Morsels in Miniature

Panera Bread Co. is developing a line of smaller baked goods using better ingredients, such as creamier, European-style butter.
Panera Bread Co. is developing a line of smaller baked goods using better ingredients, such as creamier, European-style butter. (By Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

At Wegmans, the mini muffins baked at the chain's main bakery in Rochester, N.Y., have become so popular that last month the company stopped shipping packs of full-size muffins to stores.

At Giant, the two-bite replicas of bigger bakery offerings are among the department's best sellers, so the chain keeps adding more varieties.

At Balducci's (formerly Sutton Place Gourmet), about 40 percent of the muffins and danish the chain sells are of the tiny variety -- up from just 5 percent two years ago.

To walk through a store bakery today is to witness the explosion of mini mouthfuls -- bagels, muffins, brownies, cupcakes, croissants, doughnuts, scones, desserts and bread. And even where things aren't being shrunk down to the point of cuteness, there appears to be some portion control creeping into baked goods: Caribou Coffee Co. and Panera Bread Co. are two national chains set to roll out baked goods that are about 20 percent smaller than what's on the menu today.

"We're not doing six-ounce muffins any more," said Michael J. Coles, chief executive of Caribou Coffee, the fast-growing Minneapolis-based coffee chain with 310 stores. "People don't want that, I think because it's an overcommitment."

Coles and others say the downsizing of so many sweets is in part the result of consumers wanting portable, eat-on-the-run food and in part a function of rising awareness of nutrition and portion control. Portion has become a big buzzword among food manufacturers, which have been repackaging popular snack foods in smaller sizes, such as Nabisco's 100-Calorie Packs.

"We're really trying to push retailers to focus on portion size and to help consumers better understand what is a portion size," said Mary Kay O'Connor, director of education for the International Deli, Dairy and Bakery Association. "What some people have considered to be a muffin serving was like 800 calories."

Some bakers point out that there is a built-in roadblock to this trend: It's often more profitable to sell a monster muffin simply because it can carry a higher price. Bakers say there is still plenty of demand for big portions in restaurants and from wholesale bakeries that serve hotels, convention centers and stadiums, where the meager profit margin on a mini muffin usually means it doesn't get made.

"The hotel chains . . . want to spend the least amount for the most volume, the thing that takes up the most room on the plate," said Theodore Kairys, president of Gourmet Pacific, an institutional baker in California. "If you have a dessert or pastry, little bite-sized cutesy ones, people aren't going to want to pay for that."

But in stores, a growing number of shoppers tell a different story.

"I would rather have smaller, special bites of something wonderful than have more than I need," said Wendy Lubic, a D.C. mother of two teenage daughters who was lunching outside Eatzi's food store in Rockville on a recent weekday afternoon. "If you care about health and care about your weight, you don't want to be stuffing needless calories."

Lubic had just bought her kids some mini rice cakes and, for herself, a mini chocolate cake -- the smallest of the three sizes offered in Eatzi's bakery case.

Some manufacturers and bakers say bite-size and downsized products are especially popular among mothers concerned about the portions they serve to their children. But they are also reaching consumers who might pass on buying something larger because it's too big.

When national baked goods manufacturer Uncle Wally's introduced its line of two-ounce mini muffins last year, the company viewed it as "a way for us to expand the customer base we're reaching," said Jerry Ceccio, vice president of sales and marketing. The line has been so successful, he said, that the company is formulating a new business strategy aimed at mini-munching consumers.

"From now on, when we introduce items, we will be bringing smaller-sized products to market, there's no question," Ceccio said. "Not to say that there isn't a place for indulgence, but by and large, we see the market moving toward smaller portions."

It's not just size that seems to appeal to customers, it's also variety: The smaller the treat, the more kinds you can try. At Vie de France, a national foodservice bakery, some store managers have used the chain's regular scone batter to make mini scones, said Jennifer Sharp, senior product manager for the company's wholesale operations -- and they've ended up selling more because customers like to buy one of each kind rather than a single, big scone.

"That would be me -- I'm all about variety," said Rachel Devlin, visiting from New York and lunching recently at Panera in Friendship Heights. She said any time she has a choice of a few smaller things or one big item, she'll go for the petite portions. "I just like to try different things."

Panera is working on a new line of pastries designed to be smaller and of higher quality. Tom Gumpel, the chain's director of research and development, said he is moving beyond the days of "cinnamon buns the size of a Frisbee" to focus instead on products using better ingredients, such as creamier, European-style butter and slightly downsized proportions.

"Everything's been so super-sized, but the portions we're looking at, with the quality they carry, are really the appropriate size," he said.

The super-sizing phenomenon has been driven by profit. A fast-food restaurant can charge 25 cents more for a larger portion of french fries though the food itself costs just pennies more, so most of that added 25 cents is pure profit. The same is true of muffins and other baked goods.

"The wholesale cost on a large danish might be a dollar, and on a smaller one, 65 to 70 cents," said Mike McCloud, owner of Uptown Bakers, a local wholesale bakery. "The labor drives most of the cost of it. The ingredient cost difference is very, very small."

So when a cafe buys Uptown's danishes, it might be able to charge $2.45 for the large one but only $1.45 for the small one, McCloud said. "You're making a dollar on the large and 75 cents on the small for the same sale," he said.

For many large-scale wholesale buyers, that lost profit makes a big difference. But in retail settings, consumers seem to be driving the change, even if it costs more per bite. At Giant, mini baked goods never used to sell much because shoppers wanted everything big, said Ben Klautz, bake shop marketing manager for Giant Food LLC.

"Now they're willing to pay a little more for something that's a little healthier, a little smaller," Klautz said. "The small stuff sells really well."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company