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The pandemic caused a ripple effect across the world. Isolation made society reevaluate their hobbies and explore new ones. Mechanics started sewing, crafters took up birdwatching, and many of us took up baking. 

The abundance of free time during lockdown led thousands of people to a simple and delicious way to pass the time. So much so that many culinary schools across the U.S. have been swamped with inquiries from aspiring bakers. The Institute of Culinary Education received 85 percent more applications this year than in 2019. Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., said that its baking and pastry programs had garnered more attention than its  other culinary programs. So, who exactly is leading the baking battalion? 

Who’s Baking? 

Let’s break down exactly who is doing the baking. Research from Zippia shows that 52.2% of all bakers are women, while 44.1% are men, and the average age of an employed baker is 40 years old. This tracks across social media as well. Most of the personalities on Tiktok that spearheaded the baking trend were millennials, with Gen Z picking that up and then surpassing them in the pandemic. Interestingly enough, the research also pointed out that the majority of Bakers are located in New York City and Houston, Texas. 

Around one-third of U.S. adults said they were baking more often in early 2021 than in the thick of the pandemic in 2020, and plan to continue doing so. When asked why, 47% said alleviating boredom during the pandemic, 41% said for a fun experience with children, and 39% said relaxation. The stir-craziness made most people turn to comforting, soothing hobbies, lending itself to the rise of from-scratch ingredients as well as boxed baked goods. 

The Current State of Baking

Since early 2020, sales of baking-related products soared by 24% in the last year to reach $26.5 billion, reports market research firm Packaged Facts in the new report Home Baking: U.S. Market Trends & Opportunities.

The impressive growth in 2020 skewed away from recent market trends. From 2016 to 2019, growth in baking product sales was modest. Sales of baking staples, like granulated sugar, fell during this time, while other similar product categories experienced decent growth.

However, the lockdown surge actually reversed years of stagnancy in the baking aisle. After flat or declining sales since 2016, sales of baking mixes and ingredients rose 25% in 2020 to $8.3 billion, according to market research firm, Mintel Group.

Amidst the surge in baking popularity, baking heavy-hitters had to quickly innovate. General Mills ’ Betty Crocker launched new cookie and cupcake kits aimed at keeping young families baking even as their schedules fill back up. “We’re keeping that next generation in the fold,” says Amanda Burlison, Senior Brand Manager for Betty Crocker. “We’d love to have people enjoy baking for the rest of their lives.”

There are a ton of positive predictions for growth in the industry as well – around 84% of consumers surveyed in Packaged Facts’ frequency of home baking activity. Distribution of those who bake frequently, often, or occasionally is relatively similar (22%, 23%, and 23%, respectively), while only 16% of consumers report baking rarely, and 16% report never baking. Packaged Facts finds that 45% of consumers are “avid bakers” who bake at least once or twice a month. These home bakers are more likely to use most baking products and buy more baking products throughout the year to complete their baking projects.

The heightened popularity of baking couldn’t possibly be discussed without attributing its success to one main factor; social media. More specifically, TikTok. 

How Did We Get Here?

Bakers who had already specialized in posting content of their culinary creations were also finding a new profitable (!) audience. For example, the self-taught Norwegian baker behind the sourdough-centric @breadbyelise Instagram account said she jumped from 10,000 to 67,000 followers during the pandemic. Not too shabby. 

In mid-March of 2020, just weeks into the pandemic, the hashtag #stressbaking had over 26,000 posts on Instagram, while #quarantinebaking had nearly 12,000. The seeds had already been planted. 

One of the most popular baking recipes born out of Tiktok is the elusive ‘cloud bread’. This fluffy, colorful loaf is part meringue, part bread and perfect for customization. You just need a mixer or Arnold Schwarzenegger with a hand whisk and time to kill. ‘Cloud’ quickly became the latest quarantine baking craze. 

The social media fascination with cloud bread may have started with TikTok user @linqanaaa, who made a version of the recipe with almonds for her followers. From there, the internet took the recipe and ran. TikTok and Instagram even featured pictures of pink, blue, tie-dye, sprinkle-covered, and Oreo-filled varieties of the bread.

Baking was going viral, and millions of people were putting their time and cash into making breads, cookies, cakes, and other confectionery goods. But, it’s kind of obvious where this is going. In the direction that toilet paper and Lysol went in early march: supply shortages. 

Supply Chain and Logistic Issues

With the popularity of baking, and the desperation from the pandemic, supplies sold out quickly. In mid-March of 2020, flour shelves began to thin out. “It was very similar to what you’d see during a hurricane, except it was happening all over the United States,” says Brent Minner, a marketing director for Hometown Food Company, which owns the White Lily, Pillsbury, Arrowhead Mills, and Martha White brands of flour. The real flour shortage began just a few weeks later in late March, as it became clear that states’ initial stay-at-home orders would be extended. Market-wide demand shot up more than 160 percent and did not slow.

As The Atlantic points out, this sudden demand threw a wrench into the flour distribution process. In America’s supply chain, getting ingredients to the people who want them depends on far more than the actual availability of the food itself. 

Supplies of wheat were surprisingly abundant for flour brands because less was being sent to restaurants and industrial bakeries. However, a plethora of brands was competing with one another to source the paper bags that consumer flour is packed in, as well as the trucks and drivers necessary to move it around the country. These are the types of issues that typically don’t ever cross the mind of consumers. Bags of flour are big and bulky and are allotted relatively little space on store shelves. And there’s the matter of making the flour. Factories can only produce so much product ethically, and workers’ rights were a highly debated topic throughout the majority of the pandemic. 

And this wasn’t just affecting flour. In fact, The American Bakers Association, represented by Ed Cinco, testified before the US House of Representatives Agriculture Committee. Other food and agriculture groups also testified.

Mr. Cinco opened his testimony discussing the effects of the national labor shortage at Schwebel. The bakery was forced to cut back on shifts from its typical 24-hour production schedule due to high turnover during the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in fewer products delivered to retail and food service customers. Staffing shortages and the scarcity of job applicants were not unique to Schwebel. Labor issues at wholesale bakeries across the country also threaten federal school breakfast and lunch programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children.

The testimony also hit on the transportation crisis. In the baking industry, a shortage of qualified drivers has slowed the movement of products through the supply chain. Some ingredient suppliers have been more hesitant to take on new business for fear of being unable to deliver their product to the manufacturer, forcing bakers to consider other methods of sourcing, which caused ingredient prices to soar. 

Mr. Cinco continued saying, “The baking industry has one of the largest trucking fleets in the US and is reliant upon drivers to transport our products to the end-user. It uses a variety of transportation modes, including ports, rails and roads to move supplies to and from the bakery. These recent bottlenecks at US ports have negatively impacted the smooth flow of trade for both ingredient suppliers and exports of American products. Failure to alleviate these will lead to unusable products due to the short shelf-life of some ingredients.”

The overwhelming, nearly impossible market demand for soybean and other vegetable oils and the challenges inherent to the issues the ABA faced was covered in the testimony as well. 

Future for Innovation

As companies across the country continue to battle with supply chain issues, there is insurmountable room for the baking industry to continue to grow. In fact, Mitch Stamm, executive director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, has noted that this is not the first time a recession has spurred a new wave of bakers.

“We saw a big uptick in the early 2000s when the markets failed and a lot of people who had large 401(k)s lost their jobs,” he said. “We saw a lot of them come into baking; a lot are still around.”

Many companies were forced to innovate, and have intertwined new baking initiatives with other culinary goals. Food media company America’s Test Kitchen is developing a new cookbook called “The Savory Baker,” scheduled to publish in February 2022. Recipes will include their already famous Feta Dill Zucchini Bread and Blue Cheese and Chive Popovers recipes. America’s Test Kitchen also has a television cooking show, publishes Cook’s Illustrated magazine and offers online cooking classes.

As we’re entering yet another wave of the pandemic, and potential lockdowns wait on the horizon, it’s almost certain that the baking industry will continue to thrive. But, time will tell if the supply chain can keep up.