Just Desserts

Baked sweets are moving out of the post-dinner shadows and into new dayparts.

Baked desserts aren’t always at the forefront of customers’ dining decisions, but that doesn’t mean they need to be an afterthought. Cookies, cakes, pies, and other sweets have made their way onto menus of all types of limited-service restaurants, giving operators additional sales opportunities during lunch, dinner, and, increasingly, snacking periods.

“Dessert is no longer only an end-of-the-meal occasion, but an all-the-time snacking occasion,” says Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst with Mintel, a market research and consulting firm. “There is a great deal of activity going on.”

Items with chocolate and fruit seem to be on the rise, and higher-quality ingredients are being used in some newer products being added to menus.

“Consumers are becoming more thoughtful about their dietary choices when they eat out, so desserts should be memorable and innovative to make it worth their selection,” writes Vic DeMartino, director of marketing/bakery for Sara Lee Foodservice, in an e-mail. Operators want to provide desserts that can fetch a premium price and also provide portability and high-speed service, while consumers “are looking for value, food quality, taste, and menu differentiation,” DeMartino adds.

Premium cookies, handheld fruit pies, high-quality cupcakes, and novelty favorites like whoopie pies have been popping up at a variety of restaurants.

“We all grew up with baked desserts,” says Tiffini Soforenko, founder, president, and executive chef at The Original Yummy Cupcakes in Los Angeles. “They’re familiar, homey, and reminiscent of childhood.” With consumers’ schedules growing more hectic, there’s little time to bake for themselves, Soforenko says, allowing operators to fill the void.

The number of baked dessert items on limited-service menus in the first quarter of 2013 actually declined 3.6 percent over the past year, according to MenuMonitor, the menu-tracking service from Chicago-based market research and consulting firm Technomic.

“Baked goods kind of ebb and flow, so it’s not unusual for them to decline during any one particular period,” says Lizzy Freier, an editor at Technomic. “We also see increases in cooler weather, so we expect the numbers to rise again in the fall.”

There has been an increase in the most popular baked dessert at quick serves and fast casuals: cookies, particularly chocolate chip cookies. “Chocolate chip cookies have plenty of appeal and are relatively inexpensive,” Freier says. “They’re just a great option, and a safe starting ground for any operator that wants to offer a simple dessert.”

Mintel statistics show that the number of cookie offerings at limited-service units in this year’s second quarter grew 25 percent over the same period in 2010.

“Cookies are an easy snack to grab, and it goes with coffee or other beverages,” Hayden says. “It’s a small indulgence, easy to serve, and it seems like every register has a cookie next to it,” including at sub shops and bakery cafés.

Chocolate chip cookies and their siblings helped Great American Cookies grow from a single unit in an Atlanta mall in 1977 into a chain of 325 mostly franchised units, largely in shopping centers in 30 states and seven countries.

“When you look at our regular cookie sales, the original chocolate chip cookie—the recipe the company was founded on—continues to be very strong in terms of the sales mix,” says David Kaiser, brand director for parent Global Franchise Group.

Not much has changed in the way the cookies are made. Fresh batter is produced in Atlanta, refrigerated, and shipped to stores, where cookies are hand-shaped and baked in convection ovens calibrated for employees to make consistent products. Great American Cookies usually features about a dozen cookie varieties, as well as Double Doozies, in which two cookies are separated by a layer of white or fudge icing.

The menu also features nine types of brownies—the second-most popular baked dessert, according to MenuMonitor—and several cookie cakes, the most popular of which is, of course, chocolate chip. Cookies are $1.49, while the 16-inch cookie cakes are $23.99.

Another large “cookie” item is the dessert pizza at Mazzio’s Italian Eatery, a Tulsa, Oklahoma–based fast-casual chain with 155 units. The first of these pizzas, a chocolate chip version, was introduced four years ago and has been joined by Oreo cookie crunch—one of a number of limited-service desserts that use a cookie or candy brand name—and, seasonally, apple and chocolate brownie.

“When you’re serving pizza, especially specialty pizza, people are more adventurous” and willing to try new items, says Greg Lippert, president and chief executive at Mazzio’s.

The dessert pizzas have the same baking process as regular pizzas: eight minutes at 475 F. The chocolate-chip pizza has cookie dough spread atop a regular pizza shell with chocolate chips added.

The items became popular as part of the lunch buffet, and “they’re now a requirement because customers demand them,” Lippert says. Mazzio’s also offers a stromboli-like product called a Cinnaboli, which is cinnamon and sugar wrapped in a buttered crust.

Many additional limited-service baked desserts were created by bakery cafés, where cookies, brownies, and other pastries are natural offerings.

“They’re part of our heritage,” says Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage at Dallas-based Corner Bakery Café.

Chocolate chip cookies are a big seller at the chain, as are Monster cookies baked with M&M candy. Among the other dessert items offered are dessert bars, brownies, and cake slices, and the chain was among the first to breathe new life into the whoopie pie, which is a cookie sandwich with cream in the middle.

This year, Corner Bakery launched a pair of handheld fruit pies: peach and blueberry. “We wanted to add fruit to our [bakery] case, and portability is always important,” Scicchitano says. “We also wanted to have pies that are seasonal and have broad appeal.”

The blueberry pie has lemon icing, created with in-house icing and grated lemon zest, while the peach pie’s filling is enrobed in cinnamon sugar. The reception was so strong “we had to go back to the farmers to get more fruit,” Scicchitano says.

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