Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Katie Ayoub
July 29, 2019

With a narrow focus, dessert-only concepts tend to excel in both execution and creative flavor combinations. Three dessert places stand out with innovative offerings that also promise mainstream translation. Drawing a line from these concepts to broader menu opportunities offers sweet inspiration.

Next-Level Flavors

The bar for unique flavor combinations has been set pretty high over the last few years, thanks to trend-leading ice cream shops like Salt & Straw on the West Coast (with offerings like Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese) and Columbus, Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream (with offerings like Cold Brew with coconut cream). They were at the forefront of adventurous flavors in the dessert space, re-setting consumer expectation on the realm of possibility. Dessert-only cafés follow a similar innovation track, wooing and wowing guests with intriguing and signature flavor combinations. A common thread today seems to rely on a deft balance of sweet with aromatics, sweet with savory, and sweet with spice. Also, the unabashed use of booze to add a grown-up touch, as well as developed flavor, is a growing phenomenon on trend-forward dessert menus.

Gross Confection Bar in Portland, Maine, serves all of that up in spades. Its Grapefruit-Campari Cake is finished with honeycomb, yogurt mousse and cardamom tuile. Desserts like this one, which combine a number of uncommon ingredients, rely on a high level of curiosity from the consumer. They also cleverly anchor the flavor adventure with a familiar profile, like grapefruit. Similarly, Gross’ Three Chocolate Pudding promises chocolate—always a best bet—but then ups the ante with its build: Midnight cake, cumin, dulce de leche and aerated chocolate.

Memoz Dessert Café, a design-your-own-dessert spot in Portland, Ore., follows a clever customizable model called “create & bake.” Guests choose a base of dough and mix-ins, then the café bakes their custom creation in under two minutes. Guests then choose their finishes. The options are what makes this place noteworthy. Mix-ins include savory options like blue cheese, sweet corn and black pepper, along with more traditional sweet ingredients like caramel bits and milk chocolate chips. The finishes add the Wow! factor: baked Alaska, ganache or flat icing.

Edwards Dessert Kitchen in Minneapolis showcases the next iteration of a few common flavors, including caramel and coconut. Its sweet and savory Miso Caramel Pudding takes things up a notch from the incredibly popular salted caramel. And desserts like the Coconut Panna Cotta signals a move by coconut outside of tropical-themed desserts into mash-up profiles. In the fan-favorite world of chocolate, Edwards stands out with modern flavor combinations. Its take on the beloved brownie is a Mini Mole Spice Brownie with pecan caramel, illustrating a deeper reach by desserts into the savory pantry.

More Dessert Innovation

These hot spots aren’t newly opened. Nor are they dessert-only destinations. But their approach to the sweet side of things demonstrates a creative strategy to help drive dessert purchases. At Mindy’s Hot Chocolate in Chicago, guests can make dessert-only reservations (with a $15 per person minimum). Not only does that strategy lure consumers who just want to indulge, but it also plants a flag, staking a claim in dessert superiority. Mindy Segal doesn’t disappoint, with options like Chocolate Cake Ice Cream, a chocolate buttermilk cake with milk chocolate malt mousse, chocolate buttercream, and cold cream with honey. Her hot chocolate menu boasts seven delicious offerings, including Dark Oat Milk with oat milk, dark milk chocolate and maple syrup.

The Peninsula Grill in Charleston, S.C., helps drive late-evening business with its dessert-only menu after 9PM. Choices include The Ultimate Coconut Cake with coconut anglaise and strawberries, as well as Banana “Panna Cotta” Pudding with milk chocolate ganache and coffee caramel.

Theater is always a positive—both to help turn heads in the dining room and to draw social media posts. Dessert carts or trolleys promise both. At Swift & Sons in Chicago, the Chocolate Trolley ambles through the restaurant, offering cakes, cookies and bite-sized pastries, each only $3.

Tiny Lou’s at the Hotel Clermont in Atlanta was also inspired by Parisian confections, presenting them on a 1950s dessert trolley in this French-American bistro.

In an incredibly competitive environment, making the dessert menu stand out with surprising, inviting, craveable flavors is strategy that promises sweet rewards.

About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.