Tight economic times, trends toward healthier dining and new seasonal flavors may drive us to change our dessert habits at times, but Americans still want to indulge in after-dinner sweets and, when they do, it’s most likely they’ll be having something chocolate. More than two-thirds of restaurant menus boast at least one chocolate dessert, with vanilla a far-off second at about 40%, according to Datassential, and many restaurants are seeing that old classics with new twists, as well as desserts that offer guests a different way of dining, are trending with consumers today.
There’s evidence that eateries are innovating in the area of chocolate, even as they downsize the menu. Restaurant menus were 2% smaller in the third-quarter of 2014, compared to the same period last year, and dessert menus shrank 3%, according to Technomic.
“The overall trend of downsizing menus means restaurants are focusing on the highest-reward items, the ones with the highest margins or the biggest sellers or the ones with the biggest buzz, and that’s certainly true with desserts,” said Technomic restaurant industry watcher Mary Chapman.
While this may be a result of consumers cutting back on splurging on desserts while dining out, many are adding after-dinner sweets back in as the economy improves, signaling perhaps that the trend may have to do with health concerns, which come into play more in terms of portion sizes than actual dessert ingredients, experts say.
Old Man Rafferty’s in New Brunswick, N.J., is a casual dining eatery that displays its 40-some desserts in a long glass deli case. The dessert portions are generous, but a growing number of guests who order desserts that big plan to share them with at least one other person, said manager Rachel Webb. Those who don’t share can opt for smaller desserts including individual cheesecakes, cupcakes and chocolate eclairs.
Gibson’s, a small chain in Chicago, serves up a fourth of a cake per order,” said Warren Solochek, vice president, NPD Group. “It’s not inexpensive, but I can share that with two or three people and I get my fill.”
Some 31% of consumers say they don’t order dessert unless someone else at the table does, according to Technomic, and 44% of desserts at limited-service eateries and 29% at full-service restaurants are shared. Additionally, 36% say they’re more likely to order dessert if a mini-portion is an option.
Portion control can even be a selling point for some restaurants, said Solochek. At Seasons 52, calorie-conscious chocolate lovers can order small, shot-glass size samples. “That sets them apart from a place where I can go and just get a big piece of cherry pie,” he said.
Scala’s Bistro in San Francisco recently added a boxed set of house-made chocolates to its menu.
“It allows our guests to experience something unique and shareable that they aren’t seeing at other restaurants,” Pastry Chef Kimberly Bugler said. “It also lets them enjoy some while in the restaurant and take some home as well.”
At Joe Fish in Chicago, the chocolate pave is one of the best-selling chocolate desserts, no matter what time or season, Catherine Nault, executive pastry chef said. “It is a great gluten-free option which helps it stay at the top of the chocolate dessert lists.”
Nault also said she thinks people want smaller portions for the purpose of sharing and trying new things.
Restaurants can use their chocolate and other dessert offerings as incentives in other ways as well, Solochek said. For one thing, meal deals that come with dessert give guests a greater satisfaction with the overall experience, meaning they’re more likely to return. For another, eateries that get a reputation for dessert innovation can use that to build a following.
While dessert innovation gets attention, it’s also important to keep in mind that innovation doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel.
“The problem with trying to do something incredibly unique is that people are scared to try stuff they’re not really familiar with,” Solochek said. “You can push it a little bit, but people who are spending seven or eight bucks want to make sure they’re going to like it.”
At Scala’s Bistro, the desserts that sell the best “tend to be classically oriented in technique, with brighter twists,” said Bugler.
Chocolate cake, mousse, chocolate caramel tarts, ice cream and flourless chocolate cake have been the top ranking chocolate desserts at The Original Dinerant, a diner-meets-restaurant concept in Portland, Ore., known for its inventive twists on “throwback” desserts, according to Pastry Chef Jeremy Intille.
“The core of the dessert does not change, the shape, color, finishing technique might, but at the end of it all, it’s still cake,” he said.
Nostalgia may be another big reason many of us favor chocolate desserts. Some 46% of consumers crave the same desserts we loved as children, said Technomic’s Chapman.
Chef Audrey Spence of Urbane Restaurant in Seattle, Wash., agreed.
“People really love chocolate cake, it seems there is a true nostalgic connection for us with this dessert and it seems to be a consistent hit,” Spence told us.
That said, dessert chefs are finding new ways to meld the familiar and the exotic, the sweet and the savory.
Naultt said she likes to put her own personal twist on chocolate desserts to make sure she’s not putting out the same thing every season.
“I incorporate high-acidic elements such as blood orange or passion fruit to make the desserts pop,” she said. “You get the chocolate flavor and a tart flavor as well, which makes it more special than just an average chocolate dish.”
Recently, salt has become the fastest-growing dessert ingredient, Chapman said, and that’s across all restaurant segments.
Bugler of Scala’s Bistro said she’s been having a lot of fun with smoke, salt and herbal flavors, blurring the lines between sweet and savory.
“I think as people are exposed more to artisan products and hand-crafted quality desserts and chocolates, they become more selective and always want something of that caliber…something that keeps pinging their palates with different textures and flavor notes,” she said.
Intille also said he sees a growing interest in artisan and quality desserts.
“I believe that this fall and winter are going to focus more on small batch chocolate makers in a sustainable region, 150 miles of restaurant, and single origin chocolate as well,” he said. “I feel as chefs, we are becoming more involved in our communities more than ever, helping those around us in building a stronger economic foundation for future growth.”
The 10 fastest-growing chocolate types on restaurant menus:
- Chocolate hazelnut
- Chocolate peanut butter
- Banana chocolate
- Milk chocolate
- Dark chocolate
- Double chocolate
- Triple chocolate
- Mint chocolate
- White chocolate
- Chocolate pecan
Top 5 ingredients in 30,000 restaurant desserts:
- Ice cream (all flavors, including chocolate)
If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about the food and beverage industry. We offer 14 newsletters covering the industry from restaurants to food manufacturing.