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.
Despite the indulgent nature of desserts, some are being created to be healthier. Even the McDonald’s pies, which were originally fried, have been baked since 1991. Arby’s had removed trans fats from its turnovers by the end of 2007.
The concept of better-for-you choices received a boost in 2000 when McDonald’s launched its Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait, which contains yogurt, strawberries, and blueberries. The company added smoothies in 2010 and reduced granulated sugar in them the next year.
There’s been growth in the number of smoothie shops and frozen yogurt stores that feature healthier alternatives to milkshakes and ice cream. For consumers seeking a non-dairy alternative, there are choices like Frosties at Bananas.
“It’s just fruit and ice,” says Linda Chinea, brand marketing manager for Villa Enterprises, the Morristown, New Jersey–based company that operates Bananas. The concept has 37 locations, normally side-by-side with sister salad concept, Green Leaf’s, in malls and airports. “We position ourselves as the better-for-you option in the food court—the feel-good, taste-good, be-good choice,” Chinea says.
There are four varieties of Frosties, including Superfruit, which features strawberries, bananas, pineapple, and coconut crème.
More gluten-free items have also joined limited-service restaurant dessert menus. Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint added a gluten-free oat bar infused with caramel after seeing demand for gluten-free foods increase. The company already was serving pizzas with gluten-free crusts.
“We’re beginning to focus on some more health-conscious dessert items,” says company chef Alex Cook. “The oat bar is not made in a gluten-free environment—there is airborne flour—but the bar is made with gluten-free ingredients.”
The 3.5-ounce oat bar is “not overbearing, not too rich, not too sweet, like a nougat bar with a very friendly texture to it,” he says.
The company is also preparing to launch an oatmeal cookie “that is healthier with reduced fat, no artificial flavoring, no lard. It’s enhanced with Craisins and alpine white chocolate, so it’s a little different.”
Acai bowls at Bowl of Heaven are another better-for-you dessert option, although the bowls are also used as meal replacements, says Dan McCormick, founder and owner of the Newport Beach, California–based company.
“It tastes like dessert but it fills you,” he says. “It’s kind of 50-50 between a meal and a dessert or snack.”
Bowl of Heaven mixes the acai berry, which is rich in nutrients, with a variety of frozen fruits and other ingredients into a creamy, icy texture in bowls or smoothies. The most popular is the original North Shore bowl, named for the area in Oahu, Hawaii, where the bowls were originally popular. It features strawberries, bananas, blueberries, apple juice, and a proprietary blend of seven fruits and is topped with granola, honey, and more.
Desserts are key at Caffebene, the South Korean coffeehouse chain that has more than two-dozen locations open in the U.S. Bingsu, or ice parfait, comes in two varieties: strawberry or red bean. Both have a gelato base and shaved ice, but the toppings are different. A 15-ounce bowl is typically shared.
“It is a light dessert, mainly for the summer but served all year,” says Hailey Shin, who is in charge of menu research and development for Caffebene in the U.S. “It has so many toppings, so it looks beautiful and delicious.”
Other desserts at Caffebene are more indulgent, including six varieties of Belgian waffles, four honey bread items, gelato, macaroons, and sliced cakes. “Think of [desserts] from all over the world in one spot,” Shin says.
Sharing is another growing trend, Euromonitor’s Friend says. “Consumers are looking for menu items that add to the experience, and there’s a social nature to this,” she says.
Desserts served in small portions or multiple bite-sized pieces can keep calorie counts low while being shared. Jack in the Box has mini churros and Potbelly Sandwich Works sells mini cookies, for instance. And Taco Cabana’s only dessert is bite-sized sopapillas, a Mexican fried dough typically served with honey, although the chain also offers dulce de leche.
“We’ve tested a variety of desserts, but we’ve learned over the years that Mexican food is already an indulgent fare,” says Todd Coerver, chief operating officer of the company, based in San Antonio, Texas. “So there’s very little interest in desserts.”
The Taco Cabana sopapillas, dipped in sugar and cinnamon, are served five or 10 to an order. “Because they are bite-sized, they are positioned as more shareable. It presents a nice dessert, a nice little fix, so you’re not overindulging,” Coerver adds.
The mini icebox pies at Atlanta’s Fresh to Order provide “portion control by default,” says Jesse Gideon, chief operating officer. “They’re all mini, individual size.”
The pies are made locally for Fresh to Order. The mango, key lime, and lemon silk are non-chocolate varieties offered year-round, and the seasonal ones include butter pecan and banana caramel.
“The quality level is very high, and everything is made fresh, with great ingredients,” Gideon says. “They are super rich and dense, but more of a refreshing dessert, a great meal finisher.”
The restaurants also offer a fresh-baked cookie of the day and a cupcake of the day.