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Sweet Deals

The Palm, marking its 85th anniversary, revitalized desserts to be shareable and fun while retaining old-style flair. These made-to-order mini donuts are tossed and shaken with cinnamon sugar tableside. Photo courtesy of the palm. Whether shareable, seasonal or smaller in size, fun and creative dessert-sales strategies abound

By Monica Kass Rogers

A server steps up to the table, smartly outfitted in a new version of the original suits worn by The Palm waiters when the concept first opened in New York 85 years ago. With a flourish, he sets down a long white platter bearing little dishes of chocolate and raspberry sauces and a bakery bag of still-hot-from-the-fryer mini donuts. Then, shake-shake-shake, toss! He coats the little balls in cinnamon sugar and tumbles the lot from bag to platter, ready to be snatched, dipped and eaten by the guests.

“I’ve gotta say, the donuts are on fire — guests love them,” says Frank Bozzi Jr., executive vice president and fourth-generation owner of The Palm, now at 32 units.

The made-to-order donuts are small, hot and fresh, making them perfect for people who don’t want a big dessert and for those who want to share. And if there are any leftovers, guests just take them home in the bag.

Figuring out how to update its dessert program in a way that would fit The Palm’s image — just refreshed for its 85th-anniversary image — and boost sweet sales took some thought, says Bozzi.  But the donuts — plus gelato in custom-labeled pints, which can also be taken home — have nailed it: Guests love the servers’ old-school style, complete with tableside interaction.

Rather than celebrate with Cherries Jubilee or Bananas Foster, The Palm’s new desserts are more lighthearted and fun and cater to guests’ interest in smaller portions. It’s a marriage of old styles and new tastes. Since making the changes, The Palm’s desserts have increased an average of 4 percent. “It varies by market,” says Bozzi. “We have some restaurants that are selling 8 percent more desserts; other locations are around 1 to 2 percent more.”

Throughout the country, operators seeking to boost check averages are evaluating how sweet sales can help. Many say tailoring fun, smaller-portioned desserts to their concepts is a solution.

Launched in March 2011 in conjunction with the chain’s 40th anniversary, Starbucks’ Petites line of desserts represent the first time the company has ever launched a food item globally. Company media spokeswoman Marianne Duong says Starbucks has had positive feedback for all eight of its minis, including cake pops — bite-sized chunks of cake on a stick, double-dipped in pink, dark or mocha chocolate — whoopie pies and mini dessert squares in various flavors. But “the whimsy and playfulness aligned with taste of the cake pops have especially resonated with customers.”

Duong adds that the petite treats are in line with lower-calorie/big-value trends (all of the Petites are under 200 calories and are priced at $1.50 each or $2.50 for two).

At Champps Americana Restaurant, Director of Culinary James Bell says the 45-unit chain has been looking to add minis to its menu for quite a while. “But our guests know us for our ample portions, so, we had to figure out a way to do this to fit Champps.” Bell’s solution? Give guests the option of ordering popular dessert options as a trio in a “mini” format.

Starbucks’ entire Petites line of desserts, launched in celebration of the chain’s 40th year, is selling well, but its whimsical cake pops lead the pack. Photo courtesy of starbucks.
“So, basically, guests get to try three desserts that in total are about equivalent to the size of one of our regular desserts,”  reports Bell, noting that the trio option is very popular with guests.

To launch the program, Champps chose to go with its Cookie Espress, Champps’ Triple Chocolate Cake, Turtle Cheesecake and New York-style Cheesecake as the first options. Others may follow. “Operationally, it’s been very user-friendly,” adds Bell. “We just created a diagram to show our chefs where to cut the cakes for the smaller portioning.”

Similarly, Maggiano’s Little Italy offers a Mini Dessert Sampler with tastings from its Tiramisu, Crème Brûlée, Apple Crostada, Chocolate Zuccotto Cake and New York-style Cheesecake.

Meanwhile, at Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, minis have been a shot in the arm for dessert sales.

“We were looking at how to increase both check averages and dessert sales,” says Dan Barash, executive chef of the 420-unit Moe’s. “Before this, like most fast-casuals, we had just offered cookies and brownies for dessert, but we felt creating a line of our own minis would give guests a more-upscale dessert option at a great price point.”

Priced at $1.59 per mini, or four for $3.99, the dessert minis come in custom-made plastic shot glasses stamped with Moe’s logo. “Guests love that they get to keep the little shot glasses,” adding more value to the equation, says Barash. First flavors include Key lime, chocolate mousse  and mango.

During market testing, Moe’s discovered its initial plan of refrigerating the shots behind the counter until ordered was not the way to go. “We found that it was better to merchandise them on ice right at point of purchase,” says Barash. “Now people just grab them and go — it’s more of an impulse buy.”

Sales of the shots during the market test doubled after Moe’s moved them closer to the cash register. Moe’s is completing a full-market test of the dessert shots this fall. “Once we’ve got a solid launch, we’ll look at adding other flavor profiles with seasonal differences,” Barash says.

At Quaker Steak & Lube, server encouragement — and a very clever presentation — help guests buy into the new “License to Crave” cupcake program. The cupcakes, in flavors including Red Corvelvette (red velvet with cream-cheese buttercream and chocolate truffle center), PB&J Traffic Jam (yellow cake with peanut buttercream and grape-jelly filling), Chocolate Peanut Butter Collision (devil’s food with peanut butter cream, mini peanut butter cup and peanut butter fudge filling) and They Say It’s Your Birthday (vanilla cake with vanilla icing, white chocolate coin, and vanilla-bean cream filling) are presented in a custom license-plate holder, stamped “LICNZ2CRAV.”

To ensure guests get a glimpse of the cute cakes before the end of the meal, operators are trying different tactics. At the start of each shift, an operator places a tray of the cupcakes in a server’s hand to pass it forward. “As a group, the servers are not allowed to put that tray down during the entire shift but must pass it from server to server,” explains Katy Malaniak, senior director of food and beverage for the 46-unit chain.

Malaniak says the idea for the cupcakes originated with Quaker Steak & Lube CEO John Longstreet. “We were looking for ways to drive the check average,” Malaniak recalls. “John figured, if we could get every person to buy just one or two $1.99 cupcakes, that alone would help comp sales, and in a way that would not negatively impact our other dessert sales.”

Casa Nonna’s Torrone Semifreddo offers Italian-inspired whimsy, with nougat, almond sponge and chocolate crackle sauce. Photo courtesy of melissa horn for casa nonna. While it’s still too soon to give exact percentages, Malaniak says company analysis shows that “sales of the cupcakes have all been incremental — not replacing or cannibalizing our regular $4 and $5 range dessert sales.”

Based on initial success with “License to Crave,” Quaker Steak & Lube plans to keep the cupcakes on the core menu, adding new flavors and promotional cupcakes seasonally. “We’re looking at doing a pink one for cancer awareness, for example,” says Malaniak.

At the American Club Resort which operates 12 restaurants in Kohler, Wis., an up-do of elegant petit fours, now marketed as “mini cakes,” or “schnitz,” in keeping with the Club’s German heritage, has been “wildly successful” says Richard Palm, pastry chef. So much so that the Club is expanding the recipe roster to include eight mini-cake varieties, each available for $3.

Favorites include the Dominos, chocolate-almond cake with rum punch, white-chocolate banana rum and vanilla ganache; the Peppermint Chocolate Torte, with chocolate-almond sponge, peppermint-chocolate ganache and crème de menthe punch, and, the Mango Coconut Almond Tranache, with almond sponge, mango-chocolate ganache, Malibu rum punch and coconut buttercream.

Promoting the launch, American Club offered a “buy five, get the sixth free” deal for the first month. An internal contest gives servers the incentive to sell the schnitzes to guests: whoever sells the most minis gets to take home a free cake from the American Club’s pastry shop.

Less is also more when it comes to desserts at BLT restaurants in New York (part of the ESquared Hospitality group, which operates 23 restaurants under the Casa Nonna, Go Burger, Florentine and BLT brands). There, Pastry Chef Julie Elkind says she now prefers to portion desserts at approximately 4 ounces.

“Feeling too full is so uncomfortable, and this is just enough after a heavy meal,” says Elkind. She adds that the smaller portions encourage guests to buy more desserts. “Instead of sharing one dessert at a table of two, now people are more prone to get two full desserts.”

Also in New York, Kate Cowan, pastry chef at Delicatessen, agrees that smaller desserts are less overwhelming for her guests. “The idea is to leave people wanting more, rather than leaving them feeling overwhelmed or guilty.”

Cowan promotes desserts two ways: Guests who check in via Foursquare five or more times in one week receive a complimentary platter of mini desserts for the table. “We are also working on offering complimentary takeaway and delivery items — such as mini cookies — to possibly push desserts” and curry guest loyalty, Cowan says.


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About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.