Getting the most out of your dessert buy

Despite America’s obsession with dieting, fat and calories, restaurant customers haven’t stopped ordering dessert. This is especially true in full-service establishments. From family restaurants to fine dining, many guests feel the experience wouldn’t be complete without a slice of pie, a piece of cake, a chocolate extravaganza or a plated dessert sampler to close the meal. This is good news for operators. Desserts are based on lower-cost staples like sugar, flour, eggs, butter and cream, providing the opportunity for better profit margins in comparison to appetizers and entrees.

Despite America’s obsession with dieting, fat and calories, restaurant customers haven’t stopped ordering dessert. This is especially true in full-service establishments. From family restaurants to fine dining, many guests feel the experience wouldn’t be complete without a slice of pie, a piece of cake, a chocolate extravaganza or a plated dessert sampler to close the meal.

This is good news for operators. Desserts are based on lower-cost staples like sugar, flour, eggs, butter and cream, providing the opportunity for better profit margins in comparison to appetizers and entrees. While high-quality commercial desserts may not be as gentle to food costs, they make up for that in labor savings.

So what and how should you buy to move high-profit desserts at your restaurant? Start by paying attention to the trends.

1. Chocolate wins the popularity contest. In a survey of 350 pastry chefs conducted by, an online resource for professionals, chocolate desserts were reported as the number one seller. Dark, white and milk chocolate and chocolate-on-chocolate characterize the brownies, cookies, cakes and mousses on casual-dining menus. On the high end, pastry chefs are sourcing premium high-percentage and single origin chocolates.

These specialty products are often noted in the dessert’s description on the menu to appeal to increasingly fussy chocoholics.

2. Comfort is still going strong. Items like fruit pies, cobblers, bread puddings and sundaes hit diners’ sweet spots with a wave of nostalgia. “Apple pie takes a customer back to a simpler time,” says Andy Johnston, VP of Marketing for Schwan’s Bakery, which sells desserts under the Mrs. Smith’s and Heidi’s Gourmet brands. While the classics are perennial sellers, Johnston says that “comfort with a contemporary twist” is gaining fans, exemplified in products like cranberry apple crisp with ginger streusel.

3. Indulgence vs. health: the debate goes on. Restaurant diners want a reward at the end of their meal; something sweet and a little sinful, notes Jason Katzman, director of product management for foodservice at Sara Lee Bakery Products. So that decadent crème brûlee or triple chocolate mousse is a must.

But Sara Lee and other manufacturers are also betting on the healthy angle. “We’re seeing some early success with our no-sugar-added cheesecakes, layer cakes and pies,” says Katzman, adding that they satisfy the desire for indulgence by delivering rich flavor and texture but fewer calories. Health-conscious diners are also looking for guilt-free sorbets, frozen yogurt and fruit desserts.

4. Retro is modern. Cupcakes have come back big-time, both as selections on upscale dessert lists and as themes for stand-alone cafes. Pastry chefs are also reinterpreting other childhood favorites, including s’mores, ice cream sandwiches, Twinkies and Moon Pies. Retro candies are coming into the mix too—everything from Milky Ways to M&Ms are showing up in desserts. Max Brenner, a dessert entrepreneur who owns two Chocolate by the Bald Man cafes in New York City, surprises guests by sprinkling pop rocks, crunchy waffle balls and other old-time candies into his dessert fantasies.

5. Global influences continue to grow. Latin, Asian and Mediterranean flavors and ingredients are popping up in desserts on American-style menus. Dulce de leche, coconut milk and pomegranate are three examples of ethnic tastes that have gone mainstream. At the Perfect Puree of Napa Valley, a producer of fruit purees used by pastry chefs and dessert manufacturers, mango is the best seller by far, comprising 20 percent of the company’s business. “Tropical flavors have legs, driven mostly by customer demand,” says Tracy Hayward, founder and president. “Prickly pear, pink guava, passion fruit and lychee are here to stay.”

6. Pastry chefs are borrowing from the savory side. Close on the heels of the global trend is the movement toward using herbs, chilies, corn, tomatoes and other non-traditional ingredients in desserts. Syrups infused with rosemary or basil, sorbet made with cucumber or celery, ice cream churned with corn and cake layers filled with tomato jam are a few examples. Erika Masuda, pastry chef at Coco Pazzo in Chicago often raids the “other” side of the kitchen for opal basil, arborio rice, balsamic vinegar and similar ingredients. This cross-utilization not only makes her desserts unique, it keeps her food costs in check.

7. Desserts are downsizing. To cater to dieters and overstuffed dinner patrons, restaurants are menuing mini desserts at lower price tags and offering sampler plates of sweets for sharing. Manufacturers are now offering more individual and single-serve desserts to operators who want to follow this trend but don’t have a pastry chef on staff. As a bonus, the pre-sliced, pre-portioned products help alleviate the labor crunch.

8. Takeout is a profit center. There’s a growing opportunity for restaurants to build incremental dessert sales with a retail takeout area. Take-home desserts not only appeal to those too-full diners mentioned above, they  can bring in additional traffic, says Andy Johnston of Schwan’s. Both his company and Sara Lee merchandise pies, cakes and portable treats to go. Sara Lee offers a turnkey program complete with bakery boxes, display pads and stickers.

Smart Sourcing

Pastry chefs and purchasing people are particularly fussy about the dessert products they buy. The reason, says Bill Irvin, director of operations for the 8-unit Phillips Seafood Restaurants, is that dessert is the last taste a guest remembers.

Recently, Phillips trimmed its 10-item dessert list in half to expedite operations and service and reduce food costs. So the pressure was on for those final five to “nail excellence and deliver value,” Irvin explains. To meet that goal, he purchases top of the line ingredients and products and test runs everything before it’s rolled out. The menu’s new Warm Cinnamon Bread Pudding and Homemade Key Lime Pie are both made from scratch; Junior’s Cheesecake with fresh berries is sourced directly from the manufacturer by the same name. Samples were tested on Phillips’ staff and VIP customers before the branded dessert made it onto the menu. The same “focus group” is currently sampling Mike’s Pies for a permanent spot on the dessert list.

In a survey by the Perfect Puree of Napa Valley, those purchasing value-added dessert products rank three top qualities: Taste (96 percent), freshness (93 percent) and consistency (91 percent). Uniqueness and ease of use were also priorities.

Irvin agrees. “Fifty percent of our customers order dessert and they are looking for flavor, freshness and that satisfying ‘toothy feeling.’ To deliver consistently, a product must hold up in the freezer and retain quality for at least two to three days once it’s out.”


Kit Kiefer
Corporate Executive Chef and Manager of Culinary Services
Schwan’s Bakery, Inc.

What is your mission at Schwan’s?
After our sales team goes in, I partner with smaller chains and indies to help them create signature desserts. I figure out what’s thematic to the concept and come up with customized ideas based on the trends in their market and what’s operationally possible. The employee who preps dessert can range from a part-time teenager to a skilled sous chef.

How does customization help boost profits?
Although desserts are traditionally high-profit items, operators’ margins have shrunk lately—the price of top-of-the line prepared desserts has risen more than some menus can bear. Rather than raise prices, decrease portion sizes or menu an inferior product, we help operators look at ways to maximize profits without diminishing the guest experience.

How do you create a winning idea?
I start by identifying holes in the dessert menu. Every restaurant needs cheesecake, a fruit dessert and something chocolate. Recently, I created a crushed pie parfait for an upscale casual concept that was without a fruit dessert. I took a whole Mrs. Smith’s peach pie, crumbled it up, layered it with ice cream in a martini glass and garnished it with a tuile cookie. The presentation significantly raised the perceived value of the dessert, plus it was easy to execute and we got 100 percent yield on the pie. Here’s another example: a chain in the northeast put our apple dumpling on their menu but it wasn’t selling. We cut it in half, drizzled it with caramel and renamed it “Apple Dumpling on the Half Shell.” Now it’s a big seller and the chain is even charging a little more for it.

Is it possible to adapt your desserts to ethnic menus?
I recently customized a plain cheesecake for a small Mexican chain by creating two simple accompaniments. One was melted jalapeño jelly and the other, a chocolate sauce blended with coffee and cayenne pepper. For a Moroccan-themed restaurant, I transformed a plain IQF apple pie by sprinkling the crust with currants and allspice, brushing it with egg wash, then baking it off. We also sell ready-made ethnic desserts, like our Tres Leches Cake.

What other help do you offer operators?
We train kitchen staff on handling our products to maintain quality. I’ll take a look at the product mix they’ve ordered and their daypart history, then recommend how much to allot for each meal service. Most of our desserts are frozen (IQF) and many are pre-sliced, and the packaging allows operators to take out just what they need and freeze the rest.

The Evolution of a Pie

How to build excitement in the crowded dessert category? When the R&D team at Sara Lee gathered to brainstorm a new pie, they didn’t limit themselves to a single trend—they incorporated several complementary ideas into one product. The result is Flavor Fusion Pies—a nine-item line that taps into indulgence, sophisticated comfort, use of savory ingredients in desserts and convenience.

To set these pies apart, the team started at the bottom, infusing filling-compatible flavors into each pie’s crust. “We were inspired by Hungry Howie’s—a pizza concept that became well-known for its flavored crusts,” says Jason Katzman, director of product management for foodservice at Sara Lee. So the Lemon Raspberry Cream Pie has a lemon graham cracker crust, the Country Apple Hi Pie, a maple crust, and the Peach Blackberry Streusel, a brown sugar cinnamon crust. Several of the products also boast the “Hi Pie” insignia, an indication that the product caters to indulgence with an extra dose of filling. And varieties like Peanut Butter Pretzel Pie with Chocolate Crust  reflect the sweet-savory trend. 

Convenience comes into play in the packaging. The pies are delivered in shrink-wrapped, octagonal containers that have an easy-tear strip for speedy opening. “We worked on packaging efficiency to save labor in the kitchen but the octagonal shape is upscale enough to show off in a take-out display,” Katzman says.

Casual operators typically pay about $8 for an 8-serving pie and menu a slice for $3 or three times the price.

Buying chocolate

As the top-selling dessert flavor, chocolate is on every pastry chef’s shopping list. But chocolate purchasing has taken a sophisticated and complex turn with the influx of more producers, upgraded product lines and premium brands. Labels listing cacao content and the origin of the beans are further complicating the process. However, the basics are the same: restaurants can buy chocolate in many forms—powdered cocoa, pistoles (buttons), chips, chunks, pellets, bars and blocks. Each is categorized by its percentage of chocolate liquor (ground nibs or heart of the cacao bean).

Unsweetened chocolate is 99 percent chocolate liquor. This variety has no sugar added, making it very dark and bitter. It is used only in baking and cooking.

Milk chocolate replaces some of the chocolate liquor with milk or milk solids; it contains about 20 percent cocoa solids. Its sweeter flavor and smooth texture make it a favorite of the candy industry.

White chocolate is made from cocoa butter mixed with sugar, milk solids and vanilla. It contains no chocolate

Bittersweet is unsweetened chocolate with sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla added; itis 35 to over 70 percent chocolate liquor.

Semisweet chocolate is similar in its content of sugar, chocolate liquor and cocoa solids to bittersweet;  it can be used interchangeably in recipes.

Cocoa is pulverized from cocoa solids that have had the cocoa butter removed.

Sweet or dark chocolate contains between 15 and 35 percent chocolate liquor; it’s lighter in flavor than bittersweet and semisweet but has a similar dark color.

Couverture is bittersweet, milk or white chocolate that has a higher percentage of cocoa butter. It’s used in doughs and batters to add moisture and creaminess and has excellent coating qualities for candies and cake icings.


Premium bittersweet and semisweet chocolates are taking a cue from wine and coffee purveyors—the labels are boasting single-origin cacao beans harvested from a specific region and vintage years. Also listed are cacao percentages—the higher the number, the more intense the chocolate. Discriminating chocoholics and chefs are fans of high-percentage (56-85%) chocolates for their deep, complex flavor. And some operators are now noting the numbers and source on the dessert menu.

Chocolate Chat

When it comes to buying chocolate, Jehangir Mehta and Michael Brock are high-volume customers. Mehta is owner of Partistry dessert company and pastry chef at New York City’s Sapa restaurant; Brock is pastry sous chef at Boule Bakery in Los Angeles. Both agree that “end use” is the most important consideration when purchasing chocolate.

“When chocolate is integral to the recipe, as in a cake, ganache or soufflé, I use 60 percent bittersweet. Darker is better because the other ingredients [eggs, sugar, flour, etc.] dilute the chocolate,” says Mehta. Brock gravitates toward a 72 percent product for chocolate sorbets, ice creams and truffles where he desires “deep, dark flavor. For our signature chocolate cake, I prefer milk chocolate,” Brock explains. “It’s nicely balanced.” As for single-origin chocolates, the two dessert experts are still experimenting. They feel that these chocolates’ specific flavor profiles must gel with the finished product.

The two usually buy chocolate in pistoles (buttons) and blocks. “The pistoles are easier to melt and save the labor of chopping by hand,” Brock says. Although Mehta likes the convenience of the buttons, they’re prone to spoilage. “Greater surface area is exposed to air and they oxidize more quickly,” he points out. Both purchase chocolate on a weekly basis and keep it in a cool, dry place to prolong its shelf life. “The restaurant’s wine cellar is the perfect storage area,” Mehta says. Brock adds: “Be sure to keep chocolate away from strong-smelling foods. It tends to pick up odors.

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