The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up almost everything in the food industry, and it’s important to look down the road at what’s ahead.

Executives are eyeing dramatic shifts in technology, workforce, supply chain, consolidation, sustainability, consumer behaviors, and industry-government relations.

“CEOs are saying everything is on the table,” says Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of American Bakers Association, during the association’s podcast Bake to the Future. “I think that we're going to wake up in five years and say the industry that existed pre-COVID doesn't exist anymore.”

MacKie led a wide-ranging podcast discussion that featured two food industry association executives: Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), and Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute.

Technology will be crucial in solving the industry’s new challenges, executives said.

Potts said robotics will become more important, although most of the impacts will be longer-term, given the extended ramp-up time for investments. She added that more sophisticated equipment and processes will change the skill sets required for employees.

“It’s a huge turnover in terms of the types of people you need,” she said.

Dykes said that “technology has been turbo-charged as a result of COVID-19,” citing automation as a huge component.

A major focus on competitiveness will mark the food industry’s future, beginning in the balance of this year, Dykes said. He said this emphasis will lead to innovation and consolidation.

“Leaders are going to bring their teams together and say we need to take a fundamental look at our businesses, our supply chains, our workforce, our level of competitiveness, and our budgets,” he said.

Dykes said the questions they’ll be asking themselves include, “Are we structured properly? Do we have the right people in the right places? Are we positioned to be globally competitive?”

Potts said a big opportunity will be examining new strategies for foodservice suppliers to serve retail.

“The pandemic has created the need for many of our members to diversify their channels,” she said.

Brand relationships with consumers will evolve more quickly than before, with trust as a key element, executives said.

“We will need to make sure we’re doing the things consumers value, because we’re going to be under intense scrutiny,” Dykes said. “If we’re going to maintain our license to operate, we’ll need to make sure we have credibility in our messaging.”

MacKie said bakers have solidified relationships with consumers during the pandemic by supporting communities, and the baking companies are now mulling future steps.

“We keep talking about how to build on those relationships,” he said.

Retail bakery education

The new RBA BakeryX Program, a student certification and career program from the Retail Bakers of America (RBA), promises to educate the next generation of professional bakers. Certification with RBA is a catalyst for professional growth and credibility. It exposes young bakers to skills and ideas, perhaps outside of their experiences, giving a broader understanding and appreciation of the craft. In training the industry’s employees and leaders of tomorrow, the RBA will strengthen the future of the retail baking industry.

“We are excited to offer this opportunity to baking professionals at the start of their careers. The combination of RBA membership and CJB certification is the perfect recipe to launch a new career and empower the next generation of bakers to meet their maximum potential,” explains Marissa Sertich Velie, RBA certification coordinator.

RBA’s BakeryX is a Student Certification and Career Launch Program that works with RBA member and non-member trade schools, community colleges and universities to provide their baking & pastry students with the opportunity to become certified as a Certified Journey Baker at a reduced rate of $50 per student (member rate) or $75 per student (non-member rate). Upon successfully passing the CJB, the student will receive a complimentary year-long individual RBA membership.

Patti Stobaugh, owner of PattiCakes Bakery in Conway and RBA board president, looks forward to these educational efforts that will help advance an exciting world of professional bakers who are highly skilled and motivated to succeed.

PattiCakes Bakery opened in 2006 with a simple mission: to make great food that was reminiscent of a visit to Grandma's house. Since then, thousands have walked through the door and enjoyed something home-made.

"As has been the case throughout history, food is a uniting factor for family, friends and coworkers. Many of our retail bakeries offer savory as well as sweet options. Let us band together as an industry and feed our great country," Stobaugh says.

In addition, current RBA members have access to Baker2Baker, RBA Connect. This forum is a virtual place where bakers can collaborate and network with other professionals in the baking industry.

The Journeyman Baker and Journeyman Decorator levels of certification are completed online, giving students the opportunity to complete them in the classroom or from home.

The Guild standard

Every year, The Bread Bakers Guild of America selects top instructors from around the country to share their expertise, innovative ideas, and overall passion that drives them to the bench each day. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guild made the difficult decision that all in-person classes be postponed. Previously scheduled classes were restructured to offer a virtual option or rescheduled.

To learn more, visit BBGA's website.

Launched at a time when so many in the artisan bakery industry are experiencing varying degrees of uncharted waters, the Guild’s "Try This at Home Series" is a means of helping to keep bakers baking, even if that means baking at home. And if the world has allowed bakers extra time at this moment, the Guild encourages bakers to dig in, keep busy learning new techniques, testing formulas, or safely networking with fellow artisan bakers.

Dawn spurs innovation

Within the industry, advanced professional training is offered by Dawn Food Products in Jackson, Mich. The Dawn Innovation Studio provides a forum for education and a place to spur creativity for innovative new products and solve everyday issues.

“We’ve used our Innovation Studio as a vehicle to work with many bakers and customers in ways that inspires creativity, encourages innovation and strengthens collaboration,” says Melissa Trimmer, senior bakery application chef for Dawn Foods.

One example of this is Dawn’s program “Inspired By You,” which Dawn created with the mission of pushing the boundaries of texture and flavors and giving customers the ability to create desserts reflective of their style. Pushing said boundaries has proven to be a fruitful one as bringing different stakeholders to the Innovation Studio has led to the development of new products including the first-ever sourdough donut mix and three new cake flavors: coconut, honey and coffee.

Most recently Dawn has achieved the following:

  • Developed virtual customer visits with customized, live online sessions that bring market insights, custom menu work and culinary master training classes to life
  • Following the virtual customer visits, partnered with Dawn’s local tech teams to ensure experiences include fresh samples prepared locally following chef Melissa’s recipes
  • Launched Dawn’s first virtual food show that includes recipes, insights, chef demos and a specialized website to relive favorite moments as well as access materials post-show

“We plan to continue being a strong, collaborative partner for bakers,” Trimmer says. “One of our biggest priorities has always been to partner with our customers to help them grow their business. The COVID-19 pandemic further reinforced this need for productive collaboration between suppliers and customers as we helped support bakeries while they reopened. Our technical sales reps (TSRs) have also stepped up and used social media tools and videoconferencing to better assist our customers during the pandemic.”

She adds that a big challenge facing Dawn customers in the retail space is having to adjust to shifting consumer habits, especially as bakeries work to remain open during COVID-19.

“To help our customers better navigate the new retail terrain, we provide timely insights into what consumers are looking for, from investing in bake-at-home kits to ways bakers can capitalize on holiday trends,” she explains. “Our goal is to be a reliable partner that will support and guide them where needed.”

One of the biggest changes Dawn has seen is a shift to individually portioned or smaller treats as consumers continue to stay home with their families and prefer smaller portion sizes. The Dawn Foods website offers great recipes, many of which can be scaled up or down to achieve this balance from larger portions to individualized treats.

Another trend Dawn is seeing is that customers are making their menus smaller and easier to execute. In response, Dawn’s versatility guides help showcase how bakeries can use one mix in many different ways, while also saving on labor and menu space. 

“Innovation can mean many things – whether it’s a product, service, person or idea. In today’s new environment, innovation is a necessity if we want to evolve within and around the changing bakery landscape,” Trimmer says. “A proud innovation moment for us at Dawn was building and launching our eCommerce platform from scratch. With the platform, bakers can place orders whenever it’s most convenient – helping them to save time and simplify their lives. Our desire to innovate in the face of adversity made us nimbler in responding to shifting consumer habits as well as made us make decisions and execute them faster.”

ABA training solutions

The American Bakers Association’s Bakers Manufacturing Academy's best-in-class training solutions provide industry-specific, technical education for bakery production employees whether they are new to the profession or are growing in their career.

Facility Access: A baking facility can elect to use this option to enroll their workforce in our educational programs. This allows each facility to be in charge of their educational goals, enroll employees at their choosing, and use the Bakers Manufacturing Academy portal in your day to day operation.

Guest Access: As an individual, you can use our educational programs by using this option. Be sure to click "Create Account'. Instructions will be emailed to you once you've completed the form. Payment must be made prior to course access. If you already have access to the Academy Portal and would like to enroll in another course, email