PARTNER CONTENT: Why the best heat-and-eat hot cross bun is sold all year round
Warm. Spicy. Topped with splodge of half-melted butter… Nothing says comfort food quite like a good hot cross bun.
There’s something about these dark, fragrant spheres that conjures up feelings of family and home. And over the past 20 years or so, they have evolved from an exclusive Easter treat to an everyday favourite, available all year round in a variety of sumptuous flavours.
“We launched the heat-and-eat hot cross bun in Woolworths in 1996,” says Tony Amaro, CEO of Amaro Foods, the Libstar-owned company that supplies many of Woolworths’ baked goods. “In 1998, we took over production of the full range, and thus began a journey of collaboration and continuous evaluation.”
Together, Amaro and the product developers searched far and wide for the very best spices and fruit – and the very best ways to combine them all in a top-class hot cross bun. “We’re still making changes to the recipe. Just this year, we went to the UK to evaluate Marks & Spencers’ hot cross buns to see if there are further improvements that we can make,” says Tony.
Every detail makes a difference. When the decision was made to produce and sell the popular buns out of season, they were made without a cross in order to avoid religious ties. But the sales were very small. “We added a single cross-line in 2001 and sales increased, because the customer could relate to the product,” Tony recalls. “Then, around 2004, we put the full cross on our buns and sales doubled. It’s amazing how customers are; it’s exactly the same product, but the cross made such a difference!”
Since then, the range has increased to include six different varieties, from traditional, spicy, and fruit-free to chocolate, luxury, and caramel. Distinctively soft and moist, Woolworths’ traditional hot cross buns were voted Number One Bun in the 2019 Sunday Times Food Awards.
The perfect mix
“What goes into the recipe is obviously critical,” Tony says. “Like they always say, the best ingredients make the best products, so it’s a case of finding the right formula: the right flours, the right spices, the right fruit… and then it all comes down to how you treat those ingredients.”
What’s their secret? “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret,” he says with a grin. “But everything makes a difference… the recipe, the raw materials used, the packaging, the process of making the product, the way it’s mixed when we add an ingredient, and so on.”
Hot cross buns are Amaro Foods’ second-biggest production item – after wraps, which the company supplies not just to Woolworths, but also to a host of quick-service restaurants. It’s big business; last year in Easter, in the final week alone, Woolworths sold an incredible 2.8 million individual units.
“For us, Easter is the biggest thing that happens in the year,” says Tony.
Developing a recipe is a process of trial and error. Every element of the hot cross bun – from density and texture to the amount of fruit – required continuous testing and tasting. This is done in partnership between Amaro foods and Woolworths’ own product developers.
“I wouldn’t even be able to remember how many different trials and samples we made,” Tony says. “And then you get to that point where you finally realise that you’ve got the balance right and you think, ‘My goodness, we’ve done it! We’ve actually created a phenomenal product!’ It’s an incredibly exciting moment and we had many of them along the way.”
But the journey is far from over. “I’m always hesitant to say that a product can’t be better, because I always believe there’s room for improvement. Having said that, I do believe that we’ve reached a phenomenal level and it shows in the sales. I’m so proud of what we’ve created. I’m sure we can improve on it, but we’ve definitely taken the hot cross bun to another place. We’ve taken a category that was not big and we’ve made it into an everyday shop. Many years ago, we didn’t even make hot cross buns out of season. Now we make them all year round.”