Menu Innovations | October 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Just Desserts

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Cupcakes became a trendy dessert option at fast food restaurants last year.
The rise of cupcake concepts has helped turn baked desserts into a common snacking item. thinkstockphotos.com
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Although the pies were launched as limited-time offerings, the platform allows the chain to offer other seasonal fruit fillings, such as apple, cherry, or lemon.

Handheld pies have been part of the quick-service industry for years. McDonald’s launched a fried apple pie in 1968, and replaced it in 1992 with a baked one. Cherry pie was added in 1994 and is an optional item, and other pies, such as sweet potato and peach strawberry, are offered seasonally. The desserts arrive frozen at the restaurants, where they are baked.

Pie slices are a longtime staple at Long John Silver’s.

“Pineapple and chocolate cream pies have been a popular dessert choice,” says Charles St. Clair, chief marketing officer at the Louisville, Kentucky–based seafood chain. The single-serve slices arrive at the restaurants, where they are thawed and served. Other pie selections are offered seasonally, including strawberry cream cheese in the spring and pecan during the late-year holiday season.

“We are leveraging formulas the suppliers have available, but we did create some [of the recipes],” he says.

Long John Silver’s has explored serving other dessert items, such as cookies and brownies, “but at this point, we’re focusing on pies,” St. Clair says. “A lot of our core battered menu is very savory, and the pies add a little sweet to that. It meshes well.”

Another longtime dessert item featuring fruit or chocolate, while providing differentiation, is Arby’s turnover. The flaky pastries, baked in the restaurants, have apple, cherry, or, more recently, chocolate filling.

“I would put the turnover in the same category as our curly fries, potato cakes, and Jamocha shakes as a signature item,” says Neville Craw, corporate chef for the Atlanta-based chain.

Arby’s has featured other dessert items at various times, and this year it launched a Chocolate Molten Lava Cake, which is chocolate cake filled with ganache that melts when the cake is heated. It’s then topped with cocoa crumbles and a chocolate drizzle.

“It’s an item I worked on for years and years,” Craw says. “The original was a chocolate lava cupcake, but it morphed into this spoonable lava cake instead.”

The chef says the lava cake is what customers expect in a dessert: extreme indulgence with a warm, nostalgic feel. “I think in the world of restaurants and foodservice, that is the area customers are interested in,” he says.

The comfort of home and hearth is a reason cupcakes recently had a successful re-emergence. “It’s nice to sit down, have a baked treat, and indulge for a while,” Yummy Cupcakes’ Soforenko says.

Now with six units in two states and a couple of countries overseas, the company, founded in 2004, has 450 cupcake recipes, as well as specialty products like Cupcake in a Jar that help make the items portable and easier to ship. Yummy’s creations have a wide range of interesting ingredients, from cucumber to chiles, but the most popular cupcakes are vanilla with vanilla buttercream frosting, chocolate with chocolate buttercream icing, and red velvet topped with cream cheese frosting.

Even though the gourmet items are indulgent, Soforenko says, she has developed recipes for customers who want to be more health-conscious; Yummy Cupcakes sells several vegan cupcakes every day, as well as sugar- and gluten-free options twice a week.

“People say they can’t taste the difference from our regular cupcakes,” she says. “For me, as a chef, that’s a great compliment.”

Other operators are considering some better-for-you baked dessert options. Great American Cookies, for instance, is looking to use multigrain and whole-grain flour in some cookies “as part of our 2014 plan,” Kaiser says.

For many consumers, the easiest way to have a healthier dessert is to have a smaller portion, like mini cookies at Potbelly Sandwich Shop, cake pops at Starbucks, or the mini cinnamon rolls at Cinnabon. Nonetheless, “people going for dessert are not going for healthy items but for indulgence,” Technomic’s Freier says.

Cinnabon, which has 1,100 mostly franchised units in malls, airports, theme parks, and other locations in 56 countries, focuses on quality indulgence.

“People still want to treat themselves,” says president Kat Cole, adding that a Cinnabon roll is no different in that sense than a glass of wine ora juicy burger.

Cinnabon units feature three sizes of cinnamon rolls, plus some other baked items. The company also has its name on many packaged products in supermarkets and has teamed up with Burger King and Taco Bell on menu items. The company’s foodservice license with Burger King, for instance, allows the burger chain to sell Minibons, similar to the ones sold in Cinnabon bakeries.

“The single greatest complaint from consumers is they want us but can’t find us,” Cole says. “Partnering with a [restaurant chain] that has strong brand recognition and many locations helps us meet that demand we can’t meet on our own.”

Cinnabon will continue to work with other foodservice companies (potentially including convenience stores) to offer some of its goods. But that just gives customers a quick fix.

“It’s just not the same as having a giant [cinnamon] roll made right in front of you,” Cole says.