The Bread Lab

August 2020 Impact Assessment

About The Bread Lab

The Bread Lab is a combination think tank and baking laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavor, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley, other small grains and beans.

Impacts of COVID-19

Our industry has experienced a mix of growth and decline.

Due to the centralized nature of 90% of our nation’s flour production, there was no flour to be found on grocery shelves for months. It wasn’t for lack of product—it was a breakdown in the supply chain to get it into people’s homes. Regional flour mills stepped up and experienced a surge in sales and exposure. And while our restaurant and retail bakeries experienced major loss of sales due to the shutdowns and physical distancing, practically every home in America now contained a sourdough starter and an avid baker. Good for the mills, not so good for the local bakery.

On the positive side, we’ve seen “baking for good” become a much broader practice. King Arthur Flour bought loaves from small bakehouses which were then donated to community members in need. The concept of “neighbor loaves” sprung up, where a person may purchase a loaf from a participating bakery and then the loaf is distributed by said bakery to a community member in need. There is great staying power with this model and it seems that it may outlast COVID times.

Every single member of our community, from farmers to bakers to maltsters, recognizes that in even the hardest times there are ways to pivot and diversify.

From a personal stance, our facility at WSU Bread Lab has been closed to the public and the numbers of workers has been limited. Deliveries are complicated due to lack of open doors and limited hours. Income is reduced by lack of workshops and the impact on our investors. On the positive side, we have been more able to focus on those in need by baking specifically for local schools and food pantries.

The broader sector has been helped if they market regional grains. They have been hurt by lack of bags and other infrastructure and supply items required and previously obtainable on demand.

Obstacles to Sector Response

Social and physical distancing at all levels is difficult—it closes restaurants and bakeries and forces layoffs. Lower capacity means less output and less income. Takeout revenue cannot even compare to sit-in dining.

To diversify, bakers and farmers that had milling capabilities became commercial millers. Mundane but necessary items were unavailable yet need has increased. They needed bags for the flour they milled, but they were hard to come by.

Distribution of goods—with so many restaurants and bakeries closed there was a break in the supply chain. Millers had to pivot to sell straight to the consumer.

Successful Marketing Adaptations in Response to COVID-19

Across the sector, there has been a major shift to online marketing. Wholesale bakeries with mills started online stores specifically for their flour. Restaurants introduced online ordering for curbside pickup. It became an overnight necessity to build an online presence to match the needs of newly housebound consumers.

Economic Impact on Sector

Our sector’s businesses are impacted by all levels of an unraveled centralized supply and distribution system.

Impact on Sector Members

The impact of COVID has had a disproportionate effect on members of our industry. The malting businesses, restaurants and retail bakeries are hit the hardest due to their reliance on in-person retailing in a time of physical distancing. Some have cut production by 90%, laying off nearly all of their workforce, while others have shuttered temporarily and maybe for good. Meanwhile, the flour millers are booming. Home baking is up, interest in regionally-produced flours is up, and demand is higher than ever. The only issue here is scale—how to keep up with the demand.

On a more personal note, yet one that also resonates across the sector, universities have had to make major cuts across all disciplines and programs. Our university has decided to make cuts in funding to single programs rather than reducing across the board. WSU Breadlab is the only program at our research center to be cut. This shows that values are placed more greatly on traditional ag and food systems rather than on bolstering regional food systems.

Desired Data and Technical Assistance

Data:

-Quarterly sales numbers from regional mills before and during COVID.

-Bakeries and restaurants closures statistics/timelines.

-Document what appears to be missing in the middle of all of this—an affordable, regional resilient food system that works to feed all of us.

Technical Assistance:

Packing/Distribution “sharing” forum

Online marketplace infrastructure tutorials

Incentives for “bakes for good”

Contact Information for The Bread Lab:

Kim Binczewski  kim.binczewski@wsu.edu

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