10 ways to satisfy customer cravings for dessert

Imagine a dessert that sells out after every shift, or a waitlist of diners intent on tasting your latest must-have sweet sensation.

That’s possible, considering that 96% of diners ate dessert during the last week, according to a recent Datassential survey.

The survey by the Chicago-based food research firm also found that 63% of consumers had eaten dessert within the past day, and 56% of the respondents said their last dessert was a snack. Diners want healthier options – but they’re not passing up cake, ice cream, cookies, pies and other sweet treats, according to the survey, which showed an increase in sweets consumption compared to the previous year.

With so much potential to satisfy guests and build sales, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But here are 10 ways that concepts are capturing customers’ attention.


When it comes to working with the seasons, desserts don’t always get the love they deserve. But on-trend chefs and pastry chefs lean in harder when the temperature heats up. Their menus are guided by the timeline of when each fruit – or even vegetable – starts emerging (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and stone fruits, respectively, for example). There’s Pastry Chef Kate Fisher Hamm’s olive oil cake with rhubarb jam, whipped white chocolate and pistachios at Leeward in Portland, Maine; and Caroline Schiff’s rhubarb buttermilk sundae with roasted rhubarb sorbet, chamomile buttermilk sherbet, strawberry rhubarb compote, shortbread and white chocolate at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, New York.


FoMu, a Boston-based vegan ice cream shop, turned the frozen confection on its head after opening its first shop 11 years ago. Its coconut-base ice cream then rose in notoriety as football-famous Tom Brady declared it a favorite. Still unsure about adding dairy-less ice cream? Shake Shack, which has 262 units in the United States, recently rolled out a new chocolate frozen custard made with pea protein.


Casual and family-style restaurants can take a cue from ice cream shops, such as Holler Treats in Portland, Oregon, featuring build-your-own sundaes with toppings and sauces. Offer a sundae bar served tableside with toppings such as chopped Twix®, Snickers® or Skittles®, along with ganache, seasonal fruit sauce, caramel and whipped cream.


If there’s a favorite brunch item that leans toward the sweet vs. savory side, offer it at dinner as a dessert in a smaller portion. At brunch, the Lucky Accomplice in St. Louis serves two slices of brioche French toast soaked in a sunchoke miso cream with candied pecans and a quenelle of vanilla butter. But for a dessert, they present one slice with vanilla ice cream instead of vanilla butter. The ice cream flavor might also reflect the season, and a garnish of fresh fruit can add interest.


Concepts with a to-go space or an accompanying market can clock in sales during off-peak hours with prepackaged desserts. Sweets most suited for snacking – cookies, pastries, brownies and bars – experienced the greatest sales increases on menus during the last year, according to Datassential. Vanilla shortbread cookies packaged in cellophane bags at Republique Café and Bakery in Los Angeles don’t last long. But larger sizes can also make an impact. The oversized sugar cookies generously studded with M&M'S® at Bake in Chicago are so appealing to customers that they never make it into the bag.

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Nearly half of the respondents in the Datassential survey said they want traditional desserts, while 14% prefer trendy selections (the rest had no preference), which explains why pastry chefs work familiarity into multifaceted desserts. Sometimes, however, the most impactful twist is the simplest. For 20 years, the crème brûlée with a ganache base and berries on the crackly sugar crust has been a bestseller at Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia, Maryland.


Like savory dishes, the most successful desserts are balanced, offering taste and textural contrasts. They’re even better when the combination is unusual. For example, a dessert at Rolf and Daughters in Nashville features black currants, hazelnuts and amaro beneath a scoop of housemade sourdough ice cream. There’s also yogurt mousse and strawberries covered with a rhubarb granita. Similar thinking happens at Flour + Water in San Francisco, with its elderflower zabaglione, hibiscus and Lambrusco granita.


When Datassential research shows 34% of diners are eating more mini desserts, compared to 11% who opt for the jumbo variety, it’s worth offering an assortment of greatest hits. At the Great Greek Mediterranean Grill, with multiple locations nationwide, the dessert sampler includes baklava, baklava ice cream drizzled with honey, rice pudding and powdered vanilla cookies.


Over-the-top anything tends to go viral, especially desserts, but it should fit the concept. At Momoya’s Soho location in New York City, the seasonal parfait gained notoriety with its 27 ingredients that take 10 minutes to assemble, including lychee lemon sakura jelly, strawberry compote, sakura leaf foam, vanilla crumble, amazake ganache whip, strawberry tonka sorbet and condensed milk ice cream. An easier version? The components in the chocolate and coconut dessert at Kinship in Washington, D.C., where pastry chef Anne Specter unites chocolate custard, coconut whipped ganache, brownies, chocolate coconut streusel and coconut ice cream. Include favorite candies for additional flavor, and layer in a tall, clear glass so diners can see all the ingredients.


When increasing food costs and labor challenges don’t allow for a pastry chef or staff, the solution lies in purchasing parbaked items or ready-made desserts. Brownies, cake and cheesecake are easily transformed with ice cream, sauces and toppings, especially nostalgic candy bars. Take a cue from Oklahoma-based Orange Leaf, which offers more than 30 toppings, from M&M'S®, popping boba and cheesecake bites to seasonal strawberries and blueberries.