A recent report on dessert trends by Chicago-based research firm Datassential finds that menu mentions of “s’mores” increased by 133 percent from 2010 to 2015. And the classic marshmallow-chocolate-graham cracker flavor combination is showing up in applications beyond the standard campfire treat. In some cases, customers are toasting their own marshmallows on tabletop flames. In other cases, it’s inspiring everything from ice cream to pies to coffee. But in all cases, the s’mores’ upward trajectory follows a trend to appease the nation’s collective sweet tooth in less fussy, more rustic ways.
Several forces have come together to create the demand for rustic dessert; farm-to-table cooking, seasonality, authenticity, snacking and better health are just a few. And while cooking over an open flame is about as primitive as you can get, there are other ways that operators can offer high-craft, rustic desserts—with low labor costs to boot.
Old-fashioned is in fashion
Crumbles, cobblers and crisps are some easy, old-fashioned ways to serve casual, home-spun desserts. Ingredients such as vegetables, herbs, oats and nuts reinforce rustic themes, and because these desserts are usually built and baked in the same pan, they require much less fuss back-of-house.
At the Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco, strawberry cobbler is served with roasted fennel ice cream and finished with pecan streusel and warm salted caramel. Likewise, a rustic peach and nectarine tart à la mode is featured on the menu at Revival, a recently opened eatery in Decatur, Georgia. Rustic variations on pies are also popular: At Tenth Avenue Cookshop in New York City, a nectarine galette is served warm with sesame crumble and saffron ice cream.
And at 3-unit, Missouri-based Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop, desserts are sturdy—and meant to be portable.
“This is fast casual, so we don’t want people hanging out over coffee and lingering over desserts, but you always want to satisfy the sweet tooth that comes at the end of the meal,” says the chain’s founder Chris LaRocca, whose 30 years of experience developing restaurants helped him come up with fast-format desserts. “All our desserts are bagged.”
His current dessert selection includes brownies, blondies and granola. He is testing white cheddar and caramel popcorn, a nut brittle, and he is keeping his eye on one very old-fashioned, easy-to-make treat. “I’ve wanted to do a candied apple using a small crab apple—golf ball size on a stick—covered in white chocolate and caramel. Three bites on-the-go, and you’re done.”
Rustic means real
For Steven Goldstein, a partner at the San Francisco-based restaurant consulting group The Culinary Edge, rustic is another way to say real food.
“Sweets once had to be decadent, but now people are looking for more than just the flour-sugar-butter bombs,” Goldstein says. “Healthier eating means that people want holistic, wholesome ingredients. The way the pendulum is swinging, real foods like eggs and milk are good again. When you add things like chia seeds, nuts or real fruit, then you get a dessert that’s also a filling snack and good-for-you.”
Research from the Port Washington, New York-based NPD Group confirms what Goldstein is seeing in his R&D work. The company’s Dieting Monitor regularly surveys adults about items they are trying to cut back or avoid completely in their diets. Fat has topped that list for nearly a decade, but in 2014, sugar narrowly gained the number one spot.
The trend shows up in snacking as well. NPD Group has seen candy bars, doughnuts and chocolate candy slowly decline since 2006 as more people have been reaching for protein bars, fresh fruit and yogurt.
Desserts that combine some indulgence with energy-sustaining ingredients and better health will give consumers options that are both wholesome and delicious.
“Consumers are aware of nutritional density and don’t want overly refined foods.” Goldstein says. He likes to use fiber, whole oats and other better-for-you ingredients such as yogurt. “This is a more positive way of looking at nutrition; it not what you take out for better health, but what you keep in, even in desserts.”
This post is sponsored by Sweet Street Desserts