Desserts have been part of the limited-service restaurant landscape for decades. Whether it’s cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream, or other goodies, consumers continue to seek these typically indulgent items to add to their meal or as a stand-alone treat.
In recent years, operators have added numerous dessert items, including many that don’t include chocolate. These days, fruits, cinnamon, peanut butter, and vanilla—the most popular ice cream and frozen yogurt flavor—are increasingly leveraged in dessert innovation.
Dessert is on the menu at 72.5 percent of limited-service restaurants, according to data compiled last fall by Technomic Inc. Meanwhile, The NPD Group finds the number of dessert items on menus rose 3 percent at quick-service operations and 5 percent at fast casuals during last year’s third quarter, compared with the same period in 2013.
“[Restaurants] are looking to desserts more than in past years, because the competitive environment has become much tougher,” says Elizabeth Friend, senior foodservice analyst with Euromonitor International, a global market intelligence firm. Operators are considering “all segments of their menu for an edge, and desserts have been a big part of that. They’re versatile and may bring people in at different times, driving traffic and driving added occasions.”
McDonald’s added hand-held apple pies in 1968, while at about the same time, Arby’s launched its fruit turnovers. Today, operators are considering all types of dessert options to meet the needs of those consumers seeking traditional items or new and creative ones. Some diners are even looking for lighter, better-for-you options.
“Health and wellness is always a focus in foodservice, but dessert still stands apart in that,” Friend says. “When people feel they are making a smart decision with their meal, they are more willing to indulge when they have dessert.”
The final course is considered special at fast casual Newk’s Eatery, says Angel McGowan, director of purchasing. “We believe dessert should be a treat, an indulgence,” she says.
The company also believes dessert should exude comfort and pay homage to how mom would make it, McGowan says. That’s why the homemade delights include strawberry and caramel cakes, as well as the Big Crispy, which is a modern Rice Krispies treat.
“We own our own bakery and it’s exclusive for Newk’s,” she says. “We use real, quality ingredients. There are real strawberries in the strawberry cake. We hand ice all of the cakes with our own icing. The Rice Krispies treats are fresh like at home.”
All this effort goes into the desserts even though they make up only 2 percent of net sales across the Jackson, Mississippi–based, 72-unit chain.
For many diners, the best dessert is a long-time favorite: ice cream. But entrepreneurs are increasingly coming up with unique flavors and using top-notch, often local ingredients for their concoctions. This trend is led by Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Launched by Jeni Britton Bauer, who began making ice cream in 1996, the Columbus, Ohio–based enterprise has grown into 19 scoop shops in six major cities, serving ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbets that employ fine ingredients, such as grass-grazed milk from small Ohio farms, local produce, and Fair Trade–certified African vanilla.
The result is an array of intriguing and tasty combinations, such as Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry ice cream that has a slight taste of Ohio sweet corn, Lime Cardamom Buttermilk frozen yogurt, and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet with a hint of Riesling wine. Each shop usually has 32 flavors at a time. The items are also sold by the pint in the shops and at numerous retailers across the country.
Bauer’s success in creating artisan ice cream “has shown that there is a market for good food—things that had previously been a commodity,” says company CEO John Lowe. “It’s great ingredients and attention to a process that makes it taste better.”
Many people, particularly Millennials, are choosing artisan foods, from craft beer to better breads. High-quality, creative ice cream is no different.
“The consumer across America is changing how we think about food,” Lowe says. “People are paying attention to the ingredients and the companies behind the products, which hasn’t been true for decades, if ever. We are getting the benefit of that.”
Another company, CREAM, took the premium ice cream concept and added freshly baked cookies to make unique ice cream sandwiches. The nine-unit, Millbrae, California, business features nearly two dozen ice cream flavors and up to 16 different cookies.
“We sell ice cream cones and milkshakes, but the meat of our product mix is the ice cream sandwiches,” says chief operating officer Jim Ryan. “It’s definitely something people want after dinner or for that late afternoon or evening treat.”
Guests choose their ice cream to place between any two warm cookies they want, providing “an experience you don’t get anywhere else,” he says. “It’s melting while you’re eating it.” In addition to regular ice cream and cookies, CREAM offers three soy ice creams, four gluten-free cookies, and four vegan cookies. There’s also an ice cream taco, which shapes thin, cinnamon-flavored waffles into tacos and adds three scoops of ice cream inside, like a sundae.
Choice goes even further at Creamistry, where customers watch their ice cream being made in front of them in minutes. Customers elect a premium or organic cream base and then choose among more than 40 flavors, ranging from mainstream varieties to options like black sesame and Thai tea. The mix goes in a container and is rapidly frozen using nitrogen. It’s dipped in warm water to loosen the ice cream from its container, spun with mixers, and scooped into a bowl. Dozens of toppings are available.
“It typically takes a minute and a half,” says Alex Souice, a general manager in one of the four units operated by the Yorba Linda, California–based chain. The final product is “more of a full texture, and you get the full flavor of each ingredient.”
The push for creativity extends to milkshakes. Some operators, including Wahlburgers, feature shakes with alcohol, while Five Guys Burgers & Fries is testing hand-spun shakes that offer add-ins such as bacon, cherries, and peanut butter.