Once quick-service and fast-casual restaurants have mastered the table stakes of value and convenience, creating a measurable point of difference is all about taste. And for many chains, there’s tremendous opportunity in desserts.
Sweets aren’t always a sales priority for restaurants focused on savory mains and sides, “but at the same time, desserts typically have higher margins—which is why operators want to do it,” says Peter Napathalung, director of syndicated research at Technomic. “If you can do it right, you’ll get more bang for your buck.”
Premium ingredients are catching consumers’ eyes and moving the needle on dessert sales. “What I see is a lot more ingredient specificity these days,” Napathalung says. “It’s not enough to have mascarpone cheese—you have to source it from a specific farm to generate interest, drawing on the pastoral imagery of local suppliers, for example.”
Premium is a premise that &pizza is built on. The Washington, D.C.,-based fast-casual chain specializes in craft pizza and uses clean, fresh and local ingredients across its menu. “Like our hit pies, our desserts are bold, surprising and uniquely ours,” says Bridget Siegel, head of culinary and off-premise at &pizza. “Who else would come up with Champagne- or rosé-flavored cotton candy?”
According to Napathalung, the trend toward unique, high-quality ingredients is largely being driven by millennials, 20 percent of whom say they seek out new flavors on a regular basis.
And &pizza isn’t the only chain playing to their tastes. According to Technomic research, year over year, desserts at fast-casual operations have experienced a 19 percent increase in chia seeds use, an 8.3 percent increase in dates use and a 5.3 percent increase in sea salt use.
“Caramel all of a sudden became salted caramel, toffee is now English toffee and salt becomes sea salt,” Napathalung says. “Ingredient specificity continues to move from a nice-to-have to a must-have element.”
Tapping into the Luxury Found Trend
While millennials’ desire for new flavors may be fueling demand for unique ingredients, consumers across demographics are showing a willingness—and appetite—for luxurious everyday treats.
With busy, always-plugged-in lifestyles the norm for many people, moments that offer the chance to escape from daily pressures and unwind with a special treat are especially appealing.
“The need to relax is a primary driver, but it dovetails with the move toward snacking,” Napathalung says. “Smaller meals, eating on the go and desserts are perfect for portability.”
And with an emphasis on convenience and fast service, QSRs and fast casuals are poised to capitalize on the convergence of these trends. Napathalung points to Taco Bell’s caramel apple empanada as a prime example of an on-the-go indulgence that can be produced easily and quickly. “If you can develop a more nuanced version of a portable dessert, it will create novelty,” he says.
Other businesses focus on giving some control back to the customers and allowing them to find their own escape. Paris Baguette is a French-inspired bakery-cafe franchise with locations around the world. The chain’s self-serve nature makes customers feel that the premium options are endless, says Jessie Sou, marketing director for Paris Baguette. Locations’ counters are filled with visually appealing luxe options, such as delicate green tea chiffon cake pieces, mini swirled pains au chocolat and bright pink hibiscus raspberry bombolones (small filled donuts).
“[Customers] can choose from a great selection of premium ingredients, grab a coffee, get a bit of an escape—and pick something up for the family as well. It’s a treat-yourself moment,” Sou says.
Paris Baguette offers a cappuccino cake sold in a coffee cup.
Creating Irresistible Premium Desserts
Often, the key to piquing consumers’ interest is to incorporate unique ingredients into common dessert formats or flavors, creating a menu that strikes the perfect balance of intrigue and familiarity.
&pizza achieved this when it collaborated with popular New York bakery Milk Bar to create a cereal milk cream soda and an accompanying vanilla cookie made with white chocolate chips, corn flakes and marshmallows. “People don’t always walk into an &pizza wanting dessert,” Siegel says. “But we hope that our sweet offerings are bold and intriguing enough that you’ve just got to try them.”
The familiar and the unusual also find harmony in Paris Baguette desserts, which range from the traditional to the inventive. “We have things like our cappuccino cake, which is in the shape of a coffee cup. So it’s great ingredients, great flavor and a great overall experience,” Sou says.
For a baked goods-focused restaurant, iteration and innovation are crucial. “We want to introduce new products every season, plan for all our holidays and make sure that we use fresh ingredients,” she says, adding that Paris Baguette sources locally and uses high-quality ingredients, like the 100 percent milk-fat cream in its fresh cream cakes. “It’s very velvety because of the quality of the cream, so people love those cakes,” Sou says. And thanks to its international presence, Paris Baguette has team members around the globe finding ingredients for new products (think sweet red bean donuts and curry croquettes). “We have a big range of R&D all over the world, so if they think an ingredient will add value to the brand, they share it.”
For chains that don’t have a global footprint or significant research and testing resources to dedicate to sweets, strong supplier partnerships are essential. Often baked goods manufacturers and distributors can share global and regional market insights into trending flavors and ingredients, as well as evolving consumer behaviors. They may also be able to recommend ways operators can step up existing offerings with premium add-ons or twists, ensuring restaurants can capitalize on the Luxury Found trend in a way that’s profitable and scalable.
With a strong understanding of consumers’ desire for premium ingredients and the right approach to product development, restaurants can drive sales with unique, delicious desserts.