Menu Innovations | June 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Big Idea: Mini Desserts

Operators find that bite-size offerings can help guests live large.

Mini desserts give quick serve customers an excuse to indulge.
Starbucks cherry pie and apple tart
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Tapas continue to grow in popularity, as do sliders and other little burgers. Even antipasto has found a place in the small-dish arsenal within American restaurants.

So why not the same for the end of the meal?

Bite-size desserts have been predicted as a food trend for years, but they really haven’t trickled down much from the fine-dining sector until the past couple of years.

Now Starbucks has found success in its Petites line of miniature desserts, while Potbelly Sandwich Shop sells bags of mini cookies. Taco John’s Cini-Sopapilla Bites have been on the menu for a few years, while Dairy Queen downsized with Mini Blizzards.

“Small desserts are not new, but we have more and more options today as our equipment and our skills advance,” says Stéphane Weber, a chef and assistant professor of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

“It has become increasingly easier to make high-quality desserts in smaller sizes.”

The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” list has included mini desserts since the menu trends survey began in the fall of 2006. The item was listed second last fall among the survey’s most popular dessert trends.

Tiny desserts date back at least to the 18th century, when petits fours took hold. The French term literally means “little ovens,” but came to mean “fancy cakes.”

At the time, baking occurred in large, coal-fueled brick ovens that reached high temperatures. To make sure none of the heat was wasted, smaller confections would be baked during the lower temperatures of the cooling process.

The concept of small desserts received a boost in the past decade from fine-dining chefs looking to offer guests more flavors.

“At first we started to see a tasting menu, with as many as 12–15 courses in very small portions,” Weber recalls. “So you could have four or five dessert tastes.”

As it evolved, guests enjoyed having the option of several small desserts.

“There’s a market for tasting for adventure, for being able to spend less money to try more than just a single item,” Weber says. “This works very well with dessert.”

In addition to offering access to a variety of flavors and tastes, there’s a sense that mini desserts are something of a guiltless pleasure: They have fewer calories and carry a lower price.

Desserts aren’t a big part of limited-service restaurant menus. But bite-sized treats could provide “a good way to add desserts” to a quick-serve operation, says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

For one thing, cost is a major factor at the quick-service level.

“Consumers have in their mind what they want to spend for lunch or dinner,” Chapman explains, “but if they can have the full experience, including at the end of the meal, and also stay within their cost threshold, they would be more likely to buy dessert.”

Smaller desserts also fit into the calorie budget.

“If you think of many dining experiences, what you find is you are too full for a large dessert, so you’re not incentivized to spend $5 or $6 for dessert,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of retail design firm WD Partners.

“The idea of spending $1.95 for an item or $5 or $6 for a flight of desserts with friends fills the bill for a sweet treat without blowing your calories out the window,” he adds.

This can work with limited-service meals and snacking, which is an important and growing quick-serve daypart, Chapman says. “If you stop and grab a cup of coffee, smoothie, or other beverage, isn’t it a nice add-on to have a taste of something?”

That’s certainly part of the thinking at Starbucks, which launched its Petites line early last year with eight items. Each is made with premium ingredients and is priced at $1.50 with fewer than 200 calories.

They proved so successful that four additional Petites were added to the menu this year.

“We continue to receive positive feedback about them from our customers,” says Marianne Duong, global communications director for the Seattle-based coffeehouse giant that has more than 17,000 restaurants worldwide.

Most customers are buying the mini desserts as an afternoon or early-evening snack.

“People say they’re coming in to get Petites after a long day or when they want a treat,” Duong says. “We see the incremental opportunity in the afternoon” among customers who are purchasing coffee or another beverage.

The original Petites come in four styles: Cake Pops, a cake-and-icing twist on a lollipop in three flavors; Whoopie Pie, with cream cheese frosting between two red velvet cake pieces; Mini Cupcakes, in two flavors; and Sweet Squares, which are shortbread bar cookies that come in two flavors.

This year, Starbucks added two mini pies (apple and cherry) and two tarts (brown sugar walnut and chocolate hazelnut) to the lineup. The Petites are delivered to the coffeehouses from local suppliers who bake the items using recipes created by the Starbucks research and development team.

Some limited-service operations that feature the bite-size items offer mostly baked goods or frozen treats. These include doughnut, cookie, and ice cream shops.

Among the newer bite-size items are Baskin-Robbins’ Cake Bites, which were introduced last fall. They are small ice cream-over-cake treats, complete with ganache coating and accents that come in four flavors.

Quick-service and fast-casual restaurants often market smaller portions, even desserts, as kids’ size. That’s particularly the case with ice cream items, although it turns out that many adults are buying these smaller servings.

TCBY’s smallest size of frozen yogurt, about 3.5 ounces for $1.99, is called a Kid’s Cup, because youngsters—or their moms—are usually the ones who buy it.

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.