Let them eat cake

Let them eat cake

From sponges smothered in sauce and fruit-packed crumbles to bite-size patisserie and ice cream shakes, sweet treats can come in all shapes and sizes. With myriad influences, such options on a menu are seeing great change and chefs are getting even more creative with desserts and shakes.

The rise of ice cream parlours, pancake houses and gourmet doughnut shops are proof that people are still in love with desserts and only put additional pressure on restaurants to match such offerings. As if to support this notion, ice cream operator Chin Chin Labs has just launched Chin Chin Club, a cake and ice cream restaurant serving choux buns, sundaes, waffle cones and the Signature Chin Chin Club Cake. The increasing popularity of dishes from America, where desserts revolve heavily around pies, puddings and cakes, and where shakes carry equal weight to a burger and fries, has resulted in more power to the pud.

“They’re part of our DNA,” says Meatcure owner Rob Martyniak. “When we started Meatcure, it was always about epically good burgers and craft beers followed closely by sundaes and shakes. I think we had as much fun putting these together as we did everything else.”

However, desserts are under threat. From the portions being deemed too big to criticism over sugar content, they have been getting some stick of late. But doesn’t the very nature of desserts give them a licence to be a little bit naughty? In the April post for his Observer Food Monthly column, Jay Rayner described the dessert as “the whole point of restaurants” because, while a main course is necessary, a dessert is “an indulgence, which is why we eat out.”

Furthermore, Martyniak claims to sell around half as many shakes and sundaes as he does burgers. This means that, on average, every other customer is ordering something sweet to have with or after their main. Smashburger has also seen the opportunity for desserts to increase revenue, among other things.

“At Smashburger, desserts and shakes are an opportunity to upsell to the guest at the table, to extend their dwell time and stay with us,” explains Smashburger marketing director Iain Duncan. “We introduced desserts only two months ago, simply for those guests who at the end of their main course had a sweet, dessert craving to satisfy, but ultimately, they are a new way for our servers to interact with guests, an opportunity to receive feedback from their meal and help to increase the average spend of a guest.”

With this in mind, desserts should be taken seriously, both in terms of presence and sales opportunity.

Pudding the feelers out

Sweet treats are certainly seeing some innovation. Fusion appears to be driving new products, where the croissant meets the doughnut to give us a cronut, and pizzas are topped with chocolate sauce and strawberries rather than tomato sauce and cheese. A wider list of flavours is also able to satisfy more tastes. One prime example is matcha, which can now be found in cakes, ice cream and shakes.

The struggle between offering traditional or contemporary options can arguably be seen at its greatest on the dessert menu. While the opportunity to try something new and different may be appealing to customers, the classics can still be close to the heart of many. An old favourite, chocolate, ticks the boxes for indulgence and encouraging sales, as research shows that the UK is a nation of chocoholics.

“I use chocolate a lot on the menu because it’s one of my favourite ingredients,” says Number 16 head pastry chef Helen Vass, who uses Callebaut chocolate. “It’s very versatile and there is a strong demand for it. People love chocolate.”

From chocolate fudge cake to chocolate brownie, such desserts have been mainstays on menus for years, but chocolate can be of even more use to chefs, as it can also be combined with newer, on-trend ingredients easily, such as peanut butter or salted caramel.

“Providing the bare minimum when it comes to flavours is no longer sufficient and operators need a varied selection of unique tastes for those who enjoy trying something a little bit different, not forgetting the key favourites that are most commonly expected and always adored,” says New Forest Ice Cream director Christina Veal.

New and interesting flavours don’t have to be so sublime that they’re verging on being ridiculous.

“We’re never faddy or gimmicky so straight flavours such as strawberry shortcake, chocolate Oreo, lemon meringue and peanut butter, using good quality ingredients, seem to cover all bases,” says Martyniak. “We see people doing over-complicated sundaes and shakes with Mars bars and all sorts hanging out of the top of them, and while they make for a pretty picture, the truth is they rarely sell. ‘Keep it simple and do it exceptionally well’ is our mantra.”

The creations that Martyniak refers to are commonly known as freakshakes, so called due to their larger-than-life appearance and many ingredients. They have led to a number of dessert shops in the UK that specialise in the sugar-rush-in-a-jug concoctions. Due to their sheer size and calorie-count, they’re likely to be consumed as a meal in their own right, so restaurants that take on these beasts may need to be prepared for fewer main orders.

Freakshakes are an example of the importance of not just what you offer, but how you offer it. Just as both classic and not-so-classic flavours are popular, gigantic servings of milkshakes filled with brownies, marshmallows, cookie dough and waffles are very different from other serving styles being seen across menus.

For good measure

In defiance of the pressure to reduce sugar per portion, freakshakes have turned shakes into towering desserts. The way in which this type of serving has gained popularity suggests that some desserts are not necessarily chosen for their flavour profile, but for their appearance.

“Instagram-worthy desserts which catch the eye with theatrical serves are always a popular option,” says Utopia marketing director Kathryn Oldershaw. “Freakshakes are the perfect example of this. Exploding onto the restaurant scene over here after having taken the social media world by storm in Australia, their popularity goes to show the impact presentation can have when it comes to desserts.”

While freakshakes may be worthwhile for online publicity, there’s another serving suggestion that can cater more to a diner’s appetite post main meal. Just as tapas and small plates have grown on main menus, small bites can thrive on dessert menus, offering several benefits to customers and operators.

“With the trend for lighter eating habits, the traditional heavy pudding has suffered a decline,” says Brioche Pasquier foodservice sales manager Jon Turonnet. “However, people still like to end a meal with something sweet and outlets can still tempt customers by offering desserts in slightly different ways. Portion control is the key point – served in a mini-size, even an indulgent mouthful becomes a sweet treat.”

Offering bite-sized desserts doesn’t mean that operators will lose money. Promoting smaller portions may persuade diners that would have otherwise refused a dessert to plump for one, if they know they’re going to get the sweet taste without the extra calories. Small bites can also be more appealing to diners that don’t want to limit their flavour experience.

“Operators can build in a range of baked options into a tasting menu offering,” says Kerrymaid brand manager Aine Melichar. “Operators could consider offering a mini dessert trio allowing consumers to experiment with a range of flavours and also giving them an opportunity to have a taste of a few of their favourite desserts.”

To further increase spend, staff can also suggest that diners enjoy their mini dessert with an accompanying tea or coffee.

“Another on-trend service option for something sweet is to offer a hot beverage with a mini dessert,” adds Melichar. “A square of chocolate brownie or a thin slice of tart au citron is a great way for consumers to treat themselves without the guilt, appealing to the growing consumer trend for healthier living. It is also an ideal way for operators to upsell their beverage and dessert offering, thus increasing profits and satisfying customers.”

Bite-size desserts are ideal in a society that’s increasingly putting health and wellbeing first, without wanting to go completely cold turkey on treats. While the likes of freakshakes are an exception, producers are creating new dessert products that aim to fit with diets and lifestyles, whether that be low-sugar, gluten-free or lactose-intolerant.

Sugar, we’re going down

There’s no doubt that the fight to lower sugar consumption could have a detrimental effect on desserts and shakes. As consumers look to consume less white sugar in particular, they are more wary about what they order while eating out and what they put in their bodies.

“On one hand, the demand for low-fat ice cream, frozen yoghurt, sorbet and dairy-free products has benefited from the increasingly health-conscious nature of the consumer base,” says Brakes junior category manager Laura Crouzieres. “However, as media and governmental focus has shifted away from fat and onto sugar, a whole new threat has emerged. Concern over sugar consumption has restricted the dessert occasion, impacting upon demand and threatening future value growth.”

To avoid discarding desserts from diets altogether, people are finding new ways to continue to serve and enjoy them.

“There are many different methods operators can consider to produce healthier desserts,” says Dietary Foods managing director Chloe Grimes. “Superfoods and vegetables can be added, such as beetroot, which adds a wonderful sweetness to a rich and decadent chocolate cake. Equally, puréed fruit or honey can be a really effective binder for cakes while also adding flavour.”

Of course, it’s not only the demand for reduced sugar that is increasing the variety of dessert products. Other dietary requirements, such as gluten-free, lactose-free and vegan-friendly, are putting pressure on chefs to offer an even wider selection that goes beyond different flavours and portion sizes.

“The free-from market is huge now and the demand for gluten-free options, for example, is rising in both sweet and savoury menus,” says Central Foods managing director Gordon Lauder. “It’s not only a given that menus should feature gluten-free options, it’s also an expectation that those gluten-free options should be just as tempting and tasty as everything else on the dessert menu. And, of course, they can be.”

There’s no doubt that healthier and free-from versions of desserts should have their place on menus, and we’ll see lighter options as we head further into summer. But, going back to Rayner’s point, it’s also important that operators, chefs and customers don’t forget the role of desserts in restaurants – eaten more sparingly than the main meal, they can afford to be indulgent and should be made well. Desserts are not necessary; they are a luxury. But, once in a while, a little bit of luxury is necessary.