Menu Innovations | June 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Big Idea: Mini Desserts

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Mini desserts give quick serve customers an excuse to indulge.
Starbucks cherry pie and apple tart
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Just the same, “some adults want a small portion to satisfy their craving for a frozen treat,” says Greg Allison, senior director of marketing, product innovation, and consumer insights for the frozen yogurt chain based in Salt Lake City.

The interest from grown-ups seeking a bite of sweetness at TCBY could increase as the company continues to roll out its Greek-style frozen yogurt and its new strawberry, peach, and pineapple flavors created in conjunction with Dole.

The term mini is more encompassing than kids, and that’s one reason Dairy Queen used the word for developing and naming its Mini Blizzards, launched in 2010.

“It was all consumer driven,” says Lane Schmiesing, vice president of product and brand marketing for American Dairy Queen Corp., based in Edina, Minnesota. “We created the Mini Blizzard to provide consumers a greater array [of choices to] enjoy our brand.”

DQ guests said they were looking for more portion control over the Blizzard, a signature product that mixes soft-serve ice cream with candy, cookie, or fruit pieces.

This was particularly the case among women, who buy the Blizzard as a treat for their children. “They were looking for a way to give the kids a smaller portion. There were also conflicts between kids or between the mom and kids” in choosing flavors, he says.

At the same time, adults were looking for better control over calories. “We heard people would go to Dairy Queen with the intent to eat half and save the rest for later, but they couldn’t really keep from eating it all,” Schmiesing explains.

The Mini Blizzard is about seven ounces, slightly more than half the 12-ounce small version, and the price ranges from $1.99 to $2.49.

McDonald’s made a similar move the same year, launching “snack-size” versions of its core M&M and Oreo McFlurry treats. These are 8 ounces and are priced at $1.69.

One of the early quick-service operations to use the term mini in a dessert name was Potbelly Sandwich Shop, which gave the name to its small oatmeal chocolate cookies that come a dozen to a bag.

“We’ve been doing mini cookies for years,” says Carl Segal, senior vice president of operations support for the Chicago-based company with about 250 units in 15 states. “It’s a great way to have a bite of something sweet, and gives people a chance to share.”

Potbelly, which also offers three types of full-size cookies, parlayed the success of the original mini cookies into introducing another flavor: a dark-chocolate, dried-cherry granola cookie, available in a two-pack.

The chain’s regular cookies cost $1.25 apiece. The mini cookies are $1.10 for the two-pack and $3.90 for the bag.

Each of the mini cookies is less than an ounce and has about 100 calories.

“The two-pack helps with portion control,” Segal says. “Sometimes it’s easy to buy a regular cookie and break it in half, but that’s still more calories than two minis.”

Another quick-service operation using the term mini in a dessert item is Jack in the Box, which gave that moniker to its tiny cinnamon-sugar filled churros, or fried-dough pastry snacks popular in Spain and Latin America.

Mini Churros were launched in late 2008 and are available in two sizes, five for $1 and 10 for $1.89. Since then, the company rolled out a Mini Funnel Cake as a limited-time offer, and then last fall added Mini Cookies, also five for $1, to its menu.

The company believes the tiny cookies are a good way for guests to end their meals or to share with others.

A traditional Latino-Southwest dessert favorite, sopapillas, another fried pastry, has been downsized at Taco John’s with its Cini-Sopapilla Bites. Five of these one-inch puffs make up a portion that sells for $1.19.

Sopapillas are traditionally served with honey, but that’s very difficult in a limited-service setting, says Renee Middleton, vice president of marketing for the Cheyenne, Wyoming–based Mexican restaurant company. The bites are dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

The company has looked at developing some other varieties of the mini sopapillas, but that hasn’t been easy. “We’ve tried dunking them in chocolate, but because we roll them in cinnamon sugar, the chocolate does not stay on,” she says.

Cini-Sopapilla Bites are served all day, including breakfast. They’re also popular during the Christmas holiday season and are featured to complement Taco John’s Nacho Navidads sold at that time.

Just as Jack in the Box and Taco John’s developed ethnic-style mini desserts, so does Piada Italian Street Food, a six-unit fast-casual chain based in Columbus, Ohio.

Piada’s offering is a takeoff on tradition canolis. These Canoli Chips are pieces of a broken canoli shell served with chocolate-chip cream for $2.95.

“In the early stages of developing the restaurant, we were trying to figure out a dessert,” says Jamy Bolling, corporate chef and partner. “We were looking at all the traditional ones—tiramisu, gelato, and canola—but knew we didn’t want something that was standard.”

During a trip to the East Coast, he visited a store selling broken canola shells for 25 cents a bag, and that lit a light bulb. “It was fun, it was kitschy, and it could work.”

The chips are shareable among guests “looking for a little sweetness.” They can also be a bit addicting. “If you try them once, you’re going to get them again,” Bolling says.

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