WSU Bread Lab (Regional Grains)
May 2021 Impact Assessment II
Compared to pre-COVID normal, are there dimensions of your sector that have experienced a sustained increase or reduction in activity? What aspects of Pandemic disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?
Compared to our pre-COVID market environment, stakeholders across the sector are seeing a sustained increase in activity. The overarching sentiment is that it was sheer grit and determination that saw most operations through the pandemic and exploitation of new revenue sources that puts them on an upward curve as the world begins to open back up. Dave Green of Skagit Valley Malting, whose revenue last April was, “as close to 0 as [he] could imagine,” said that his resilient team, “just kept slugging away… fighting and scrapping and looking for every opportunity.” As of April, they remain solvent and are seeing renewed interest in their services as well as an increase in order frequency. Business is good. Maltsters in general saw a sharp decline in brewer demand but a steady market from distillers.
Similarly, Anthony Ambeliotis of Mediterra Bakehouse opened another café during the pandemic, an obvious increase in activity that will be sustained indefinitely as folks increasingly dine in. Bakers in general saw café traffic decline dramatically and a loss of many wholesale and restaurant accounts. These are slow to return but counter sale “walk-ups” are on a steady increase.
Bakehouses reevaluated their production line to better attract a wider consumer base. Some added a more commodity-style bread offering to their typically artisanal line. These new lines, mostly sandwich style soft breads, will be a permanent offering at many outlets.
Millers saw an increase in demand that continues to this day. It has dipped since the peak but has remained well above sales from 2019. Smaller-scale millers were able to bump up their production and sell direct-to-consumers—this was a quick pivot and easily maintained. Staff in many cases quadrupled at least. While demand has decreased from the days of no flour on the supermarket shelves, there is more demand for regionally sourced flour than pre-COVID. Sourcing five-pound bags was an issue early on.
Home baking is not going away. King Arthur flour the nation’s oldest flour company and the largest of the “small” flour companies. Changed their name last year during the height of the pandemic to King Arthur Baking Company. They did this to solidify their stake as the “go to” for everything home baking, from ideas to supplies. They retained full staff during the shutdown, many were used to answer internet and phone questions.
Over the past year members of our sector have adapted successfully to the pandemic disruptions by increasing internet and direct-to-consumer sales and seizing new opportunities for more diverse revenue streams. And while the disruptions—such as limited in-person shopping and dining, lack of flour/yeast on grocery shelves—may have been temporary, these adaptations are permanent. It seems that the pandemic caused many people across the sector to act more aggressively on ideas that were on the back burner and now these ideas are new facets of their businesses. It was a time of growth for those that were ready to adapt.
From a nonprofit perspective, a lack of funding sources caught the Breadlab and others off guard. Our lab did not qualify for PPP or any government assistance. Many of our donor partners could not contribute as they have in the past. And the university, which did get assistance, did not give support to the lab.
The Breadlab work continued, we planted, harvested, planted again, and baked for good all the while continuing our research. And, like many stakeholders in our sector, we took the slowed-down time of the pandemic to assess our situation and create future revenue streams so that we are less dependent on donations given any future disruptions.
The many “Baking for Good” projects across the nation were helpful to many stakeholders in navigating the unfolding crisis. They kept millers milling, bakers baking and, most importantly, got nutritious food that tastes good into the homes of community members most in need. The Breadlab with King Arthur donated 6,000 loaves, King Arthur itself donated 16,000 and additionally bought and donated loaves directly from bakers nationally which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars going to regional bakeries. Neighbor Loaves and Community loaves continue to use cottage bakers and “buy one, donate one” models to get bread into pantries and those in need.