The dining public is saving lots of room for dessert. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2006 Tableservice Restaurant Trends report, 30 percent of fine-dining operators, 27 percent of casual dining places and 32 percent of family restaurants say their customers are ordering more dessert now than they did two years ago. And data from NPD/CREST reveals that 12 percent of consumers order dessert at restaurants. So what should you be purchasing to satisfy these sweet cravings?
Many made-from-scratch desserts are based on a handful of staples—butter, sugar, flour, eggs and dairy—plus extras like chocolate, vanilla, nuts, fruits and other fresh ingredients to add richness, flavor and personality. While fine-dining pastry chefs still rely on these basics to create a dessert repertoire, purchasers from upscale-casual concepts on down are more apt to buy value-added products. Sometimes these desserts come to the table right from the package; other times, the kitchen will personalize them with custom touches.
Filling the dessert niche
For the time- and labor-challenged kitchen, convenience runs the gamut. Commercial baking mixes, refrigerated and frozen doughs, prepared pastry creams, whipped toppings and ready-to-serve cakes, pies and mousses are available from foodservice manufacturers. Love and Quiches, a dessert company in Freeport, New York, supplies everything from completed desserts, such as cheesecakes, key lime pie and brownies, to components, including cobbler bottoms, pie shells, cheesecake batter, mousse filling and crumb toppings. To determine customers’ needs, Michael Goldstein, VP of R&D, looks over a restaurant’s current dessert selections and scouts out the “gaps” in the menu.
At the Columbus, Ohio-based Max & Erma’s, Love and Quiches supplies a proprietary vanilla crust for the chain’s three-layer Go Bananas! Cream Pie. Every morning, each Max & Erma’s location mounds house-made banana filling, prepared with fresh bananas and vanilla pudding, into the prepared shell and tops the pie with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It’s become a signature for the 100-plus-unit casual eatery.
“After we identify voids in a concept’s dessert lineup, we talk about the trends they would like to incorporate,” explains Goldstein. “Although it’s important to stay on par with the menu, we like to take them out of their comfort level a little.” The trends he’s currently following include bite-size sweets, grab-and-go, Asian and Latin flavors, deep, dark chocolate and sweet-salty combos.
In the QSR and fast-casual segment, cookies are a top seller. “They’re affordable indulgences, both calorie-wise and cost-wise,” says Liz Rayo, director of foodservice for Otis Spunkmeyer, which supplies frozen, pre-portioned cookie dough to restaurants.
The nuggets of dough can be speedily baked off at each location and sold fresh and warm to customers. Zaxby’s, a quickservice chicken concept based in Athens, Georgia, offers fresh-baked chocolate chip, white chocolate macadamia, peanut butter and carnival varieties. While dessert-loving patrons might automatically order the cookies, for most customers they’re an impulse buy that helps boost check averages. Otis Spunkmeyer has 26 flavors in its Sweet Discoveries line; the chocolate lovers selections are the newest. “Chocolate is growing at double digits and is having a huge impact on the dessert category, especially premium dark chocolate. We’re using 70 percent cacao chocolate chunks in our cookies to keep up with this trend,” Rayo notes.
Pastry Trends 2007 from Star Chefs, an online culinary resource, reports that it’s harder than ever to find and keep a pastry chef and the expense doesn’t always make sense. Therefore, more mid- and upscale spots are also finding solutions in manufacturers’ components and desserts. These can be created with unique flavor profiles, textures, shapes and sizes to meet a restaurant’s specs and image.
Galaxy Desserts of Richmond, California, a producer of high-end frozen individual desserts, has seen its business grow 140 percent in the last year, claims founder Jean-Yves Charon. His artful creations, machine-made but finished by hand, include crème brulee, forest berry tart, cappuccino mousse cake and chocolate truffle marquise. Newer on the scene are recyclable shot glasses filled with layers of mousse, including such exotic flavors as lemon ginger, green tea and black sesame cream in addition to the classics.
“All the kitchen has to do is thaw and plate,” says Charon. Galaxy provides tip sheets and videos that show the kitchen how to customize its desserts—by caramelizing a crème brulee, for example, or pooling a fruit coulis.
Dessert samplers—a booming trend—can also be impressively assembled with the professional-looking single-serve sweets now available. Sweet Street Desserts, a company in Reading, Pennsylvania, packs eight different frozen desserts in one box so operators can instantly create a sharing plate.
The EZ8 Too collection includes Rockslide Brownies, Chewy Marshmallow Squares, Apple Frangipane, Banana Cha Cha and four others—all under one SKU.
Q&A with Damon Paolozzi
Director of product development and research, Huddle House
Huddle House, a 24/7 family-dining concept based in Atlanta, recently scrubbed its multiple-item dessert list, keeping just the top performers: Cheesecake, Strawberry Cheesecake and Strawberry Shortcake. Cross-utilization is big—the strawberry topping for the chain’s breakfast waffles does double duty for the cakes. This pared-down dessert menu simplifies purchasing and provides the flexibility to introduce new and custom items as LTOs.
How do you develop your dessert selections?
We have a multi-step R&D process. I start with the Internet, punching in keywords like “key lime” and “mud pie” to track the popularity of these trends among consumers. Then we collect ideas from franchisees and send these out to 900 customers in our database for feedback. Next, I’ll take five or so top scorers to several manufacturers to cost out. If I go with a company that’s doing a similar dessert, we might be able to piggyback on that product and save money. But I’ll also try new suppliers to get the product right.
What items are you looking for?
We focus on cakes, warm pies and cold-set pies that are thaw-and-serve or finish-and-serve. Our goal is to find handmade-looking products with good texture and taste; we don’t want them to look machine-stamped. Easy execution is also key. Typically, servers take care of desserts, and they shouldn’t have to refer to a spec manual to see how it should be presented. So we look for pre-scored or pre-sliced pies and cakes, IQF items and mousse products that don’t fall apart when standing. We do a lot of testing before we release a dessert systemwide.
Why are you making room for more LTOs on your dessert list?
If an apple pie is on the menu all the time, a guest will think, “I’ll order it on my next visit.” By tagging an item as an LTO, it catches the customer’s interest and they’ll make sure they order it right away. Plus, we want to try more seasonal sweets to fit with today’s dessert trends.
What is your strategy for managing your supply chain?
We do our own distribution and deliver to each location. By warehousing products, we have fewer SKUs in house. This helps us manage our products more efficiently.
What are some of the challenges you face with dessert purchasing?
Dairy prices are so high, I wouldn’t think of putting a dairy dessert on the menu until next year. There’s also a lack of versatility in the dessert category—the 20 or so manufacturers who call on me seem to have similar products. I need a hands-on manufacturer who can do customized desserts that reflect our concept. We also like desserts with branding; cakes and pies with M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces, for example.