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The Great Pandemic Bake-Off May Be Over

Jun 16, 2020

Our national fascination with sourdough starter appears to have stopped. Or at least slowed down a bit.

The price of baking flour fell last month along with the price of eggs, suggesting that the baking craze that gripped hungry and housebound consumers in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic has cooled.

"Sourdough is definitely a commitment," says Kristin Hoffman, who makes instructional YouTube videos for aspiring bakers. "I have heard a couple of people say that they really don't understand why somebody would want to put so much effort into a loaf of bread."

Hoffman's Baker Bettie website saw a surge of interest from first-time bakers in late March and April, when tens of millions of Americans found themselves stuck at home with time on their hands.

"I saw four to five times higher traffic than even during peak holiday-baking season," Hoffman says. "It has started to kind of level back out, now that things are reopening."

Even if the bake-off was a turnoff for some, people are still eating more of their meals at home than they were before the pandemic. And that's putting upward pressure on prices at the supermarket. The Labor Department says grocery prices jumped 1% in May, while the prices of most other goods and services declined. The spike was largely driven by beef prices, which jumped 10.8%. Prices also rose for breakfast cereal and ice cream.

Faced with the challenge of making breakfast, lunch and dinner for themselves, shoppers are spending more time in the long-neglected center aisles of the supermarket. In some cases, they're turning to packaged foods from companies like Kellogg, Campbell Soup and Kraft Heinz.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for marketers," says KK Davey, president of strategic analytics for IRI, a market research firm. "One CEO described it this way: He said, 'Look, I could have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, and I couldn't have gotten this many new consumers.' "

Many shoppers who had shunned processed foods in recent years in favor of fresher or more specialty fare are now going back to the macaroni and cheese and Goldfish crackers they knew as kids.

"Comfort foods and well-known iconic brands that were in particular decline for a while, they've all kind of got a revival, if you will," Davey says.

How long will these new shopping habits last?

Baking coach Hoffman says that while some people are eager to ditch their pandemic cookbooks, others have developed new tastes and talents that will last long after the lockdowns are over.

"I've heard a lot of people say that they're very surprised how much joy they're finding in bread baking," she says. "So, yeah, I do think there are a lot of people that have found a new love for it and are going to stick around."

With restaurants reopening, there are more choices now about where to eat than there were a month ago. But Davey thinks it will be a long time before Americans go back to spending the bulk of their food dollars in restaurants, as they were before the pandemic.

"We suspect at-home consumption will stay at an elevated level until everyone is vaccinated," he says.

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