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Ending on a sweet note

Tempting customers to buy dessert is a surefire way to boost dinner and lunch checks. But that means offering an irresistible and varied selection that hits every diner’s sweet spot. Suppliers have stepped up to the dessert plate with ingredients and products for operators at every level—from QSR grab-and-go treats to comforting family-dining pies and ice creams, to the speed-scratch cakes, pastries and mousses that differentiate casual menus. On the fine-dining front, pastry chefs can spec a wide variety of flours, sweeteners, butter, chocolate, nuts and exotic fruits to suit every application. We tapped top dessert pros to talk about their sourcing strategies and dessert trends.

Phillips Seafood Restaurants
Baltimore, Maryland
20 locations

Seafood is certainly the big draw here, but Phillips’ customers love their dessert, too. Executive chef Todd Weisz changes up the menu twice a year, creating items that his staff can execute without a huge investment of labor or time. “It’s not cost-effective for us to employ a pastry chef,” he says. “Instead, we have several ‘bake and sauce’ cooks in charge of putting together desserts and sauces at each of our restaurants.” With multiple locations and very high volume (a single unit can do 2,000 to 3,000 covers on a summer Saturday night), consistency counts. But originality and presentation are also very important.

Weisz finds a “50-50” purchasing plan to be most effective. “About half the desserts we source are ready-to-serve products that we can personalize with our own touches; the other half are made in-house,” he explains. Of the latter, the #1 seller is the Homemade Bread Pudding, made from scratch with thick-cut Texas toast, Hershey’s cinnamon chips, eggs and milk, then served with light and dark chocolate sauces. Number 2 is Chocolate Lava Cake. Also popular is Key Lime Pie, a classic ending to a seafood meal. It starts with purchased pie shells but the filling is house-made by the bake-and-sauce staff. Fully prepared desserts include seasonal cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory Bakery; it’s a supplier partnership that works two ways—Cheesecake Factory buys a lot of crab from Phillips and Phillips purchases their cheesecakes.

To entice guests to order dessert, a tray displaying each selection is presented by the server. “Visual cues are key,” Weisz feels. This is especially true with the latest Phillips creation—a brownie extravaganza with ice cream and hot fudge for two to four dessert lovers to share ($12.99). Other desserts run $6 to $8.

Family Table
Storm Lake, Iowa
21 locations

Ice cream has always been a crowd favorite at this regional Northwest Iowa chain, but the soft-serve machines that had long been in place were not attracting as much business. About a year ago, corporate manager Dean Feltner teamed up with supplier Blue Bunny to expand the concept’s hard ice cream roster. “Blue Bunny initiated a ‘Flavor of the Month’ promotion, complete with table tents and other POS materials. We had great success with it almost immediately and now have doubled our ice cream sales,” reports Feltner. Some of the top flavors include Cookies ’n Cream, Brownie Extreme, Bunny Tracks, Mint Chocolate Chip and Birthday Cake. Each location rounds out the “flavor of the month” with about seven other choices.

Patrons can purchase everything from a scoop to a sundae, float or shake, but 95 percent of sales come from after-dinner dessert orders. “Check averages are up $2.50 per person,” claims Feltner, and the success of the program has spurred him to start a “pie of the month” promotion, with the eventual addition of a pie and ice cream combo. The pies are supplied by a vendor partner, too, piggybacking on Family Table favorites such as Apple, Chocolate Cream and Strawberry Rhubarb.

“We brought in some of those mini-desserts when the trend started, but they didn’t sell that well,” notes Feltner. “Our customers like generous portion sizes.”

Pix Patisserie
Portland, Oregon
2 locations

Local sourcing is a big deal in Portland and Pix owner/executive pastry chef Cheryl Wakerhauser does her part to support the cause—even though she runs a dessert-only restaurant. Hazelnut paste made from locally grown nuts, seasonal fruits, fresh herbs and dairy products come into her kitchen. Wakerhauser also purchases imported products, including Selchlin chocolate from Switzerland and Boiron fruit purees, as well as staples like flour (pastry, bread and all-purpose), nuts (Marcona almonds, pistachios, walnuts and almond meal), sweeteners (invert sugar, glucose and pouring fondant) and European-style butter—all of which are sourced through her distributor, Provvista Specialty Foods. Everything at Pix is made from scratch—including the ice creams and sorbets.

For sit-down guests, the best seller is the Amelie ($6.75)—a base of Cointreau génoise topped with glazed chocolate mousse, orange vanilla crème brûlée, caramelized hazelnuts and praline crisp. But the French macarons made with ground almonds are flying out the door. “We can’t even keep them in stock,” Wakerhauser says. She rotates 30 flavors, including passion fruit, tawny port and fleur de sel caramel (French sea salt studded macarons filled with salted caramel butter cream). “I like to juxtapose savory, salty and sweet in a single dessert,” she adds.

Our team of experts talks about dessert essentials and what’s coming down the sugary pike here.

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