Although limited-service restaurant operators usually offer at least one sweet baked item on their menus, these goodies are not always featured prominently. Even at some bakery-cafés, they can be found near the bottom of the menu.

Nonetheless, these items—cookies, cakes, pies, breakfast pastries, and the like—don’t need to be an afterthought. Being creative with them, including their size and ingredients, can entice consumers who are seeking to be a bit more indulgent with meals and snacks.

“They are as important as any other menu category,” says Jesse Gideon, executive chef and chief operating officer at Atlanta-based Fresh to Order. The items should align with an operator’s “core concepts,” he adds, which in the case of Fresh to Order includes using all-natural ingredients.

At the same time, offering tasty sweet baked goods helps keep purchases in-house, rather than forcing a customer to go elsewhere for a dessert item or snack.

“The ability to make a [dining] experience a complete one in our four walls and not have a guest make an additional trip to complete their meal expectations is extremely important for us,” Gideon says.

Sweet baked goods “are pretty reliable items and appeal to a large number of people,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a Vermont-based foodservice consultancy. Cookies, brownies, and bars are fan favorites due to taste and portability, making them the most populous baked sweets in the limited-service space.

Baked goods have long been part of the quick-service universe. Cookies and brownies alternately appear and disappear from menus, and it’s been a quarter-century since McDonald’s switched its fried apple pie dessert to a baked product. Overall, baked items in limited-service restaurants have grown 8 percent over the past two years, according to market research firm Euromonitor, but sweet baked product sales have been flat, according to Datassential, another market researcher.

What is often missing in sweet baked goods at some operations is the creativity and focus that’s gone into other menu areas. “It’s basically having something new—not necessarily unique or out of their comfort zone, but something more interesting,” Webster says.

This is partly a lingering effect of the recession nearly a decade ago, when many consumers began cutting add-ons like sweet baked items from restaurant purchases. Changing dining habits also led numerous diners to seek healthier options. Restaurant operators have increasingly put their sweets focus on beverages, ranging from iced coffees to milkshakes. At the same time, specialty shops selling cupcakes, pastries, and other baked items have grown.

Nevertheless, quick-service and fast-casual restaurants remain the away-from-home dessert venue for more consumers, Datassential finds. Cookies and brownies are the favorites; cakes and cheesecakes are offered by a third of all limited-service restaurants.

In terms of breakfast, danishes are on top with 17 percent penetration in quick serves and 13 percent in fast casuals, while scones and cinnamon rolls lead the pack at fast casuals with 15 and 14 percent penetration, respectively. All others, including doughnuts, which are typically fried and not baked, are under 7 percent.

Baked sweet goods haven’t yet gained traction in the snacking dayparts, where specialty drinks have found success. In many cases the portions are too large. There are exceptions, of course. Starbucks, which has increased its sweet baked offerings dramatically, offers a few items that check in at under 200 calories, including cake pops, petite vanilla bean scones, and Frappuccino cookie straws.

Although sweet baked goods don’t always top the menu at bakery-cafés, they still drive a good part of revenue. At Great Harvest Bread Co., these items make up about 10 percent of sales at the cafés and upward of 25 percent at its bakery-only units.

Portions tend to be “generous,” says Mike Ferretti, chairman and chief executive of the Dillon, Montana–based company, and guests expect that.

While many visitors enjoy the big sweets, their sales have been stagnant. As a result, Great Harvest is considering repositioning with some smaller portions, like its cinnamon twists, rather than with new items. The twist, a stick-shaped take on sweet cinnamon bread, “is more of an afternoon product with a different price point and calorie count,” he says.

Also growing in popularity have been Savannah fruit bars, which have an oatmeal cookie crust topped with pieces of fruit, rolled oats, and shaved coconut. “They check a lot of the boxes,” Ferretti says. “They taste good, look good, have fruit, and have whole grain. You can have as many fruits as you can name, and they sell well any time of the day.”

The top sweet baked items, however, remain cookies, such as chocolate chip oatmeal walnut and snickerdoodle, which “are very good and very decadent,” he says.

At Fresh to Order, cookies and brownies are baked in-house, while mini icebox pies are made by a local vendor and cupcakes are from a national firm. The cookies and brownies, like the restaurants’ baked savory items, all cook at one temperature.

The mini icebox pies include mango, key lime, chocolate silk, and peanut butter versions, along with a seasonal offering. They are made with natural ingredients, “which is one of the reasons we use this partner,” Gideon says. “When we visit, you can see them juicing the key limes and the cases of real mangos.”

Specialty pastry, cupcake, and doughnut shops are popping up everywhere, getting their cues about creative ideas and unique flavors from specialty coffee and ice cream shops. Le Macaron French Pastries, which makes a variety of macarons, French pastries, and cakes, is part of this wave.

Macarons—often confused with very-different coconut macaroons—are colorful French cookies that have small, round shells made with ground almonds and meringue and are filled with ganache, whipped cream, fruit jams, and other ingredients.

Since its start in Sarasota, Florida, in 2009, Le Macaron has grown to nearly 50 units in eight states. “When we did our first store, no one knew what a macaron was,” says Rosalie Guillem, who owns the chain with her daughter. “People would see the beautiful colors, but notice the shape and ask if they were some kind of mini-hamburger.”

The process to make macarons correctly at the company commissary is a lengthy one, using a French recipe that is “very difficult,” she adds. Shortcuts used by some other bakers result in a vastly inferior product.

Macarons make up 70 percent of sales. Usually there are 20 of the small cookie-like items on display per day, including flavors like strawberry key lime and lavender white chocolate. High-quality ingredients include vanilla from Madagascar, and because the 80-calorie macarons are made with almond flour, they are gluten-free. Other popular items include éclairs and macaron cakes, and coffee and tea are also on the menu.

Los Angeles–based Sprinkles, which has 16 stores in nine states and Washington, D.C., bakes cupcakes throughout the day in each of its locations. In most cases, the cupcakes are sold within two hours of coming out of the oven.

There is skill in making a great cupcake, says Nicole Schwartz, vice president of marketing. “Because they are small and have a large surface area, baking even 30 seconds too much is too long,” she says.

Launched in 2005 by Candace Nelson, later a judge on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” Sprinkles features 15 cupcake varieties daily from a field of about 25 choices. The top cupcake by far—outselling all others combined—is red velvet, a light chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. There are also gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegan versions.

Sprinkles is unique because its units also feature a “cupcake ATM” that allows consumers to buy cupcakes any time of the day, every day. An ATM can hold up to 600 cupcakes and is restocked with fresh items regularly since “there are only a few hours a day when no staff is working,” Schwartz says. For holidays, the ATMs are stocked the night before.

Duck Donuts has applied the popular build-your-own model to doughnuts, making its fried light vanilla cake items in front of customers who can choose from a variety of coatings, toppings, and drizzle combinations. A machine carries doughnuts down a line where they are dipped, topped, and packaged.

Guests of the three-dozen unit chain, based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, can also choose among nine featured doughnut builds, like one with maple icing and chopped bacon. Duck Donuts also serves coffee and espresso drinks, as well as a doughnut sundae.

A more established specialty baker, Cinnabon, not only has more than 1,000 franchised locations worldwide, but has also leased its name to breakfast and dessert items at other limited-service chains, including Taco Bell. Although Cinnabon items can be eaten any time of the day, they’re mostly an afternoon treat in large part because many stores are located in malls that don’t open until late morning, says company executive chef Jennifer Holwill.

“The guest is coming to us for what they know and love, and the cinnamon roll is what they have known for years,” she adds. “It’s the ultimate delicious escape for them.”

Most operators want sweet items to be integral to their brand, whether it’s their cooking style or ethnic link. Many items, like Mexican churros or Italian cannolis, are fried.

Pizza parlors are already baking their pizzas, so they easily can make sweet baked items, especially versions of cookies and brownies.

“Some people just want a little dessert, something for their sweet tooth,” says Christina Coy, vice president of marketing at Dallas-based Pie Five. “The preparation is not very time-consuming, and can be done in the morning before opening.”

Pie Five features chocolate-chip-cookie and brownie pies, both 2 inches high and 10 inches in diameter. The chocolate-chip-cookie pie, which has a chocolate drizzle, is the top seller, while the Ultimate Brownie is “all chocolate, plus chocolate, and more chocolate,” Coy says. The part-cookie, part-pie items are sliced into individual portions.

A turtle brownie pie was replaced last year by cinnamon sticks made with Pie Five’s regular pizza dough, cinnamon sugar, and vanilla icing. There also have been limited-time dessert offers, sometimes using brand-name items, like the Monster Brownie that used Oreos.

While numerous limited-service restaurants make their own baked goods, others acquire them, often from well-known major bakers, such as Eli’s Cheesecake. The company supplies all sizes of chains, including regional brands Rosati’s Pizza and Ohio’s Mr. Hero.

“We’re dessert experts,” says Debbie Marchok, vice president of marketing for Chicago-based Eli’s. “We’re able—in consultancy with the operators—to find what will work in their dessert program.” The items boast relatively clean labels that include no oils or corn syrups.

The company makes various desserts, but it is best known for cheesecake that comes in more than 50 flavors and in sizes ranging from packaged bite-size pieces to 10-inch cake. The plain cheesecake is the “preferred flavor of consumers,” she says, “and from an operator’s standpoint can be made into a signature cheesecake with house-made fruit topping or topped with candy or confections.”

Eli’s also has its own bakery-café in Chicago, featuring not only its dessert items, but also soups, salads, and sandwiches.

Breakfast, Menu Innovations, Story, Cinnabon, Duck Donuts, Fresh to Order, Great Harvest Bread Company, Le Macaron, Pie Five Pizza, Sprinkles Cupcakes