While consumers have been trading down in many areas of their lives of late, it seems the bake-off breads market has been protected by a layer of recession-proof crust.

It certainly appears, from talking to some of the major suppliers in this sector, that economy ranges have not been top of many customers’ priority lists. Instead, the key factors in bake-off appear to include the increasing growth of premium products and the popularity of Continental-style breads.

One such major player is Vandemoortele, which supplies bake-off bread products to both the foodservice and retail sector, offering everything from genuine French sourdoughs and stone-baked artisan breads, to demi-baguettes for sandwich-making.

Commercial director Adrian Roberts notes that although premium ranges had become unwieldy in the past, "there has been quite a shake-out, and the good products have stayed and continued". That said, he predicts a resurgence of growth within premium breads, as the UK recovers from the recession.

"The foodservice market is becoming particularly competitive, which I believe will be good for the market and I think we’ll see people being less afraid to spend a little more to get a better-quality product," says Roberts, who notes, that there is still a lot of interest in seeds and, increasingly, in inclusions such as olives, cheese and walnuts.

Délifrance UK’s commercial controller Alan Moutter agrees that consumer interest in premium bake-off breads is still strong. Délifrance’s biggest sellers are its classic core range of baguettes and rolls. "However, the consumer is still prepared to trade up to super-premium products, provided they offer something different," says Moutter. "This could be down to the provenance of ingredients, added-value inclusions such as nuts and seeds or sun-dried tomato, cheese or olives," he adds.

Around 70% of the firm’s business is in bake-off breads, with French and Continental breads, as well as some traditional ranges sold across retail, foodservice and "major end-users" from its sites at Wigston, Southall, and from its network of manufacturers overseas.

"Year-on-year, consumers continue to respond to more Continental and premium offerings," says Moutter. For example: "The super-premium sector, particularly artisan stone-baked products, is showing growth of approximately 15-20% year-on-year."

With more families eating in during the downturn, he says, Délifrance has noticed an increase in sales of the once-niche organic, stone-baked, artisan, sourdough and flavoured breads. He also feels that the UK’s multi-cultural society and the ease of travel nowadays have influenced trends, with consumers being more adventurous in their bread choices.

This echoes Delice de France’s experience of changing consumer tastes. Delice de France UK MD Ian Toal says the company has recognised that consumers are moving towards more ethnic and cultural breads "such as French and American sourdoughs, Mediterranean and even Arctic breads". In response to this, the firm enhanced its savoury breads range with a Mediter-ranean Focaccia, Mediterranean Herb Panini and Pre-Sliced Soft Provençale Herb Baguette.

Looking ahead to the future of bake-off bread, French bakery manufacturer Bridor says the market is moving towards products that represent a "promise" to the consumer for example, country of origin and taste as well as new flavours, shapes and uses. Bake-off breads currently represent around 20% of the firm’s sales. However, this looks likely to increase to 30-35% over the next two years if current trends are anything to go by, according to Bridor. It has even invested in a new bread line, which, from March this year, will begin producing a range of artisan French spe-ciality breads such as baguette Parisienne, pavé and boulot.

Perhaps not surprisingly, being a French company, its biggest sellers are "the baguette-shaped products". However, it acknowledges that "market evolution" has also seen it producing bigger products such as sandwich breads for "recognised retailers".

Bridor believes that taste is the most important aspect of the product, whichever market or consumer you are targeting, but it says there are "interesting opportunities" in Horeca (hotel, restaurant and café) segments, as well as retail markets, to supply new and innovative products.

Continental influence

The Continental influence within this area of the market certainly appears to be widespread. Northern Ireland-based Evron Foods has been seeing sales of its Italian-style breads increasing at a pace. Marketing director Dominic Downey says that whereas, in the past, customers were looking for French bread-style products, such as demi-baguettes, consumers have been moving increasingly towards paninis and ciabattas for example. He also says that consumers have been looking for soft roll products, similar to the rolls it supplies Subway.

On the subject of inclusions, he agrees that they are popular, but says ingredients such as olives and sun-dried tomatoes have been "done to death" and consumers are looking for something different. In response to this, he explains that Evron has been looking at ingredients such as jalapeños and chillies.

Among Bakehouse’s bread lines, ciabatta is also one of the biggest sellers, and a very high-volume line within Wetherspoon pubs, says Bakehouse national account controller Nicky Cracknell, who heads up the foodservice side of the business. Other breads that are performing well for the firm, within foodservice include a multigrain baguette on the menu of 780 Wetherspoon pubs cheese bread and its premium seeded batard. "Lots of our customers want to premiumise their sandwich carriers," says Cracknell. In terms of what foodservice operators are looking for, she says, operational simplicity is key, as many are "de-skilling back of house", and the more simple a product is to prepare, the better. She says health is always going to be a trend, which Bakehouse is planning to address further by "re-energising" its Rusticata range, including the launch of a multi-seeded baguette later this year.

Cracknell says that the influence of Continental-style breads, and especially Italian-style breads, on the market is still very prevalent, but she adds: "I think there’s a growing interest in British bread and that’s certainly something we are going to look at this year. We’re in discussions about this at the moment and we’re still looking at what such a product range could look like." The visual appeal of the product is also an important aspect to consider, she adds. "Quick-service restaurants and coffee shops want something to keep consumers’ interest throughout the year, so I see sandwich carriers being of continued interest, particularly in foodservice," says Cracknell. "We see bake-off bread as a real opportunity for growth for our business, not only in retail, but in foodservice as well. However, we appreciate that the needs of both those channels can at times be quite different."

She notes that whereas in other areas of the business, such as Viennoiserie, the firm is being challenged and pushed on price, this is less of an issue when it comes to bread, "which is a great place to be". "They are talking more about product development, and how something can really meet their requirements," says Cracknell. "I definitely still see the premium end being an opportunity for growth. And, moving into 2010, I’m feeling more positive about future bread opportunities than this time last year."

Short of a crystal ball, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the bake-off breads market, but if current trends are anything to go by, it looks like the future is rosy.