When the weather warms up, it's feast and famine for in-store bakeries. Graduations keep bakery sales piping hot during the early part of the season. But when the dog days of summer take hold, consumers lose their appetite for heavy desserts, and sometimes skip the bakery altogether.
To keep sales sizzling, retailers showcase desserts with seasonal fruit rather than heavy meltable chocolate, and shoppers find more fresh buns and rolls instead of heavy artisan grain breads.
"May and June are probably the most profitable months in the bakery, period," said Paul Supplee, director of bakery operations for Lund Food Holdings, operator of Byerly's, Lunds and Rick's Markets in Minneapolis/St. Paul. "Not the greatest sales, but the most profitable. Summer will start to trail off when it gets really hot in July and August. People are at the lake. When the temperature is up, people don't eat as many sweets. Heavier desserts, even chocolate ones, the sales go down. It's something we've got to weather." The trend is much the same in other parts of the country. On the East Coast, a bakery official with Big Y stores sees a similar sales pattern.
"In general, sales after the Fourth of July soften a bit," said Steve Bordonaro, bakery sales manager for the Springfield, Mass.-based chain. "A lot of people are on vacation. When you get into August, you get into back-to-school shopping. People spend a lot of money on back-to-school clothes. We have a bit of a lull until the cooler weather hits."
When summer fruit is abundant, it pays for in-store bakeries to coordinate promotions with produce departments. Working with the produce staff, the bakery associates at Lunds and Byerly's bring fresh fruit displays into the bakery areas to make the most of fruit-and-cake merchandising.
An old standard, angel food cake, gets a warm-weather makeover. When stores run a sale on the light cakes, they set up large displays of strawberries and angel food cake at the front of the stores. Associates encourage shoppers to be creative with angel food. Next to the cake displays, they set out recipe cards for less common desserts, like angel food and raspberry trifle. Outside, associates fire up the grills, slice up angel food cakes and grill them along with chunks of pineapple on skewers. The kabobs are finished with a dollop of whipped cream.
"It's like toasting marshmallows," Supplee said. "It has a cotton candy-like taste. It gets attention."
Stores also showcase lemon- and lime-flavored baked goods, such as lemon kiss shortbread cookies packed in tubs and displayed on tables decorated with baskets of lemons. Key lime pies and Key lime cakes are popular, too. The pastry chefs on staff whip up fruit-filled concoctions such as fresh fruit tarts, blueberry pies and desserts made from peaches and nectarines.
Through the Fourth of July, Lunds stores featured a patriotic pie. It has a cream cheese base and is topped with strawberries and blueberries. To motivate bakery associates, the chain sponsored a sales contest seeking who could sell the most red-white-and-blue pies.
"It gets bakeries and stores competing against each other," Supplee said. "They win gift certificates and other gifts plus bragging rights. There's a lot of pride."
Bakery associates at Walt's Food Centers like to brag about their buns. They are a signature product -- and one of summer's top sellers -- at the family-owned chain based in South Holland, Ill., about 20 miles south of Chicago.
Where breads are popular in the winter, hoagie, hamburger and hot dog buns drive sales in the summer, said a bakery manager at the South Holland store, where all the buns, breads and Dutch specialty items are made for the company's six stores. The butter crust bun, made from scratch, has developed a particularly loyal following, especially with customers who are planning catered events.
"It's the same size as a hamburger bun but it's softer, airier and lighter weight," said Denise Stewart, bakery manager. "Customers use them for burgers and ham sandwiches."
Stores sell the buns in multi-packs, as well as self-serve cases for customers who don't need so many. To promote them, stores feature sale prices on the hamburger and hot dog buns every week during the summer. The hoagie and butter crust buns are featured every other week, Stewart said.
Cookies, sold in 12-packs, are also popular as snacks and for picnics. Some varieties are made from scratch; others are frozen. Consumers like the old favorites - apple is the top-selling summer pie. The stores also offer a line of fresh whipped cream pies, available in fresh strawberry, Key lime, banana creme and chocolate creme. The pies are made by the store's cake decorator.
"Each week we have a different flavor in our sale ad," Stewart said. "A lot of people don't have time to bake in the summer. They'll get pies or cakes for picnics. For a lot of people, it's more convenient to buy them."
Fresh fruit seems to be an essential ingredient in the top-selling summer products at Big Y stores. The 50-store chain recently introduced an apple pie that has a layer of fresh blueberries on the bottom, apples in the middle and cherries on top and under the crust. Another new item, the apple horseshoe is an apple-filled puff pastry shaped in a distinctive "U" shape.
Bakery associates go all out to promote baked pound cakes, angel food, biscuits and lady fingers with berries. They work with the produce departments to create joint fruit-and-cake displays. They also set up mass displays of product in the bakeries, and feature more products in the refrigerated cases.
The chain featured a "Celebrate America" cake in the shape of the American Flag for the Fourth of July. The sponge cake is filled with strawberries and topped with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream.