As Americans are becoming more and more weight conscious, operators are not going to be able to upsell every diner on a chocolate cake or key lime pie after a heavy meal. That Single-Malt Scotch or a nice amaretto for an after-dinner drink just isn’t going to appeal to everyone either. And aren’t S’mores for kids?
But a Chocolate or Key Lime Pie Martini? Scotch-infused ice cream. An Amaretto Alexander? How about a S’more Martini? What’s not to love (or order )? More and more restaurants and bars are learning that offering unique drinkable desserts can mean the sweet smell of success for their bottom line.
“People are often willing to have another drink after dinner even when they have decided against dessert,” says Dave Brown, vice president of operations support for Houlihan’s Restaurants Inc., a casual-dining chain based in Leawood, Kansas, with 96 locations
Menus might vary slightly from location to location, but the chain offers about 18 Martinis and specialty cocktails that are priced from $5.50 to $12.
“We also have a section on our dessert menu called ‘Coffee Fabulosity’ where you can add a cup-a-joe plus a sidecar with any dessert purchase for between $1.99 and $2.95, depending on the market,” Brown says. “The guest can select from DiSaronno, Baileys, Chambord, Frangelico, Godiva, Kahlúa, or Patrón XO.”
“I think overall offering something inventive and out of the norm for guests is the main function of these drinks,” adds Jonathan Gregory, general manager at Jones, a 150-seat Philadelphia comfort food restaurant.
The bottom line often is “while we do not make a ton of money off this part of our menu, I think that it helps build overall interest in our beverage program,” says Kevin Settles, president and chief executive officer at Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery, an upscale Idaho brew pub with locations in Boise, Eagle and Coeur d’Alene that pays homage to fine cocktails. “The success of our total beverage program, however, is key to our success.”
Lighter and More Fun
The appeal of dessert drinks is often as a sweet, meal-ending substitute. “Rather than having something heavy like carrot cake or chocolate, they’ll have a beverage that simulates the same thing. By and large, people are more interested in having something a little different that they can’t get at another restaurant,” Gregory says.
One unique take on the dessert substitute is the Scotch-infused ice cream that Settles serves at Bardenay. “It interests people because no one thinks Scotch could possibly taste good in ice cream,” Settles says.
The five-ounce serving ($4), garnished with a lemon peel, blends Usher’s Scotch with homemade vanilla ice cream, and has been a hit at all three locations since being introduced a year and a half ago. He notes that, “It happens to be my wife’s favorite Scotch,” and the alcohol content of the ice cream, Settles estimates, is only two to three percent. That lower alcohol level is a plus for sales, Settles says. “We really are selling a dessert that has the flavors of a cocktail.”
“Scotch ice cream definitely has a Scotch flavor to it, but a number of people are surprised they like it. The nice thing about Usher’s is that it has all of the characteristics from all of the regions, so it’s got a fair amount of peat to it, it’s smoky, it’s not overwhelming, and there’s a little bit of sweetness in it so it works very well with ice cream.”
Bardenay—which also distills its own gin, rum and vodka—continues to expand its ice-cream offerings, which originally included ginger rum and hot buttered rum in addition to Scotch. Mojito and huckleberry have also since been added.
The ice cream dessert outsells traditional after-dinner drinks such as Ports, dessert wines, brandies and Cognacs, Settles says. So much, in fact, that he’s hoping to bring ice cream further into Bardenay’s cocktail program.
“So many items we can’t get to work with ice cream,” Settles says. “Anything that’s high proof, you can’t get the ice cream to set up, but other than that, I think it’s wide open.”
Women make up the overwhelming majority of the patrons who order an alcohol-infused ice cream, Settles notes. “Guys aren’t just that interested in desserts as a general rule, and the same [is true] with dessert cocktails.” Other operators agree that women are more likely to order a dessert-based cocktail, but men still do order them.
New Spins on the Traditional
Dessert drinks often take inspiration from classic sweets dressed up as Martinis. Don’t like ice cream? Special dessert Martinis outsell traditional after-dinner drinks at Philadelphia’s Jones, Gregory says. The restaurant—which has five dessert-based cocktails ranging in price from $8 to $8.50—sells roughly 40 to 50 Key Lime Pie Martinis a week. The cocktail, which costs $8, is made with Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka, pineapple juice, whipped cream and crushed Graham crackers. The $8.50 Raspberry Truffle Martini sells about the same number. That drink blends a raspberry puree, shipped fresh from a local pastry company, with Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, Stoli and whipped cream.
And the $8 S’more Martini—made with white and dark crème de cacao and Hazelnut Liqueur with a chocolate Graham cracker rim and a marshmallow on top—is equally popular. “It comes out tasting pretty close to a S’more, which is the goal of all of our drinks,” Gregory says. “You’re indulging in a dessert, but at the same time it’s a cocktail that’s something different in your mouth.”
At Houlihan’s the Chocolate Martini, made with Absolut Vanilla, Godiva Chocolate, Kahlúa, fudge, soft serve ice cream and topped with a Ding Dong ($6), is a top-selling drink. It has become a staple on the chain’s menu, and a mini-version is part of Houlihan’s mini-Martini flight, as well. The Chocolate Martini also ranks as one of Houlihan’s top four Martinis.
Roughly 35 to 45 Chocolate Martinis are sold a week. “The Chocolate Martini is not something that we created,” Brown says. “It has been around for many years. We put our spin on it by tweaking the ingredients and adding a Ding Dong as a little surprise for the garnish.”
Most customers can drink only one, Brown says. “Typically they are very rich and sweet, so you don’t get multiple orders of them,” he says, but adds that it’s a “great tasting chocolate Martini, and the Ding Dong is a great surprise. People love it.”
At the Colorado Springs-based Broadmoor resort, according to Timothy Baldwin, director of wine and spirits, the best-selling drinkable desserts are the Amaretto Alexander ($10.25), a blend of Amaretto DiSaronno with Dark Crème de Cacao, Tuaca and cream; and the Rum Raisin, made with 1982 Toro Albalá Don PX, Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Rum and fresh vanilla ice cream. The almost 700-room resort includes 18 restaurants and lounges ranging from casual to formal. About 50 of each $10.25 drink are sold each week at the Summit alone, the Broadmoor’s newest and most modern restaurant, Baldwin says.
Coming up with a special dessert cocktail isn’t as difficult as it might seem. “We are looking for something that utilizes items off our menu and that pairs to what the chefs are doing in the kitchen,” says Baldwin, who also is general manager of the Summit.
Staff Training is Key
Other operators agree that chef and staff involvement is essential to driving sales and awareness of these drinks. “After the pastry chef unveils the new menu, the mixologists will work with the chefs to create new drinkable desserts that match the season,” Baldwin says. “Often we will take a dessert, deconstruct it and rebuild it as a cocktail.”
Gregory agrees. “We’ll try to bring components of a dessert menu,” he says, “and make them good beverage options as well.” Yet Baldwin points out that the dessert cocktail also needs to fit in with the restaurant’s theme.
“Chef involvement in the process is what truly adds another level of flavor and more creativity,” Gregory says.
“If the chef is using strawberries,” Baldwin adds, “make some cocktails with them. If the food is bold and powerful, so should the cocktails be. I think too many restaurants come up with a nice dessert cocktail and it stays forever even though the menu changes. It needs to belong.”
The bottom line to most operations’ success with drinkable desserts, however, rests in the wait staff. “We let them sample [the dessert drinks],” Settles says, “and if they’re excited about them, they’ll sell them. We always try to come up with products we think will have a fairly broad appeal, and are fairly inclusive when we come up with a new product.”
“Over the last few years I would say 20 percent of dessert beverage sales are cocktails and drinkable desserts,” says Baldwin. He has been ramping up his sales of them though a combination of “staff training and making sure that every guest hears about it.” He adds that in “many restaurants they create great cocktails, but the staff never talks about them. All of our drinks have a story and our staff tells them every time.”
Baldwin also teaches his staff to visualize the desserts in order to drive sales. “You train you staff to paint a picture of the drink for the guest,” Baldwin says. “Once the guest has that image implanted it’s hard to pass it up. Also we will often send small tastes out to tables throughout the night. That usually leads to better sales.”
Adds Brown: “We teach our staff to mention ‘something sweet’ as part of their things to recommend when someone says ‘I’m not sure’ and asks ‘What do you have?’ The server narrows it down to ice-cold beer, glass of wine, a cocktail or something sweet. We also include coffee drinks or dessert drinks as a dessert alternative after the meal. Much easier sell.”
Yet Gregory cautions: “We don’t really push our guests in the direction of drinkable desserts. Instead we find that having them as an alternative and additional option come the end of the meal is enough.”
“Servers are the key to getting not only the first order,” Brown says, “but also for guiding the experience and completing it.”
What’s the future for drinkable desserts? “I see them continuing to expand,” Baldwin says. “More and more restaurants are utilizing them and more and more people are warming up to them.”
“We feel originality, and the wow factor from how authentic these drinks taste drives this category,” Gregory says. “Fresh ideas and finding ways to translate classic desserts in beverage form will carry our program into the future.”