Restaurants are suddenly all about dessert

State of the Plate: RB menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse dishes on the rising popularity of the last course, which is no longer operators' problematic stepchild.
The Melting Pot
The Melting Pot's Flaming Turtle. | Photo courtesy of The Melting Pot.

State of the Plate

A recent column in the Washington Post carried the arresting headline Why We Crave Sweets After Eating—and What to Do About It. The piece was authored by a medical doctor, who offered advice on how to handle these hankerings, and her counsel was timely, given that she dished it out on October 23, only eight days before Halloween, the gateway to an annual sugar orgy that runs right through the end-of-year holidays.

While consumers may want to curb their cravings at home, they’re increasingly likely to indulge when away. Datassential reports that November is the most active month for new and returning menu items as well as for limited-time offers. And the category with the most item intros over the recent past has been dessert, a once problematic menu stepchild that has turned into a goldmine for savvy menu marketers.

Dessert prospects have clearly changed for the better. There was a time when dessert was a very tough sell. Sherry Yard, pastry savant and former Executive Pastry Chef for Wolfgang Puck’s Fine Dining Division that includes operations like Spago, has spoken of the difficulty in getting waitstaff to sell her spectacular meal enders. They were more interested in turning tables, she lamented; the only way her creations would be presented to the clientele was if she worked the dining room and did it herself.

Attitudes have shifted to the advantage of both dessert sellers and seekers, according to RB’s sister company Technomic’s Ignite Menu database. Dessert penetration is closing in on 75% of all operations, and the sales data show why: The median spend of consumers who purchase dessert is $5.50 higher than if they’d opted out. That’s a nice bottom-line booster and tip enhancer; and the metaphorical cherry on top is that sweets eaters report being 9% more satisfied with their visit. Much of that satisfaction doubtless derives from the innovation that restaurateurs employ in exploiting their diners’ favorite flavors.

For chocolate lovers, nothing succeeds like excess. It’s no surprise that Technomic reports that chocolate is the top dessert ingredient, as it continues its long run as a supremely promotable, over-the-top and around-the-clock indulgence. Chains shamelessly cater to choco-holics, as with Applebee’s Triple Chocolate Meltdown made with chocolate cake filled with fudge and drizzled with even more hot fudge. Long John Silver’s does dessert in triplicate, too; this spring, the chain added The Cheesecake Factory Triple Chocolate Cheesecake, which Technomic noted as consumers’ most popular LTO for the period.

Speaking of The Cheesecake Factory, the brand that built its business on irresistible indulgence also thinks in threes with the Chocolate Tuxedo Cream Cheesecake, an Insta-friendly item that combines fudge cake and chocolate cheesecake with vanilla mascarpone mousse and, yes, a topping of chocolate.

Upping the ante substantially, The Olive Garden’s fanciful Chocolate Brownie Lasagna is described as eight decadent layers of rich, fudgy brownie topped with chocolate shavings and chocolate drizzle. The chain still features the long-running Black Tie Mousse Cake, a menu staple from way back that layers chocolate cake with dark chocolate cheesecake and creamy custard mousse. On the chain’s 1998 menu, it was priced at $3.95; thanks to 25 years’ worth of inflation, it will set today’s patrons back $9.99.

Cheesecake factory

The Cheesecake Factory's Chocolate Tuxedo Cream Cheesecake. | Photo courtesy of The Cheesecake Factory.

We all scream for ice cream. Ice cream is the second most popular dessert ingredient, appearing in shakes and sundaes, cakes and countless treats of all stripes.

Excitement in the category, however, has been driven by ice-cream and frozen-yogurt specialists, who have taken a leaf from the current menu R&D playbook favored by cookie and doughnut brands by borrowing from the bakery.

Category OG Baskin-Robbins’ October flavor of the month, for example, was Apple Cider Donut Ice Cream, engagingly described as “comforting as a favorite fall sweater;” while the brand’s German Chocolate Cake Ice Cream promises Swiss-style chocolate ice cream layered with fudge brownies, walnut pieces, coconut flakes and caramel swirls.

Bruster’s Real Ice Cream steps up with Banana Nut Bread and Caramel Chocolate Pretzel options, while  Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream offers New York Cheesecake Chunk and Vanilla Caramel Brownie flavors.

From the fro-yo perspective, 16 Handles balances the familiar, like American Apple Pie or Cinnamon Rice Pudding with exotica like Passion Fruit Tart and Sweet Taro Pie frozen yogurts.

New-age ice cream makers take an even more unconventional approach. West-coast based Salt & Straw likes to juxtapose the sweet with the savory, like the Pear & Blue Cheese, Arbequina Olive Oil, and Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper varieties.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams’ current roster pushes the envelope farther with Sweet Potato Marshmallow Brȗlée with cracked sugar candy, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, and Genmaicha & Marshmallow. The latter, by the way, is toasted-rice, green tea-infused ice cream with vanilla marshmallows.  

Apple cider donut ice cream

Baskin-Robbins' Apple Cider Donut Ice Cream. | Photo courtesy of Baskin-Robbins.

These days, vanilla is anything but plain. Speaking of vanilla, it remains firmly fixed in the top three dessert flavors largely because it plays so well with other ingredients. But while this ready flavor compatibility makes it indispensable as a go-with, it is also well loved on its own for its pleasing aromatics.

Some operators lean into its basic appeal, as with the vanilla trifecta at Red Lobster, where Vanilla Bean Cheesecake is layered with sweet Italian cream on a vanilla cookie crust, with vanilla bean-infused whipped cream.

Many operators tout provenance. Häagen-Dazs’s Vanilla Bean Ice Cream “makes magic with Madagascar vanilla, sweetened cream and flecks of vanilla beans.” Said flecks have come to signify quality and authenticity, as has identifying the title ingredient’s origin.

The brand’s dipping shops also offer more complex flavors using vanilla ice cream as the base, like the Bourbon Vanilla Bean Truffle swirled with spicy bourbon or the Vanilla Tangerine Shortbread.

Another signifier of quality and flavor is the use of French vanilla ice cream, in which egg yolk is added to the mix to yield a richer taste and a pale-yellow hue. Cold Stone Creamery goes that route with its churned-fresh specialties. It sells its French vanilla by the pint, of course, but also uses it as the starting point for whimsical frozen fancies like the Cookie Doughn’t You Want Some ice cream flavor combo and the Tall Dark & Delicious Ice Cream Cake.

Last words on the last course. While inflation-scarred consumers are clearly watching their spending in some areas, data suggests that they are more than willing to loosen the purse strings when it comes to dessert, a feel-good treat that provides a welcome and affordable respite from reality. And dessert sales should remain an opportunity going forward fueled by the combination of unbridled operator innovation and demanding diners, who no longer make or bake at home.

Flavor-wise, Technomic’s Ignite Menu intel signals rising use of savory ingredients in sweet applications, notably gingerbread, which has been roaring up the charts with a bullet. It’s the number-one fastest growing dessert ingredient on menus, and we can expect trans-seasonal use to grow in both food and beverages.

Smart money also says that over-the-topness will be even more so. A good example is the dessert bill of fare at The Melting Pot, the fondue chain that has been responsible for some of the shrewdest, most memorable menu marketing in the business.

The chocolate fondue options are singular and seductive, like the signature Flaming Turtle that presents the treasured confection in a fondue format. Milk chocolate is combined with caramel and candied pecans, and then the whole thing is set on fire, flambéed tableside in a very smart, very experiential move. And the kicker for dessert resisters: It’s gluten free, comes with fresh fruit and weighs in at a modest 333 calories per serving.

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