SUGAR-FREE CAKES WIN SALES BIG AND EASY IN NEW ORLEANS

NEW ORLEANS (FNS) -- This food town, where every recipe starts with a stick of butter and a cup of sugar, may be the strangest birthplace for the latest best-selling diet book. But bakery merchandisers here are ready for the diet plan, offering customers a full complement of items that dovetail the program.The Sugar Busters diet was developed and authored by three New Orleans-based doctors and a Fortune

NEW ORLEANS (FNS) -- This food town, where every recipe starts with a stick of butter and a cup of sugar, may be the strangest birthplace for the latest best-selling diet book. But bakery merchandisers here are ready for the diet plan, offering customers a full complement of items that dovetail the program.

The Sugar Busters diet was developed and authored by three New Orleans-based doctors and a Fortune 500 chief executive officer. As the book soared up the New York Times Bestseller list, local restaurants started offering dishes allied with the diet and identified them on the menus. Likewise, retailers in the community were not caught flat-footed as they deepened their assortment of sugar-free and no sugar-added bakery selections, also mentioned in the book.

At Breaux Mart, a three-unit independent based here, the sugar-free and no sugar-added offerings are burgeoning within the bakery. Five to six varieties of cakes, an assortment of four to five muffins, angel food cake, chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, four types of cookies and five selections of pies comprise the baked-goods sugar-free and no sugar-added offerings. An assortment of chocolate confections and in-store produced pudding with whipped toppings offer other sweet choices for customers following the Sugar Busters program or otherwise restricting their sugar intake.

"We have an upscale and an older clientele plus a good number of diabetic customers," said Jay Breaux, deli/bakery supervisor at one of the units. "The popularity of the diet and the needs of our customers are the main reasons we continue to deepen this area. It's the type of clientele we serve which has moved us along into this direction."

The chain has been offering sugar-free and no sugar-added selections for three years, using both mixes and thaw-and-sell products. "As more and more companies are offering these sorts of products, we are able to offer our customers more variety," said Breaux. "There is such a big demand for it. People are just watching their sugar intake more."

Breaux estimates that the sugar-free and no sugar-added items command 10% of bakery sales throughout the three stores. The items occupy 10% of the display space.

These products also complement other healthful offerings the chain includes in its inventory. For example, organic dry grocery items such as cereal, pasta and canned goods are finding more space on the shelves. Within the deli department, the chain offers sugar-free and no sugar-added selections such as lasagna, chicken enchiladas, crawfish etouffee, stuffed bell peppers and spinach dip. Menu items are rotated seasonally to give customers the ultimate in selection and variety.

"We are constantly moving our selection toward that [healthy] area as people become more aware about what they eat," said Breaux.

The sugar-free and no sugar-added items are merchandised together, for maximum effect and to leverage the store's healthful profile. All the items are available in a self-service format, enabling customers to peruse the choices, and take their time reading the ingredient label and nutritional information.

Other operators across the country are also jumping onto the sugar-free bandwagon. At Charlotte, N.C.-based Harris Teeter a wide variety of sugar-free items, including creme cakes, pies and crumb cakes along with muffins and cookies, is offered.

"We carry such a wide variety in order to meet customer needs and wants for dessert, snack and breakfast items," said Sonya Elam, spokeswoman. "There is a big demand for sugar-free items from customers who are on restricted diets or want to reduce the amount of sugar they consume. It's often difficult to find good-quality and good-tasting sugar-free products, but we believe we've found both."

Here, the hottest sellers are the creme cakes, muffins and cookies. In the cream cake category, managers rotate vanilla, chocolate, lemon poppy and banana nut flavors to keep customer excitement high.

At Milan, Ill.-based Eagle Food Centers, sugar-free creme cakes and angel food cakes are also offered and abundantly displayed. SN recently visited an Aurora, Ill., unit, and found chocolate creme cake, lemon poppy creme cake and golden creme cake were offered at $3.99 each. The cakes, along with the angel food variety, were merchandised on a self-serve table positioned second in the department's shopping pattern. On the adjacent table, no sugar-added pies, from a local purveyor, were priced at $4.99.