Menu Innovations | October 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Just Desserts

Baked sweets are moving out of the post-dinner shadows and into new dayparts.

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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Baked desserts aren’t always at the forefront of customers’ dining decisions, but that doesn’t mean they need to be an afterthought. Cookies, cakes, pies, and other sweets have made their way onto menus of all types of limited-service restaurants, giving operators additional sales opportunities during lunch, dinner, and, increasingly, snacking periods.

“Dessert is no longer only an end-of-the-meal occasion, but an all-the-time snacking occasion,” says Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst with Mintel, a market research and consulting firm. “There is a great deal of activity going on.”

Items with chocolate and fruit seem to be on the rise, and higher-quality ingredients are being used in some newer products being added to menus.

“Consumers are becoming more thoughtful about their dietary choices when they eat out, so desserts should be memorable and innovative to make it worth their selection,” writes Vic DeMartino, director of marketing/bakery for Sara Lee Foodservice, in an e-mail. Operators want to provide desserts that can fetch a premium price and also provide portability and high-speed service, while consumers “are looking for value, food quality, taste, and menu differentiation,” DeMartino adds.

Premium cookies, handheld fruit pies, high-quality cupcakes, and novelty favorites like whoopie pies have been popping up at a variety of restaurants.

“We all grew up with baked desserts,” says Tiffini Soforenko, founder, president, and executive chef at The Original Yummy Cupcakes in Los Angeles. “They’re familiar, homey, and reminiscent of childhood.” With consumers’ schedules growing more hectic, there’s little time to bake for themselves, Soforenko says, allowing operators to fill the void.

The number of baked dessert items on limited-service menus in the first quarter of 2013 actually declined 3.6 percent over the past year, according to MenuMonitor, the menu-tracking service from Chicago-based market research and consulting firm Technomic.

“Baked goods kind of ebb and flow, so it’s not unusual for them to decline during any one particular period,” says Lizzy Freier, an editor at Technomic. “We also see increases in cooler weather, so we expect the numbers to rise again in the fall.”

There has been an increase in the most popular baked dessert at quick serves and fast casuals: cookies, particularly chocolate chip cookies. “Chocolate chip cookies have plenty of appeal and are relatively inexpensive,” Freier says. “They’re just a great option, and a safe starting ground for any operator that wants to offer a simple dessert.”

Mintel statistics show that the number of cookie offerings at limited-service units in this year’s second quarter grew 25 percent over the same period in 2010.

“Cookies are an easy snack to grab, and it goes with coffee or other beverages,” Hayden says. “It’s a small indulgence, easy to serve, and it seems like every register has a cookie next to it,” including at sub shops and bakery cafés.

Chocolate chip cookies and their siblings helped Great American Cookies grow from a single unit in an Atlanta mall in 1977 into a chain of 325 mostly franchised units, largely in shopping centers in 30 states and seven countries.

“When you look at our regular cookie sales, the original chocolate chip cookie—the recipe the company was founded on—continues to be very strong in terms of the sales mix,” says David Kaiser, brand director for parent Global Franchise Group.

Not much has changed in the way the cookies are made. Fresh batter is produced in Atlanta, refrigerated, and shipped to stores, where cookies are hand-shaped and baked in convection ovens calibrated for employees to make consistent products. Great American Cookies usually features about a dozen cookie varieties, as well as Double Doozies, in which two cookies are separated by a layer of white or fudge icing.

The menu also features nine types of brownies—the second-most popular baked dessert, according to MenuMonitor—and several cookie cakes, the most popular of which is, of course, chocolate chip. Cookies are $1.49, while the 16-inch cookie cakes are $23.99.

Another large “cookie” item is the dessert pizza at Mazzio’s Italian Eatery, a Tulsa, Oklahoma–based fast-casual chain with 155 units. The first of these pizzas, a chocolate chip version, was introduced four years ago and has been joined by Oreo cookie crunch—one of a number of limited-service desserts that use a cookie or candy brand name—and, seasonally, apple and chocolate brownie.

“When you’re serving pizza, especially specialty pizza, people are more adventurous” and willing to try new items, says Greg Lippert, president and chief executive at Mazzio’s.

The dessert pizzas have the same baking process as regular pizzas: eight minutes at 475 F. The chocolate-chip pizza has cookie dough spread atop a regular pizza shell with chocolate chips added.

The items became popular as part of the lunch buffet, and “they’re now a requirement because customers demand them,” Lippert says. Mazzio’s also offers a stromboli-like product called a Cinnaboli, which is cinnamon and sugar wrapped in a buttered crust.

Many additional limited-service baked desserts were created by bakery cafés, where cookies, brownies, and other pastries are natural offerings.

“They’re part of our heritage,” says Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage at Dallas-based Corner Bakery Café.

Chocolate chip cookies are a big seller at the chain, as are Monster cookies baked with M&M candy. Among the other dessert items offered are dessert bars, brownies, and cake slices, and the chain was among the first to breathe new life into the whoopie pie, which is a cookie sandwich with cream in the middle.

This year, Corner Bakery launched a pair of handheld fruit pies: peach and blueberry. “We wanted to add fruit to our [bakery] case, and portability is always important,” Scicchitano says. “We also wanted to have pies that are seasonal and have broad appeal.”

The blueberry pie has lemon icing, created with in-house icing and grated lemon zest, while the peach pie’s filling is enrobed in cinnamon sugar. The reception was so strong “we had to go back to the farmers to get more fruit,” Scicchitano says.

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.