KANSAS CITY — Consumers’ obsession with fresh food and their willingness to pay for quality are redefining where and how they shop. This new outlook is leading them to supermarket perimeters and fast-casual restaurants that provide freshly baked products at an affordable price.

“Consumers are looking for items that are prepared in-store,” Eric Richard, education coordinator, IDDBA. “Whether that’s a supermarket or c-store, they’re looking for freshness.”

And the in-store bakery has that going for it.

“When people think in-store bakery, they think freshness,” Mr. Richard said.

Bakery breadEven though most in-store bakeries don’t bake their bread from scratch, just the aroma of baking off par-baked products can lure shoppers to the counter. People can usually see the product being made right there, whether that’s a baguette being scored or a cake being decorated. Even c-stores feature small kitchens where shoppers can see pizzas being prepared right in front of them. This access sends the message that these foods are fresher than the packaged product in the aisles, and that’s something consumers are looking for.

“The focus and commitment on bread can really be a driver of traffic to the in-store bakery,” Mr. Richard said. “It’s a place where you can get fresh, artisan bread that’s made throughout the day. It’s an overall experience that people are looking for, and seeing it made fresh makes them want to buy it.”

In food service, quality drives sales. While restaurant categories such as limited service and full-service struggle, fast-casual is a haven of growth, and a major factor is its ability to deliver food perceived as higher quality at a more affordable price.

Panera Italian sandwich“Fast-casual, we’re still seeing as a growth segment with a lot of activity around different types of bread being used different ways,” said Wade Hanson, principal, advisory practice, Technomic.

Limited-casual restaurants, whose dollar menus brought great success for positioning themselves as the value option, are now challenged with that restricted perception in consumers’ minds. Full-service restaurant chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s are struggling not with value but familiarity.
“It’s difficult to get consumers to walk in and sit down for two people to spend $40 to $50,” Mr. Hanson explained. “If they are going to make that investment, consumers want something different.”

Fast-casual strikes the perfect balance of perceived quality at an affordable price.

“You can sit down; there’s usually an open kitchen and better atmosphere with good quality food,” he continued. “It’s all on trend and at a price point that’s higher but reasonable. Consumers see it as a sweet spot in quality and price.”

Bakers can enjoy that sweet spot, too, by offering these restaurants bread varieties that come with a bit higher quality perception. Artisan touches such as scoring or ingredients such as ancient grains, seeds and nuts can help bakery items keep up with menus.

“Consumers don’t mind paying for preferences of quality,” said Cordia Harringon, chief executive officer of The Bun Cos., Nashville, Tenn. “If they want a wheat bun, and it’s an upscale wheat bun, they will pay money for that.”