CONSULTANT: IN-STORE BAKERIES SEE EUROPEAN BREADS RISING IN POPULARITY

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- European-style specialty breads such as sun-dried tomato and cheese bread are still on the rise -- and indeed have become more of a staple than a specialty for in-store bakeries.That's what Ed Weller, president of Weller Co., a supermarket bakery department consulting firm here, told SN in a recent interview on bakery trends and where they're headed. "Just like bagels, which

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- European-style specialty breads such as sun-dried tomato and cheese bread are still on the rise -- and indeed have become more of a staple than a specialty for in-store bakeries.

That's what Ed Weller, president of Weller Co., a supermarket bakery department consulting firm here, told SN in a recent interview on bakery trends and where they're headed. "Just like bagels, which were once a specialty, variety breads were, too. But we've seen these products solidifying as a category. The big chains like Albertson's have rolled out programs just in the last six months and it is hugely successful," Weller said.

Bagels, too, will continue to be a strong category, even though sales growth will slow, he said.

Weller's company conducts semiannual surveys to determine trends in manufacturing and merchandising as well as frequent, extensive consumer product studies. The firm's surveys cover approximately 10,000 chain retail bakeries as well as independent retailers.

Weller said that unlike bagels, which had a consumer following before supermarkets got into the act thanks to freestanding bagel shops that sprouted up across the United States, European variety breads were strangers to most consumers before they saw them in in-store bakeries.

"Sure, you could buy them in some places, but you didn't sit down and have them with coffee like you would a bagel," Weller said. In other words, you didn't get to know them.

The success of Euro-style variety breads in the supermarket has been driven by manufacturers in an unprecedented way, Weller pointed out.

The manufacturers' understanding of the ignorance on the consumer's part about the breads has played a big role, Weller said.

"Manufacturers have been very aggressive with support. They offer gorgeous display fixtures and sophisticated signage and a lot of educational materials. Co-op ads and special paper bags that make it look like grandma just baked it in Germany are also part of it," Weller said.

With heavy research and development, suppliers have improved the quality of bake-off Euro-style variety breads to such an extent that just about anyone can produce a great-tasting and great-textured bread, Weller pointed out.

"They're easy. You don't have to have a French bakery chef to produce a great product. But first, manufacturers were asked by supermarkets to educate their customers. Nobody asks what a chocolate chip cookie is, but an awful lot of consumers were asking what sun-dried tomato bread is," Weller said.

Both bagels and Euro-style variety breads will continue as strong categories, he predicted. They will not go the way of croissants, which had their day in the sun and have since dwindled to a low-sales category in most cases, Weller said.

"There was a time when you couldn't get a sandwich that wasn't made on a croissant, but the bloom has faded." Conversely, European variety breads continue to be accepted by the customer, even more so now that the economy is on an upswing.

"Three years ago, we'd have been hard-pressed to sell bread to anybody for prices like $2.99 and $3.99. Not when they could get white or wheat bread [in the commercial aisle] for $1.10 or $1.19. But now there's less resistance to bread prices," Weller said.

"Variety breads and bagels also both ride along on our everyday usage. The croissant, on the other hand, was so light and so French it never had a chance to become the working man's bread product," he said.

People also perceive the heavy, Euro variety breads, no matter what they have inside, as being good for them. "They taste good, fill you up, and may lengthen your life. What else could a customer want?"