COVID-19 Has Made Baking More Popular Than Ever. This Local Manufacturer Is Rising To The Occasion

By Steph Kukuljan – St. Louis Business Journal – Monday, April 6, 2020

The hoarding began more than two weeks ago.

That’s when panic buying cleared grocery shelves across the country, and slammed the three yeast production plants of St. Louis-based AB Mauri North America, which makes dry and fresh yeast under the Fleischmann’s Yeast brand.

School and office closures also have prompted folks to find ways to occupy their time, and for many that’s been baking bread. Data from Nielsen showed that U.S. sales of yeast skyrocketed 647.3% and 456.7% in the last two weeks of March, respectively, compared to last year.

“Thirty percent of food is consumed outside the house in the U.S. In a matter of weeks, that shut down. It put a huge burden on supermarket’s supply chains. People can’t get what they want so they go down the home baking aisle,” said Mark Prendergast, president of AB Mauri North America.

AB Mauri’s customer orders are 50% higher than normal, and that need to knead has led the company to run its yeast plants in Memphis and its two plants in Canada — in Calgary, Alberta, and LaSalle, Quebec — at 110% capacity 24/7. The company is staggering shifts to adhere to social distancing, and the surge in demand is prompting the company, which employs more than 400 in the U.S. and Canada, to begin hiring more employees at its Quebec plant, Prendergast said.

“There’s plenty of yeast and flour in the United States, but not in quantities they demanded,” he said.

But why has bread baking in particular taken off?

“Time is a huge ingredient in bread baking. The standard loaf takes about four hours. We’re all stuck in our homes, and bread is most conducive to this environment,” said Matthew Hibbard, a prolific home baker outside his day job as social community manager for Ameren Missouri.

Hibbard, who has been baking bread for six years, was well stocked on the necessities of yeast, flour and butter — he uses jars of dry yeast that he said have long shelf lives — but he’s challenging himself to use ingredients in his pantry for his bread making to avoid going out just for one item.

"I’ve used cornmeal, evaporated milk, molasses. I've gone deep into the cupboards," he said. "It’s a neat thing. Bread is a science. It takes a lot of variables to get right."

Bakeries, too, are getting in on the rising demand for bread baking as stay at home orders have disrupted sales.

Knead Bakehouse on Hampton Avenue in south St. Louis city is selling its sourdough starter, which is used to make sourdough bread rise and give it its flavor, along with other menu items.

At AB Mauri, the rising demand has come with a few challenges.
John Heilman, vice president of yeast manufacturing, oversees the day-to-day operations of its plants and has had to develop a training plan that incorporates social distancing and other prevention guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authorities.

Fortunately, he said, AB Mauri’s yeast facilities are automated, where most people worked on their own before COVID-19. More so, employees were already wearing protective gear given the nature of food manufacturing.

This demand for yeast, particularly dry yeast that is mostly used by home bakers, has been the most dynamic he has seen in his five years with AB Mauri.

“I’ve been in the food business almost my whole career,” Heilman said. “I knew it was recession proof. Never thought it was virus proof.”