King Arthur Baking Co. sold more than 156 million lbs of flour in 2020, a nearly 60% increase over 2019. And while sales slowly tapered over the course of the year, the company is still seeing baking at levels of about 25% to 30% over the prior year, a trend that Karen Colberg, co-chief executive officer of King Arthur, said has the company “excited for what it means for our future.”
In a March 2 interview with Alexis Christoforous on Yahoo! Finance Live, Colberg weighed in on some of the trends that have played out for King Arthur over the past year.
“The winner was sourdough for us,” Colberg said. “And what that means is breadmaking. And what we do, what’s core to what we do, is teaching people how to bake. And we were thrilled to both be the resource for the inspiration and the know-how and what to do and to then to help people hopefully have the product. ...
“And the other side of the coin is indulgence. And I think baking brought a lot of comfort to people, as well as an activity. And it’s grown into a hobby — again, great for our future. But I think we see bread baking indulgence.”
As King Arthur thinks about the future, health and wellness will play an important role, she said.
“Health and wellness is an area that you don’t necessarily pair up with baking, but we’ve got new products in that space because I think as people explore and want to do more with baking, they want to do it in a healthful way,” she explained. “So we’re seeing health and wellness, indulgence, and bread baking all being really important.”
Colberg mentioned two new products that King Arthur sees fitting into the health and wellness area: a baking sugar alternative and a keto flour.
“The baking sugar alternative is a zero-calories, zero-carb product,” she said. “And it really bakes well. And it took us a long time to get there. And when we offer a new product to the market, it’s gone through its paces, and it has to perform for the baker. And so we’re really excited about the baking sugar alternative. And when you pair it up with the keto flour, you have new opportunities for people sort of in a healthier baking avenue.”
She added that baking sugar alternative and keto flour also have garnered interest among consumers who, while maybe not interested in health and wellness, have shown an interest in experimenting because baking has become a hobby.
Another aspect of King Arthur’s business that helps set it apart is its connection to consumers, Colberg said. The company has seen a significant increase in the number of calls to its baker’s hotline as well as visits to its social media websites.
“I’ve always believed (what) sets us apart in the marketplace is our connection with our customers, deep connection with bakers, and being that resource,” she said.
The company’s baker’s hotline has been around for 25 years and is there to help consumers work through a range of issues they may have while baking. Social media efforts, meanwhile, are relatively new, and King Arthur has put tremendous effort into pivoting in the past 12 months to create content that is helping people learn how to do new things, as well as just putting recipes out there really quickly so that people can learn how to bake, Colberg said.
“And for us, so that’s probably one of the biggest learnings for us in the pandemic, was that we could do that, and we could do it quickly,” she said. “We pivoted.”
Colberg said keeping the supply chain filled was a major challenge at the beginning of the pandemic, but the company has rallied and is in a good spot now. However, it was a “big journey” between those two points, she said.
“We probably produced two times the prior year’s amount of our all-purpose flour, three times the amount of our bread flour,” she said. “Those same levels apply in our gluten-free category as well. And we’ve disappointed a lot of customers early on in the pandemic in terms of not being able to be in stock, both in our direct-to-consumer business, as well as the grocery store shelf.
“So we committed to really significant levels of inventory so that going through peak baking season, November, December, we were in stock and continue to be in stock right now. And having the inventory that people need is as important as inspiring them to bake. I think of our priorities as inspiring, innovating and in stock. And we’re back where we want to be with inventory.”
Asked her outlook on King Arthur’s business once the pandemic runs its course, Colberg said, “So we’ve doubled the number of customers that have come to us in this year. And so that — you know, I always think of that as that’s our opportunity to lose. We have to both do everything that we do really well, which is the consumer engagement that I was talking to you about and inspiring them how to bake, and being in stock so they can bake. So, we’ve put the challenge in front of us to say, let’s do everything we possibly can to hang on to the market share that we’ve gained.
“That said, we fully expect, present company included, that once we can travel and go out to dinner and recreation, go to entertainment and gather with friends, that amount of time people are spending in their home kitchens is going to dramatically decrease from what it was kind of in April, May of last year.
“But what we do believe and we’re forecasting — and we are bullish on baking — we think it’ll be at levels that are, you know, probably 20%, 30% above what they were pre-COVID, which is aggressive, but again, … because people come to us and are hobbyists and passionate about baking and they learn more with us, they stick with it. And those bakers that are hobbyists use a lot of flour.”