On the Sweet Side
The dining public is saving lots of room for dessert. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2006 Tableservice Restaurant Trends report, 30% of fine dining operators, 27% in casual dining and 32% in family dining say their customers are ordering more dessert now than they did two years ago. And recent data from NPD Group/CREST reveals that 12% 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 for 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 readily available from several foodservice manufacturers. Love and Quiches, a dessert company in Freeport, New York, supplies a number of regional chains with everything from completed desserts, such as cheesecakes, key lime pie and brownies, to dessert components, including cobbler bottoms, pie shells, cheesecake batter, chocolate mousse filling and crumb toppings. To determine customers’ needs, Michael Goldstein, VP of R&D for the company, looks over a restaurant’s current dessert selections and scouts out the “gaps” in the menu.
For 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+-unit casual eatery.
“We work with the purchasing person to identify voids in their dessert lineup, then talk about the trends they would like to incorporate,” Goldstein explains. “Although it’s important to stay on par with the concept, we like to take them out of their comfort level a little.” The dessert trends he’s currently following include bite-size sweets, grab-and-go, Asian and Latin flavors, deep, dark chocolate and sweet-salty combos. While a mainstream chain might not do well with a chocolate brownie spiked with cayenne, they may be willing to push the envelope a little with a dulce de leche cheesecake tartlet.
In the QSR and fast-casual segment, cookies are a top seller. “They’re affordable indulgences, both calorie-wise and cost-wise when compared to other desserts,” says Liz Rayo, director of foodservice for Otis Spunkmeyer, a company that 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 hosted by chefs, reports that it’s harder than ever to find and keep a pastry chef and the expense doesn’t always make sense. Therefore, mid- and upscale spots without the staff or the space to whip up a from-scratch caramel peach pie or mango-passionfruit parfait are also finding solutions in manufacturers’ custom components and desserts. These can be created with unique flavor profiles, textures, shapes and sizes to meet a restaurant’s specs and image. Culinary flourishes, like a pool of fruit puree or a white chocolate squiggle, can then be applied in house.
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 and pastry chef 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. Just introduced 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 classic chocolate and coffee. They come 96 to a case, while the cakes and tarts are packed 12 and 24 to a case.
“All the kitchen has to do is thaw and plate,” says Charon. “Maxed-out pastry chefs appreciate being able to concentrate on decorating rather than preparing the whole dessert,” he adds. Galaxy provides special tip sheets and videos to show customers how to finish off a dessert to stamp it as their own—by caramelizing a crème brulee, for example, or marbleizing 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, now packs eight different frozen desserts in one box so foodservice operators can instantly create a sharing plate. The EZ8 Too collection includes Rockslide Brownies, Chewy Marshmallow Squares, Apple Frangipane, Banana Cha Cha and four other indulgences—all under one SKU to streamline ordering and storage.