Ah, chocolate. It’s an indulgence that’s impossible to ignore as a stand-alone food or ingredient. And, not surprisingly, chocolate proves to be sweet for consumers and restaurant operators alike. Even though it’s already part of menus at most limited-service eateries, more dining places continue to add chocolate items in new and innovative ways.
“Chocolate is a very popular product used in a variety of ways,” says Larry Wilson, vice president of customer relations at the National Confectioners Association (NCA). “It grows in demand during good economic times and is recession resistant.”
During a 12-month period ending this summer, chocolate sales in the U.S. grew 4 percent, the NCA reports.
Chocolate—particularly the dark type with a high percentage of cocoa—has been linked to cardiovascular health benefits. Cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, which may result in heart-healthy antioxidant activity.
“We have the wind at our back on health and wellness, because of medical research published about chocolate and flavonoids and heart disease,” Wilson says.
As chocolate use grows, however, so does its cost. In August, cocoa prices hit their highest level in three years, and the International Cocoa Organization expects demand to exceed supply this year by some 115,000 tons.
Some 59 percent of all limited-service restaurant operators feature chocolate in at least one menu item, according to market research firm Datassential. That is slightly higher than 2013 and a 3.5 percent increase over five years.
“Chocolate is a very mature category, and the fact that it is still growing indicates how popular it is,” says Maeve Webster, Datassential’s senior director.
The largest gains since 2009 are items describing specific chocolate types. Dark chocolate mentions jumped 25 percent at limited-service restaurants, while white chocolate rose 21 percent and milk chocolate was up 19 percent.
“People are looking more at specific types of foods,” Webster says. “It’s not just tomatoes, but heirloom tomatoes; not just coffee, but dark roast. People want to know the specifics of what they are eating, so generic chocolate is not as impactful as it was.”
Chocolate comes from cocoa beans processed into bitter cocoa solids and creamy cocoa butter. Dark chocolate has the highest percentage of cocoa solids, plus cocoa butter and sugar. Milk chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and vanilla, and white chocolate is cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and vanilla.
Chocolate has been part of quick-service restaurants for years. Ray Kroc, who built McDonald’s into an empire, was a milkshake-machine salesman and sold mixers to the then-small chain for chocolate and other flavor shakes before he bought the company.
Today, 58 percent of chocolate menu items are desserts and 31 percent are beverages, notably shakes and coffee drinks, Datassential reports. All-day menus have the most chocolate mentions, followed by breakfast, due to coffee beverages and baked goods.
A growing number of quick serves feature brand-name chocolate candy and cookies as part of their beverage and dessert menus. Dairy Queen’s Blizzard, which mixes in branded treats, has been taking advantage of this trend since its debut in 1985. Nowadays, brand-name chocolate candy and cookies dot the limited-service landscape, from Burger King’s Hershey’s Sundae Pie and Cousins Subs’ Chocolate Chip Cookie with M&M’s.
Hershey’s foodservice team works with operators to create permanent menu items, and has helped develop products like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and Heath Blizzards at Dairy Queen. There’s also the Ultimate Hershey’s Chocolate Chip Cookie at Pizza Hut, which is a deep-dish, eight-inch cookie that launched in June. It is the second pairing between Pizza Hut and Hershey’s; Chocolate Dunkers were introduced in 2008. The Ultimate Hershey’s Chocolate Chip Cookie, like pizza, is shareable, perfect for families and groups of friends or coworkers, says Courtney Moscovic, a Pizza Hut spokeswoman.
Pizza Hut joins many other pizza restaurants using a chocolate dessert to set themselves apart from the competition. Toppers Pizza did that this year with a new addition to its Topperstix, the company’s take on cheesy breadsticks. Chocolate was added to the Bacon Topperstix. The new item, which combines bacon’s saltiness with chocolate’s sweetness, has been mostly a hit, says Scott Iversen, vice president of marketing for the 65-unit operation based in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Guests “either love it or it’s too weird for them to wrap their head around.”
The chocolate is a fudge, similar to cake frosting. “We drizzle it on at the very end [of baking], and it melts down as sort of a glaze,” he says. The chocolate is also available as a dipping sauce for any of the other five Topperstix varieties.
Persona Neapolitan Pizzeria features several dessert pizzas, including its version of a S’more, with graham cracker crumbles mixed with butter atop fresh pizza dough and covered with miniature marshmallows and milk chocolate.
“Everybody has a memory of camping and making S’mores,” says Glenn Cybulski, cofounder of the Santa Barbara, California, pizza parlor that opened in 2013. The wood-fired oven provides a smoky flavor that enhances that reminiscence.
Persona’s Chocolate Caramel Gelato Pizza begins with a crust that is topped with virgin olive oil and baked for 30 seconds in the 800-degree oven. Caramel is added, followed by a dark Ghirardelli chocolate drizzle, scoop of gelato, and nonsweetened whipped cream. “That dessert is off the hook,” Cybulski says.
The Red, White, and Blueberry pizza has white chocolate atop the crust, with blueberries and strawberries added along with a dark chocolate drizzle and sweet whipped cream.
Atlanta-based Wing Zone has taken traditional dessert items—apple pie, banana cheesecake, and chocolate brownies—and turned them into fried, bite-sized portions. The brownies are dark chocolate cake with chocolate fudge in the center.
“It’s quite rich and will take care of your chocolate fix,” says Dan Corrigan, marketing manager at Wing Zone. “Customers have definitely gravitated to these sweet options.”
Other chocolate cake items have become menu favorites in the quick-service industry, such as the Chocolate Molten Lava Cake at Arby’s and Jack in the Box’s Chocolate Overload Cake. Chocolate milkshakes are also industry staples, but new creations can kick them up a notch. These drinks follow on the heels of specialty ice cream shops mixing chocolate with a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and essences.
Sonic has a hot pepper flavor in its Jalapeño Chocolate Shake, while Five Guys Burgers and Fries is featuring a build-your-own milkshake that allows guests to customize their shake with chocolate and other ingredients, such as bacon and Oreo cookies.
U.S. Taco Co., the new fast-casual enterprise from Taco Bell, is offering a Coco Loco shake with chocolate ice cream, Mexican chocolate sauce, and chocolate shavings. The restaurant wanted a chocolate shake on its menu, says Rene Pisciotti, executive chef for the new brand, in part because chocolate “is universally the most ordered dessert flavor profile.” But he also wanted to do something a bit more exciting.
“The Mexican chocolate sauce provides a little spice and flavor depth, while the chocolate shavings give it a little texture,” he says.
Some restaurants are even adding alcohol to milkshakes. U.S. Taco Co. is reportedly considering beer-spiked shakes, while Boston’s Wahlburgers features several chocolate adult “frappes,” which is New England-ese for milkshakes.
“They’ve become something we’re known for,” says Matt Shiels, Wahlburgers assistant manager. More are ordered in the restaurant’s full-service area, “but we’re working to raise customer knowledge that these drinks are also available on the quick-service side, too.”
The S’more frappe features chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, graham cracker crumbles, and Smirnoff Marshmallow vodka, while Mud Pie has Crème de Cacao, Kahlua, Stoli vanilla vodka, and ice cream.
Many limited-service restaurants offer chocolate coffee beverages, so operators have had to up their game in that category, too, with blends like Starbucks’ Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino Blended Crème.
Hot chocolate is another popular menu platform seeing new innovations, like at chef Rick Bayless’s Xoco fast casual in Chicago, where cocoa beans from Mexico’s Tabasco region are roasted and processed on site for the beverage. Equal parts of the Xoco chocolate and refined sugar are blended with water, 2 percent milk, almond milk, or whole milk—and in some cases, spices—to create various styles of hot chocolate, says restaurant manager Arthur Mullen.
“That’s how we serve up one of the freshest cups of chocolate in the country,” he adds.
Mexican cooking relies a lot on chocolate; mole sauce, for example, is made with chocolate. At Zivaz in Tucson, Arizona, mole is “the most important item on the menu,” says Felipe Valenzuela, a managing partner with the family-owned business. The mole is made with his grandmother’s recipe and includes about 30 ingredients. It takes six hours to prepare.
“Ours has a Mexican chocolate that’s not sweet,” he says. While the mole is typically part of Zivaz enchilada dishes, some customers ask for it with burritos and quesadillas.
Mole is also featured at Portland, Oregon’s Tamale Boy. “We use all traditional ingredients, and we may throw something else in, like blackberries in season, to give it a different spin,” says owner Jaime Soltero Jr. He uses Mexican chocolate in atole, a traditional hot corn dough–based beverage, as well.
Even chocolate chip cookies can get a twist. Geoff Alter, executive chef at the 60-unit Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill, based in Lehi, Utah, used his background in California French cuisine to combine almonds and chocolate for a cookie with a hint of cherry.
“We make them fresh daily, and we’re selling 30–50 per day per store,” he says of the cookies, which employ Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips.
Chocolate has not made a huge splash on the entrée side of most menus, although several full-service restaurants are exploring the idea, offering items like chocolate burgers and chocolate fried chicken. One limited-service exception is Burro Cheese Kitchen in Austin, Texas. The restaurant, which opened in 2013 in a converted truck trailer, features artisan cheese sandwiches, including the Dark Hawaiian, with Brie, King’s Hawaiian bread, and dark chocolate sauce.
“Our menu is centered around the cheese plate concept, and there are lots of flavor profiles to a cheese plate,” says owner and operator Justin Burrow.
Grilled Glory is Burrow’s nod to the dorm room sandwich. “It’s like combining a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a S’more,” he says. The item has dark chocolate sauce, organic peanut butter, and balsamic apricot fig jam.