakery owners.

“We’re putting a little bit different of a focus on IBIEducate,” said Shanahan-Haas, who helped build the award-winning curriculum that consists of more than 100 sessions, hands-on workshops and demos. “Now more than ever, retail bakers are coming to IBIE feeling like they’re the only ones who’ve had to deal with many of these issues. So, we’re structuring education in a way that allows them to not feel so alone and walk away with tangible ideas and networking they can implement in their businesses the minute they get back.”

Outside the hallowed halls of IBIEducate, there’s much for retail bakers to learn from — and teach to — the commercial side of the industry. While artisan bakers can gain best practices in areas such as efficiency and food safety from their commercial counterparts, the large-scale manufacturers can also take cues on R&D and innovation from the artisans.


“Those bigger companies don’t just want ‘button pushers,’” Shanahan-Haas asserted. “They want people who are skilled and knowledgeable about the ingredients and the process, how the bun should look or how it should pull. They can learn that from retail bakers.”

Exhibitors whose products or services cross over both sides of the industry must understand those caveats that come with artisan baking, according to Shanahan-Haas. Needs for these smaller operations can be very specific, and the best supplier relationships start with a genuine understanding of how those needs play a part in the artisan process.

In three of the hardest years the industry has ever seen, retail bakers are coming out stronger for it, and also smarter.

This story has been adapted from the July | IBIE ShowGuide 2022 issue of Commercial Baking. Read the full story in the digital edition here.