This 100-Year-Old Bakery Supplier Launched Its First E-Commerce Site

July 2, 2020
Dawn Foods launched its first e-commerce site for bakeries
Image: Dawn Foods

Dawn Foods, a global bakery manufacturer and ingredients supplier headquartered in Michigan, has launched a new national e-commerce platform, completely changing the way this 100-year-old company operates.

It’s also a pivot from how the entire bakery distribution ecosystem has traditionally done business, Bob Howland, Dawn’s Boston-based chief digital officer, told Built In.

“This business is conducted in ways that haven’t really changed in a few decades. Our salespeople go out, knock on the door of a local bakery and take their order,” Howland said in a recent interview. “We don’t get an order unless the salesperson shows up and then takes it. And it is verbally given, it’s not usually written down on a piece of paper or anything. And then the sales person goes off to the next customer and so on and so forth. And the industry operates that way.”

Now, this new tool brings that whole process online for the first time. The platform houses Dawn’s entire catalog of products and ingredients bakeries need, which business owners can then browse and order from with the click of a button.

This pivot presented a challenge Howland says many people on his team had never come across before. Everyone was learning as they went, building an entirely new tool from scratch for a company that had never had a digital component before.

“It’s not that hard to spin up an e-commerce site, but it is very hard to get a business ready for e-commerce,” Howland said. “How do we get pricing to be ready for digital? The company did not have a product catalog, so how do you build your first-ever product catalog? And these are people that have never built one so they don’t know how to do it. We set out a work stream, a leader, project, goal, timeframe, and worked together because this is all new to everybody.”

Dawn’s shift toward digital started about a year ago when it launched its Digital Innovation Hub, an entity that functions completely separate from the larger company, free of the limitations that come with a 100-year-old, family owned, global brand.

“The mindset was that this would be a new team, creating new ways of working with new technologies, new processes, and it all needed to be done in a vacuum if you will,” Howland said. “All done in the way that digital organizations or digital functions operate and not in the way Dawn Foods operates. It takes a lot of foresight and leadership to think that way.”

The Digital Innovation Hub doesn’t just operate out of Boston because Howland is based there. Boston is also consistently ranked among the top cities for tech talent in the country. Now, about a year later, the team is 15 strong and is looking to hire a new full-stack engineer.

While the timing of this launch couldn’t have been better considering the nation’s renewed reliance on online ordering, Howland says Dawn Foods’ new platform wasn’t influenced by the pandemic at all, even the launch date was determined pre-COVID-19. In fact, this project had been in the works since about the start of the Digital Innovation Hub. The pandemic did, however, affect the way the company’s long-term customers reacted to this massive change.

“[One] thing COVID influenced is, frankly, a market acceptance,” Howland said. “I think customers have been pre-wired now to be more accepting of this than they might have been otherwise because the world changed as we knew it. And I don’t think COVID is going anywhere anytime soon.”

Although the platform has been launched, Howland says there’s still a lot more to come for the hub. Since Dawn Foods is used in more than 100 countries, the plan is to make the platform internationally available. The team will also continue tinkering with the product, making any additions or subtractions needed to ensure the tool is simple to use and makes customers’ lives easier, all while bringing the industry into the 21st century.

“This is going to change our company,” Howland said. “It’s going to change our industry.”

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