BELLEVUE, WA — Some ingredients like butter and sugar go in and out of fashion, depending on what direction the wind blows to sway the court of public opinion. Although vilified by many consumers, when sugar is on the ingredient list of an indulgent baked good, it fares better than some of the alternatives.

“Consumers think about sugar in different ways,” said Shelley Balanko, PhD., senior VP at the Hartman Group, a research firm focused on food and beverage consumer trends. “For some, it’s just evil, and they try to avoid it at all costs. Others feel that it’s part of their daily life, and they’re just trying to be more mindful and intentional about when they have it. And then others see sugar as an elevated ingredient, and they’re looking for really high-quality sugar at those times when they’re ready to indulge.”

And while artificial sweeteners can be less desirable than sugar, natural and sustainable replacements like maple syrup or honey are seen as viable options on the ingredient list.

Similarly, butter has seen its share of ups and downs with consumer preferences. But as more people put real ingredients in the “permissible indulgence” column, products like croissants used with real butter are gaining popularity.

Creating an experience — and an unforgettable one at that — means the R&D has to be innovative. For decadent baked goods like brownies, that innovation often starts at the retail bakery level, where small operators are nimble enough to really go for extreme impact. Killer Brownie can take inspiration from that while considering how to realistically produce an impactful innovation at scale.

“We have some proprietary processes that help us take the experience you’d typically only expect in a small bakery and scale it to a national program,” said Chimene Ross, Killer Brownie president and chief customer officer. “We look first at all the ingredients and ask ourselves if we can fit it into our processes to scale it, and we also look at how that product will help our partnerships with current customers, so they’ll be able to expand it. Is it something that their customers will get excited about? Ultimately, we want to create a product that makes our customers — retailers and bakeries — look great. We want the end consumer to get excited about coming into that location to buy the product.”

Data from NielsenIQ indicated that brownies are in fact generating that excitement in the perimeter, with the category seeing 18.5% sales growth as of Jan. 1, 2022, a significant spike from the flat sales the year before.


Killer Brownie usually looks about 12 to 24 months ahead, based on industry trends and what the team calls a “product scorecard,” which looks at all the impacts of a new product.

But knowing what will get consumers excited relies heavily on industry trends and forecasting, which is much more challenging given the market volatility. For example, developing products that call for unique or exotic ingredients isn’t as feasible as it might have been a few years ago before the supply chain was in a state of disarray.

“In this current environment, we have to be more careful about developing a product with an obscure ingredient,” Ross said. “Typically, we love that kind of development, but we have to be more careful given the environment we’re living in right now.”

Indulgence is a somewhat complex proposition that involves more than just consumer food choices. It is spreading across dayparts and different eating occasions as well.

That’s becoming visible in areas such as in-store bakeries, which are seeing marked growth as pandemic-related restrictions have significantly eased. NielsenIQ’s January 2022 data showed that the overall bakery perimeter dollar sales were up 14% from a year ago, with sweet goods seeing an almost 28% increase and desserts with 14% growth.

“We’re seeing the perimeter, with bakery items, is really skyrocketing,” said Heather Prach, director of education for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association. “We’re seeing year-over-year that those numbers are increasing. And with indulgence, we’re also seeing it in interesting places like croissants.”

Prach attributes that to creating upscaled versions of everyday items that Americans ate at home throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns.


“If you go to a retailer today, they have expanded their shelf set to include more premium items,” said Paul Lapadat, CEO of Madison, WI-based Dessert Holdings. “That’s what consumers are looking for; they want really good food. If they’re going to indulge, they want to make sure that experience is a great one.”

Product sizes can link portability and portion control in with permissiveness. Steven Charles – A Dessert Company, part of the Dessert Holdings portfolio of brands, specializes in high-end dessert products, including single-serve and portable, for retail and foodservice. Dessert Holdings’ recent acquisition of Steven Charles added individual sizing options to the Dessert Holdings family, which also includes The Original Cakerie, Lawler Foods and Atlanta Cheesecake Company.

“These are worthwhile opportunities for consumers to reward themselves,” said Rebecca O’Hara, president of Steven Charles. “It’s the right size to indulge, it’s nostalgic, it’s flavor.”

This is also evident with the popularity of cheesecake (a big offering in the Dessert Holdings portfolio), which Prach noted a consumer preference for as well.

“Cheesecake is going wild these days,” Prach said. “People can put it out at a party, and the number of flavors are showing up in assortments.”

Chicago-based Eli’s Cheesecake has tapped into consumers’ love for cheesecake by offering its product in a variety of formats ranging from traditional cheesecake that’s sold in classic flavors, samplers or “build your own,” to portable items like cheesecake Dippers and Cuties.

“Consumers want to treat themselves with an indulgent dessert, and cheesecake is the ultimate,” said Debbie Marchok, VP of marketing for Eli’s. “With more than 40 flavors, like Turtle Cheesecake, Basque Cheesecake and Chocolate-enrobed Dippers, we offer elevated comfort food with clean a clean label in mind.”


And as more consumers indulge at home and take on more challenges in the kitchen, Eli’s also sells cheesecake DIY kits direct to consumers with Valentine’s Day dipper kits and even a DIY wedding cheesecake that can serve up to 40 people.

Although retail sales for this dessert saw more than $481 million in 2020 and jumped by more than $100 million for 2021, according to IRI data, cheesecake is not necessarily a hub for innovation, especially with supply chain disruption impacting ingredient availability. Much of the draw lies in its comfort.

“We aren’t seeing brokers or manufacturers come to the table with a lot of innovation,” Prach said, “because we’re almost in a survival mode. We’re seeing SKUs pare down, and we’re getting back to basics.”

Food culture has had some obvious influences over the past two years, but for the past few decades, it’s looked like a decoupage of nutrition obsession and epidemic obesity.

With more culinary self-awareness than at any other point in history, Americans may be ready to fit the puzzle pieces together so that health and indulgence could peacefully coexist.

“People aren’t afraid to indulge anymore,” Prach said. “It may not be an everyday eat, but if they’re going to go for it, they’re going all-in.”

This story has been adapted from the April | Q2 2022 issue of Commercial Baking. Read the full story in the digital edition here.

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