People love desserts, and so do restaurateurs. For patrons, it’s part of the experience of eating out, an extra indulgence they allow themselves away from home. For the restaurant operator, it’s an extra boost to the check and a chance to dazzle at the end of the meal and give customers the last good impression of the meal.
But not all desserts work for all restaurants. The architectural triple-chocolate gargantuan tower that takes a skilled pastry chef to design and execute may work for the high-end establishment, but bomb at the neighborhood bistro. Likewise, simple apple pie a la mode may be a disappointment if one is expecting to be wowed, but may be just the ticket after a country-style meal. Custom designing desserts to fit the rest of the menu is what many restaurateurs are discovering, and with the many quality products available, from speed scratch to ready made, it’s easier for anyone to find a dessert menu mix that works best for their operation.
When hiring a full time pastry chef is either financially prohibitive or not feasible given the space a restaurant kitchen has available, many restaurateurs turn to dessert companies to help them design desserts to fit their menu. Such a company will often work with a restaurant operator to develop the right desserts. They may provide the restaurant with a basic dessert component from which desserts can be built or with a finished product, anything from a homestyle dessert to a high-end dessert.
On the custom end, companies such as Heidi’s Gourmet Desserts work with restaurant operators to adjust a dessert to the operator’s satisfaction. Focus testing is often involved to get consumer reaction and sometimes a menu test is performed before national rollout. It may involve a lot of fine-tuning before the restaurateur is satisfied with the finished result. “Chains in particular have a character that they want to portray, an image. It it’s an Italian restaurant, for example, the desserts have to be Italian-style,” explains Debbie Hebrank, manager of menu development for Heidi’s.
At Dave & Buster’s, headquartered in Dallas with 12 units, the dessert menu was recently made-over. Executive chef Oona Settembre kept the house-made double chocolate brownie sundae, revamped, but changed the rest of the menu. She wanted to have a chocolate dessert, an apple dessert, a creamy dessert and a carrot cake. Half of the desserts on the new menu are custom designed for them, while the others were part of a dessert company’s product line but hadn’t been used by many restaurants before.
Though buying custom produced desserts is a bit more expensive, Settembre’s philosophy is to offer desserts that guests will love so that they leave the restaurant with the last impression being a positive one. “We are not trying to make a huge profit margin with our desserts. We make up for it in dessert sales. Our desserts are priced reasonably, from $4.50 to $5.75 and are huge, so people feel they are getting a good value,” says Settembre.
The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, with three units headquartered in San Clemente, CA, took a different approach to custom designing. The company has an in-house research and development department and developed the dessert concepts in that test kitchen. They strove to have the desserts match the whimsical menu based on the movie Forrest Gump. The desserts include Forrest’s Dr. Pepper Float, Forrest’s Own Collection Box of Chocolates, Authentic Key Lime Pie, Mama Gump’s Chocolate Cake and K Paul’s Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. The key lime pie and chocolate cake were developed in their R&D kitchen and the sweet potato pecan pie was a recipe borrowed from Chef Paul Prudomme.
“What we do is develop the items and then have an outside vendor make the desserts for us. We want everything on the menu to appeal to all the senses, from eye appeal to taste profile,” says Tim Busald, vice president of operations and purchasing for Bubba Gump’s.
Dessert Trends Sidebar
Taste still rules when patrons make food choices. In fact, 88% of consumers recently surveyed said that taste is more important than health issues or price when selecting foods.
According to the Thomas Food Industry Register, 34% of respondents from foodservice establishments said they are serving more comfort foods than they did the year before.
Operators across the board are looking for new menu items that require less unit-level preparation.
Nearly 43% of foodservice operators surveyed said they prefer speed-s
cratch recipes in order to maintain
Although many patrons are saying they watch their diets more, dessert sales have never been stronger.
Source: Pillsbury Foodservice
The next tier of dessert service is to buy components which can then be enhanced, embellished and given a signature. The advantage, of course, is less labor in the kitchen but some room for the kitchen staff use their creativity.
“We have found through our research that consumers want desserts that are made in-house. Restaurants have striven to deliver what customers are asking for without adding a lot of costs to their bottom line. We can offer them a simple cake that they can finish by garnishing, adding a sauce, heating the product or combining it with other flavors for broader menuing,” says Heidi’s Hebrank.
This kind of dessert may be a simple one-layer chocolate cake that is served with a warm cream sauce and seasonal fruit, or it may be a berry cobbler which is simply heated and either cut in squares and served on a plate, or spooned into a footed dessert dish served with a scoop of ice cream.
These components may also be the building blocks of more sophisticated desserts, the kind of require a lot of labor. At the Portland Hilton, Portland, OR, assistant pastry chef Amy Sasak purchases premade cannoli shells and prepared tart shells to help keep labor costs down. “We can then spend our time making great fillings instead of making the shells, and we only use the best of premade products,” Sasak explains.
Amy Sasak, assistant pastry chef at the Portland Hilton often starts with pre-made shells or desert mixes and customizes them to create desserts with style and flair that bring a healthy profit to the bottom line.
From Scratch, Only Faster
The Portland Hilton pastry department has also found great labor-saving consistency in using speed-scratch cake mixes. “We use Pillsbury’s devil’s food and white sponge cake mixes for a great number of desserts. They come in 50 lb. bags which each make about 50 cakes. We often will bake all 50 cakes and then freeze them in closed carts so that they are there when we need them,” Sasak says.
She explains that the mixes are so easy to use that if one can read, one can put together a cake and that the cakes come out the same each time. The sponge cake, for example, not only saves prep time, but saves ingredient buying and storage and is made in one bowl, so it saves the time and effort of whipping eggs and folding that would be necessary with a scratch-made cake.
The cakes then become any number of desserts. The sponge cake may have poppy seeds added to it; she may fill the devil’s food layer cake with Grand Marnier mousse or use it to make the seven-layer chocolate mousse cake for the fine dining restaurant, Alexander’s. “I don’t feel like I am jeopardizing the quality of the cake by using the mix. Every layer of the seven-layer cake has a different flavored ganache. The cake is a minor part of the dessert,” she says.
Ready to Serve
The very easiest way to develop a dessert menu is to find vendors that have the dessert you want, the ones that will fit the menu and require no embellishment, muss or fuss. Some restaurateurs purchase from local companies, others use national companies with wide distribution.
At the Harvest Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, owner David Schneider started out offering fancy custom-made desserts, but found that it didn’t fit with his menu, so he took a simpler route. “Originally we were using a local patisserie’s chocolate ganache cake and bread pudding. I have also had pastry chefs come in and design special extravagant desserts. But when I offered the fancy desserts, they didn’t sell. My neighborhood clientele, it turns out, wanted home-style desserts that went along with the food they had for dinner,” Schneider says.
Schneider found that the simpler the dessert, the better it was for his restaurant, which is very local with simple homestyle food. When he offered the more expensive desserts for $8 a piece, they weren’t selling. Now his apple pie and Mississippi mud pie, selling for $4.00, are big hits. “People want to recognize what they are eating. If your are serving meatloaf, people want it to be good, but still look and taste like meatloaf. They are expecting to have dessert that matches their food. When I tried serving a caramel-pecan apple pie it didn’t sell that well. Now we sell a deep dish apple pie and it sells a lot better. It goes with the meatloaf,” Schneider explains.
Labor is reduced since his waitstaff can now serve up the desserts themselves. He also finds that it is easier for his waiters to sell the desserts because it makes more sense with the rest of the menu.
When Scratch Makes Sense
Scratch-made desserts, however, are not at all a thing of the past. At most high-end restaurants the great majority of the desserts are made in-house by pastry chefs. But that isn’t the only place scratch cooking is feasible or warranted.
Dave & Buster’s, for example, kept their in-house made D&B Double Chocolate Brownie Sundae which is still the best selling dessert. And the restaurant’s signature bread pudding is still served at parties.
Likewise, at the Portland Hilton, while Sasak may use speed-scratch elements for some of the desserts, the time saved using those products, frees her and the pastry chef up to spend time developing desserts for both the bistro and especially for the upscale Alexander’s. There, she goes with the season. It’s a restaurant that attracts an older crowd who enjoy showy desserts such as floating islands; chevre cheesecake; warm gingerbread cake served over apples sautéed in brandy; or creme br