Dessert-Only Concepts Hit Sweet Spot

Despite the trend in healthier eating, Americans still love dessert, and restaurants are responding by expanding their menu offerings for sweet treats.

ICDC-2Restaurant operators from all industry segments, including fine dining, casual dining, fast casual and family dining, report adding new items to dessert menus this year; the only exception was quick-service restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2015 Food and Menu Trends Survey.

The growing number of dessert-centric eateries popping up across the country also points to consumers’ insatiable desire for dessert. Many experience long lines and high volume throughout the day.

“At the end of the day, as with most things, these restaurants have to be really well thought out and executed at a high level to have the greatest success,” says Dean Small, foodservice industry consultant and principal with Synergy Restaurant Consultants, based in Newport Beach, Calif. “The ones that stand out are typically over the top.”

Examples include Better Than Sex in Key West, Fla., and iDessert in San Diego, two thoughtfully designed operations that provide customers with unique, indulgent experiences.

According to Small, dominant developments include sampling different flavors and textures, smaller portions and unique spins on traditional items. “Along with chocolate and caramel, we’re seeing more savory ingredients, and herbs and spices, like basil, lavender, saffron and peppercorn,” he says. “Regional and ethnic twists also are popular.”

Running a dessert-only restaurant comes with a number of upsides.

ICDC-4Much of the food prep is accomplished in ICDC’s front of house. Photos courtesy of ICDC“There is smaller raw goods inventory with these operations compared with a full-service restaurant, along with faster table turns and premium prices,” says Small. Also, because these operations typically require less foodservice equipment, the build-out tends to cost less, and these businesses can operate within a smaller footprint. “There also is less kitchen staff needed and lower operating expenses,” he explains.

In terms of the menu, artistically plated desserts typically have many separate components with longer shelf lives than an individual pastry. Also, easy menu changes can use seasonal produce more effectively.

“Many restaurants are eliminating in-house desserts and pastries and outsourcing to local bakeries,” says Small. “This is a great opportunity for a dessert-only restaurant to grab that extra business as well as to expand into wholesale and catering operations.”

Operating dessert-only concepts comes with its fair share of challenges too. Dessert restaurants are still a niche market that require more highly skilled employees.

“Plus, operators need to be aware of storage temperatures and inventory control for more expensive ingredients,” says Small.

The lack of multiple dayparts, limited dessert occasions and a smaller demographic also come into play. “I think there is a much stronger need for marketing and social media attention [with these concepts],” says Small. “Maybe even an over-the-top signature dessert to get people talking as well.”

Dessert as Theater

ICDC-1 ICDC is known for its “simple” and “fancy” donut varieties. Photo courtesy of ICDCIt immediately becomes evident what the meaning of ICDC is when looking at the dessert restaurant’s menu. Ice cream, doughnuts and coffee are the only items offered at this Los Angeles eatery.

Launched last year, ICDC is the brainchild of Amy Knoll Fraser and her husband Neal Fraser, owners of popular LA restaurants Grace and BLD (code for breakfast, lunch, dinner).

When asked to partner up on a restaurant focusing solely on the two eateries’ dessert specialties, BLD’s pastry chef Mariah Swan didn’t hesitate. “These are the items we became known for at both BLD and Grace, that we felt could definitely stand on their own,” says Swan.

The streamlined menu offers traditional ice cream flavors, such as the popular mint chip and salted caramel, as well as the more adventurous double chocolate coconut twist and strawberry margarita sorbet. ICDC is known for its “simple” donut flavors, including buttermilk brown butter and salt-and-pepper caramel varieties as well as its “fancy” options, which include butterscotch toffee and peanut butter and jelly.

The signature ICDC dessert combines all three menu items, including a salted caramel donut topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and one shot of Vittoria espresso.
Additional donut-inspired items include donut sundaes and milk shakes. The comprehensive coffee menu includes the standard espresso, cappuccino and lattes, as well as the more novel Mexican hot chocolate and Mexican mocha.

This is mainly a to-go business, although there are a couple of tables outside the building. “We also do a good
delivery business and work with several outlets, including Uber and GrubHub,” says Swan.

ICDC’s ambiance is as lighthearted as its menu, with bright pastel stripes on the walls designed by Amy, who has an art background.

The dessert focus is evident as soon as customers walk in and see the ice cream display in the center of the store and the colorful donut display to the right.

“Our fryers are in front, as well, so people can watch the donuts being prepared,” says Swan. “Rather than typical donut fryers, we use traditional units due to space limitations, and we have two to accommodate our gluten-free program.”

In the front of the house, staff dress and frost cooked donuts prior to packaging the sweet treats. Only dough prep happens behind the scenes. Even the burners that staff use to make the pastries’ creams and jams sit in front so customers can watch the preparation.

The back of house comprises about 30 percent of the restaurant and includes a 20-quart tabletop mixer, 4-gallon vat pasteurizer and tabletop ice cream machine that outputs small batches with about a half gallon per cycle or 5 gallons an hour. “It churns 1.5 kilos of base pretty quickly,” says Swan. The refrigeration includes a single-door refrigerator and single-door freezer, along with two compact underbar refrigerators. One serves as a barista fridge for milk and ice, while the other contains donut fillings.

ChikaLicious-3ChikaLicious’ three-course prix fixe menu includes an amuse bouche, choice of dessert and assorted petit fours. Photo courtesy of ChikaLiciousThe biggest challenge comes in getting people to give into their cravings. “We have to keep our flavors interesting,” says Swan. “Also, because people’s tastes are getting more sophisticated, we walk a fine line between carrying familiar and more foreign items, and many times it’s necessary to combine the two.”

ICDC serves a wide demographic that includes families who pop in and local businesses that put in large orders during the weekdays. “We do so many deliveries, we don’t always know who our customers are, but Uber has been our strongest vehicle so far,” says Swan. “We’re still growing, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Along with special donut pricing, ICDC mainly taps into social media as a promotional tool. The restaurant also regularly participates in festivals, including the LA Food Fest and Hawai’i Food & Wine Fest. “It helps get our name out there,” says Swan.

Bean to Bar to Café

Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Co., an 11-year-old direct sourcing dessert business and one of the first bean-to-bar chocolate producers in the U.S., operates two dessert-based concepts: Cacao Café and twigg & co.

“We were selling wholesale for several years and decided we wanted to interface with customers,” says Kristen Hard, owner of the company, which also includes Cacao Buckhead, Cacao Factory and Factory Store. “We opened our first store in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood in 2009, then opened a second store in the city’s Virginia-Highland section, which we turned into a café.”

The 20-seat restaurant operates 7 days a week and has a modernized Old World design. Cacao Café’s menu centers on its cakes, pastries, macaroons, gelato, coffee and, of course, chocolate. The restaurant’s menu includes 75 chocolate bar SKUs, from enrobed chocolate to peanut butter cups to holiday items. Cacao Café is best known for its chocolate cake, which is made with cocoa beans and its bar chocolate, and other specialties include brownie à la mode and chocolate salami as well as shakes in flavors such as pistachio cocoa nib, salted caramel, espresso and Aztec chocolate. The menu also features sipping chocolate beverages, with Aztec, matcha and malted varieties.

Staff make pastries from scratch in a traditional bakery kitchen. The kitchen’s equipment package includes convection ovens, mixers and tempering machines. Staff apply old-school methods to accomplish much of the detail work and use such items as piping bags and small cake molds.

The 284-square-foot retail store twigg & co. offers customized chocolate bars. Indulging in a chocolate-by-design experience, customers choose from a list of toppings, like smoked sea salts or rum raisins, to dot on melted chocolate. Clerks pour each customer’s concoction in a mold and refrigerate it, producing the customized bar in about five minutes. Packaging is available for an additional fee, and the store offers both shipping labels and a mailing service for those sending the bars as gifts. For every bar sold, the company donates a tree to a cacao farmer.

“Customers of all types come in for after-dinner treats or to purchase gifts,” says Hard. “We have a big presence on social media, which features beauty shots of our desserts, and we change our pastry menu regularly.”

Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Co. sources its cacao beans directly from Central and South American farmers. Hard, who is self-taught and has been in the chocolate business for more than a decade, is heavily involved in the chocolate industry and serves as a judge for the Cocoa of Excellence Awards, an international program for cocoa farmers. “I make contacts that way and also do an analysis of cocoa beans for farmers as well as nonprofit work,” says Hard. “As a result, farmers seek us out.”

Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Co. is stringent in sourcing its beans and, therefore, selective in the farmers it does business with. Hard seeks unique cocoa bean varieties but also looks for proper processing of fermentation and drying methods, along with freshness.

Processing equipment at the company’s bean-to-bar chocolate factory, an 8,000-square-foot facility, includes temping machines and tanks. Processing time depends on the bean but generally takes several days. In addition to Cacao Chocolate’s café and retail outlets, the company sells its bars internationally, and they are available at 250 specialty stores across the United States.

A Sweet Original

In business for 15 years, New York City’s ChikaLicious is well known as one of the country’s first dessert-only restaurants and, judging by the constant lines, one of the most successful.

“We serve from 3 p.m. until about 12:30 a.m. but need to cut the line at 10:45 p.m.,” says ChikaLicious chef Dave Schour. To accommodate more customers, the burgeoning dessert-only concept plans to expand its operations from Thursday through Sunday to seven days a week. “From a business perspective, it makes sense.”

Chef Chika Tillman and her husband Don own and operate ChikaLicious. Don also serves as general manager and sommelier.

The 900-square-foot restaurant offers seating at 3 tables and a 13-seat marble bar. Seats sport the names of the city’s neighborhoods, such as Battery Park, Tribeca and Turtle Bay. The tables feature the names of New York City’s famed avenues, including Fifth, Madison and Lexington.

ChikaLicious’ $16 three-course prix fixe menu includes an amuse-bouche, choice of dessert and assorted petit fours. Customers can add more desserts for an extra fee and pair wines, dessert wines, ports, champagne and organic coffee and teas with their orders.

“The menu changes every day, and we plate the dessert in front of customers so we can answer any questions,” says Schour. “It’s an intimate and beautiful setting.”

Customers typically can choose from seven dessert options. Frequent signature items include coconut soup with lime sorbet; warm chocolate tart; fromage blanc island cheesecake, a crustless item served on a bed of ice; the donant, a cross between a donut and croissant; and a cone-shaped churro filled with ice cream and toppings.

The menu often incorporates seasonal ingredients in desserts such as the strawberry gazpacho with parfait or the white chocolate mousse profiterole with poppy seed puff and kiwi-lavender granita. “Before adding items to the lineup, the two chefs, plus Chika and Don, will do a taste test,” says Schour. “If at least three out of the four of us like it, we put the dessert on the menu the next day.”

Located behind the bar seating, the compact kitchen comprises about 15 percent of the restaurant. Chefs use only two induction burners, two small ovens, a mixer, a food processor and a blender to execute the menu. Lowboy refrigerators and freezers keep the perishable items at food-safe temperatures. “We whip our cream by hand, don’t brulee anything or use open flames and our mixer runs like a top,” says Schour.

Due to the success of ChikaLicious, the couple opened a takeout/wholesale business across the street about eight years ago. Dessert Club ChikaLicious sports a 900-square-foot, 4-table dining room and 1,500-square-foot kitchen similar to the restaurant’s, but with larger ovens. Its menu features more traditional desserts, such as ice cream sundaes, cupcakes, cookies, crepe cakes, bread pudding and tiramisu mocha, among other items.

And the expansion continues with international franchising. “We currently have two stores in Japan, a location in Seoul, another site in Bangkok and will be opening a branch in Dubai in two years,” says Schour. 

Top 5 Dessert Trends

  • House-made/artisan ice cream
  • Bite-size/mini desserts
  • Savory desserts
  • Smoked dessert ingredients
  • Hybrid dessertsSource: National Restaurant Association’s
    What’s Hot 2016 report

Dessert Growth

More restaurant operators plan to add new dessert items to their menus in 2016, following suit from 2015:

 Family Dining
2015/2016
63%/73%
Casual Dining
2015/2016
66%/76%
 Fine Dining
2015/2016
86%/92%
Quick Service
2015/2016
74%/68%
Fast Casual
2015/2016
50%/65%

Source: National Restaurant Association’s Food and Menu Trends Survey, 2015

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