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If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
Author and astronomer Carl Sagan had a point when it comes to the challenge of making an apple pie from scratch. And given that many (most?) people are strapped for time and may not know how to whip up a pie or cake in their kitchens, it’s no surprise that shoppers are instead orbiting the supermarket frozen food section to satisfy their sweet cravings.
Frozen cakes and pies may represent a sliver of the frozen food sector, but those segments are largely in the proverbial black. According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), sales of frozen cakes, cheesecakes and pies all edged upwards over the past 52 weeks ending Jan. 26, 2014. Sales of frozen pies increased 1.23 percent to reach nearly $527.4 million, cheesecakes rose 2.87 percent to reach $131.1 million, and frozen sweet goods climbed 2.42 percent for a total of $225.3 million.
Chicago-based research firm Mintel, which last evaluated frozen prepared cakes and pies in a late 2012 report, projects that growth in these categories will continue, due to the perennial appeal of comfort food and consumers’ less frequent time and aptitude in the kitchen. In that report, Mintel pegged sales of frozen cakes and pies at around $900 million, and attributed the relative strength of the category to “the convenience of serving dessert without having to bake it, especially after cooking an entrée.”
Manufacturers of frozen cakes and pies agree that such desserts are treats in the sense that they are indulgent in taste and a small indulgence in consumers’ shopping carts. “It’s an affordable everyday luxury treat, if you will,” points out Tiffany Van Hemm, spokeswoman for Detroit-based Sanders Candy, maker of the “Bumpy Cake” available at grocery stores in Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest.
Within the frozen cake and pie arena, there are some notable trends in consumer preferences right now, such as the continued popularity of classic desserts and new takes on those classics.
One case in point is Sara Lee’s recently introduced angel food cake, which exemplifies interest in favorite flavors that fit today’s diets. “The angel food cake segment is growing rapidly as consumers are looking for tasty and convenient ways to satisfy their sweet tooth while also keeping in mind calorie count,” says Jen Ganahl, senior brand manager for the Sara Lee Desserts division of Chicago-based Hillshire Brands, noting that the cake has 130 calories per serving.
Another classic making a recent debut is a whole New York Style Cheesecake that has been added to the Edwards line of frozen desserts from Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan Consumer Brands. “We’ve offered this flavor in single serve, and it has become the No. 1 cheesecake single serve in retail, so we are thrilled to offer this to our consumers in a whole pie,” notes Jon Wiersum, Schwan’s VP of desserts and meals, adding that cheesecake, the second-largest segment, is helping to grow the total dessert category.
In addition to classic dessert varieties, consumers still have a hankering for frozen cakes and pies that taste and look as if they were just made in their own kitchens — or, for that matter, their mother’s or grandmother’s kitchens. Heeding this desire, Schwan’s introduced Mrs. Smith’s Original Flaky Crust pies in late 2013, with 0 grams of trans fat and available in comfort-food varieties like Apple, Dutch Apple, Cherry, Peach, Pumpkin and Sweet Potato.
Fusing favorite flavors is another way to entice customers looking for rewarding and interesting new desserts. Sara Lee, for instance, recently lent a popular ice cream flavor to its cheesecake. “Taste preferences are expanding, and more consumers are seeking new dessert flavors and more varieties,” remarks Ganahl, citing Sara Lee’s new Cookies & Cream cheesecake.
Anna Hogan, spokeswoman for Jackson, Mich.-based Dawn Food Products, says that marrying certain desserts can be a win-win. She explains: “We identify it as ‘hybrid mania’: Individual flavors or forms that usually stand alone are combined into a new product.” This results in products like Dawn’s Vortex Dessert Cake, which combines cake and brownie layers with a swirl of chocolate truffle.
In addition to the classics and classics with a twist, there are some other emerging flavors that have made a mark in the cake and pie segments. Hogan says that certain indulgent flavors are coming on strong in desserts. “For example, the emergence of red velvet from obscurity to near ubiquity is an established trend,” she observes. “The usage of caramel in dessert cakes is approaching that point.”
In a similar vein, Schwan’s Weirsum notes that interest in richer cream pies is on the rise. “As more and more people are looking for indulgent everyday treats, we are seeing that crème pies have expandable consumption any time of year,” he asserts.
At Sanders Candy, the nearly century-old Bumpy Cake continues to find an audience because of consumers’ penchant for sweet endings, if only once in a while. “I think people generally stick to diets — I am a healthy eater myself — but we enjoy having a splurge,” says Van Hemm. “That’s why it’s called dessert.”
As for the future, Dawn’s Hogan offers some other prognostications as consumer demands continue to ebb and flow. “When we look ahead, we see mint, continued expansion of citrus flavors, and other flavor and texture combinations as potential new ideas for development,” she predicts.
Meanwhile, different options for packaging are another hallmark of the current frozen cake and pie category, driven by the changing and often disparate needs of shoppers. For instance, smaller portions of frozen desserts are increasingly common in supermarket freezer cases.
“The need for smaller portions for individual snacking and enjoyment, as well as more convenient or time-saving options, has been the trend in the frozen dessert category for the past couple years,” concurs Ganahl of Sara Lee, which added pound cake slices two years ago and, more recently, launched Sara Lee Portioned for 2, a line of 2-inch pre-baked 10-ounce pies.
Along those same lines of giving consumers more choices, Edwards now offers a mix of package options in addition to its stalwart single-serve pies.
As Carl Sagan might have agreed, the universe for pies (and cakes) is expanding.