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How is it possible, in a culture where clever entrepreneurs have built entire concepts around the likes of cake, cookies, ice cream, yogurt, doughnuts, cream puffs, strudel, custard, cupcakes, and even rice pudding, that fast food and fast-casual chains haven’t taken it upon themselves to rise up and achieve total dessert dominance?
After all, wouldn’t it seem that quick-serve giants have the innovation skills, the brand equity, the marketing prowess, and, not least, the real estate to develop and sell desserts that inspire debilitating and insatiable cravings in otherwise normal, healthy consumers?
Give or take a seasonal shake or two, though, the number of truly memorable quick-serve dessert offerings is few. Mostly, the landscape comprises a somewhat predictable batch of fried pies, parfaits, soft-serve cones, and the occasional sundae.
And yet, out in the world, desserts are being invented and reinvented with astonishing frequency and extraordinary creativity. A snapshot of some of today’s predominant dessert trends gives a sense of the diversity of options at our disposal.
• Comfort confections: From cheesecake to brownies to devil’s food cake, high-end restaurateurs and casual-dining chain operators alike are continuing to allay consumers’ economic anxieties with time-tested treats. Small twists on familiar forms—pomegranate cheesecake, anyone?—occasionally provide a hint of novelty within the prescribed format.
• Retro indulgences: For some consumers, dessert is nostalgia and escapism, pure and simple. Hence the proliferation of sundaes, pies, cobblers, s’mores, ice-cream novelties, and other distinctly retro offerings on many dessert menus nowadays.
• Cupcakes keep coming and coming: How mad are both kids and adults for the classic cupcake? Aside from the hundreds of standalone outlets and small chains that have sprung up to cater to cupcake cravings in the past decade, we now have an outfit called Sprinkles installing automated cupcake “ATMs” in addition to its full-on retail outlets. The first of these contraptions, in the chain’s Beverly Hills, California, hometown, holds about 600 cakes and dispenses them for $4 a pop.
• Savory elements and herbs add flavor complexity: Chocolate-covered pretzels were just the beginning. These days, manufacturers and restaurateurs alike are adding bacon to chocolate and other confections; tossing lavender, rosemary, and thyme into ice cream; and even injecting vegetables into cookies and cakes, though the latter trend is primarily a “stealth health” play targeting kids rather than a flavor gambit.
• Craving a lotta panna cotta: The classic Italian cooked cream was the fastest-growing dessert item on chain restaurant menus last year, according to one market research firm. Since panna cotta occupies a convenient niche at the juncture of comfort and indulgence, its heightened profile is logical, if a little surprising.
My view is that, provided operators respect the three immutable dictates of modern quick-serve desserts (deliciousness, operational simplicity, and portability) there are many possibilities for translating these five overarching modern dessert trends into viable check-builders. Here are some thoughts on getting from the drawing board to the menuboard.
1. Think inside the jar. When it comes to portability and on-the-go convenience, certain desserts just can’t cut it in their traditional forms. Strawberry shortcake, Snickers pie, and chocolate cheesecake are terrific when you have two hands, a plate, a fork, and a stationary table and chair at your disposal, but on the bench seat of your ’71 Thunderbird, they’re a launderer’s nightmare waiting to happen. In recent years, however, white-tablecloth and casual establishments have both designed versions that fit neatly in small glass jars and are far neater to eat than their more traditional counterparts. With jars, everything is fair game: mousses, bread puddings, deconstructed cobblers, cakes, and pies; the list is virtually endless.
2. Stick it to ’em. Cake pops, cupcake push-up pops; if you can get it in a jar, with a little finesse and some crafty packaging, you can get it on a stick, as well. The aim, as always, is to enable single-handed consumption on the go.
3. Mix it and mash it. An excellent rule of thumb to remember when it comes to dessert is that it’s hard to go horribly wrong. Candy bar pie? Sounds wild, but it’s been done. Peanut-butter-and-jelly panna cotta? Sure, what’s not to like? These are real-life examples of formulas that have been executed successfully, but you can let your imagination run wild and come up with options that are equally viable. Chocolate-chip devil’s food cheesecake pops? Frozen strawberry-banana cobbler in a jar? Fudgy carrot cake cream puff strudel cups? They don’t exist (yet), but if you can think it, you can probably create it. That’s the beauty of modern dessert and the promise it holds for quick-serve operators across the board.