Category grows number of units and brands
Dessert-only restaurant concepts continue to grow — and grow quickly. They’re growing both in the number of brands on the market and the number of units in individual chains.
In 2021, among the top 500 chains in the U.S., dessert concepts grew their total sales by 12.3% according to Datassential. Several chains like Crumbl Cookies and Salt & Straw were among the fastest-growing concepts across all restaurant segments.
Dessert brands meet many needs. “Dessert concepts are an affordable indulgence,” says Julie Babcock, design manager, Chipman Design Architecture, Des Plaines, Ill. “We did a lot at home for so long, but now, dessert is an affordable indulgence.”
These concepts also satisfy Americans’ desire for variety by offering just about any kind of dessert or sweet treat you can think of, from customizable cookies to vegan ice cream to macaroons to waffles and shakes. And today’s dessert concepts offer possibly the most Instagrammable food on the market today, with concoctions ever more outlandish in an aim to win the battle of the social media feeds.
Hello Robin, which has two cookie stores in Seattle.Dessert concepts also help consumers extend their evenings. They might not be ready to go home after dinner, so dessert concepts become the next place. “We scratch a lot of itches,” says Robin Wehl Martin, owner of
Consumers continue to seek immersive experiences and ones that spark emotional responses, says Maeve Webster, president of foodservice consultancy Menu Matters, Arlington, Vt. Dessert is nostalgic, she points out. “It can be extremely modern and innovative. Desserts are also full sensory immersive given the colors, textures, aromas.”
Younger generations, in particular, are steering away from mass-market brands, instead looking for smaller concepts that stand for something, says Tamara Keefe, the owner of Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Ice Cream, a six-location vegan concept based in St. Louis. Keefe makes it clear through her messaging that Clementine’s cares about farmers and ingredients.
For operators, too, dessert concepts offer plenty of appeal. Dessert-only concepts are often deemed easier to open, manage and staff. “Depending on the product offering and equipment needed, dessert-only concepts can be faster to get up and running,” says Babcock. “Also, in-store services often require a more focused skill set versus a full-service restaurant, so onboarding and training the team can be quicker, in addition to having shorter open store hours in general.”
Dessert concepts seem to be everywhere you look, but if you don’t believe your eyes, just check out the numbers. In 2022, Lindon, Utah-based Crumbl Cookies opened 365 new locations. To date the chain total exceeds 700 units systemwide with another year of growth planned for 2023. “In the next two years, we’re looking to double the number of stores,” says Carson Paige, director of vendor relations. The five-year-old company is close to having a presence in every state and will open its first Canadian store this spring. The brand sells more than a million cookies a day, Paige adds.
Ice cream and waffle concept The Dolly Llama opened its first location in 2017 and now has seven locations in California. Thanks to its franchising efforts, the chain plans to open more than 50 new stores across the U.S. “It can be hard to stand out in this category that’s becoming so saturated,” says co-founder Eric Shomof. “The challenge is to always stay on top of your concept, branding and marketing strategies.”
Bahama Buck’s is no stranger to the dessert game, having served shaved ice for some 20 years. In 2022, the brand opened around 5 stores, to reach more than 110 systemwide; this year it will launch between 7 and 10 and next year it’s anticipating 15.
Hello Robin, though, is taking a different tack. “There’s so many dessert concepts that we’re going to hit our saturation point. There’s a lot of mass-produced, overly sugared confections that are maybe not the highest quality, that are very popular on TikTok. We’re different because we’re smaller, we’re local, and I work in the shops. We’re very much a family-owned business and still find a lot of joy in it,” says Wehl Martin.
While all eyes might be on the sugary, creamy creations in dessert-only concepts, each store must look the part too. Babcock, who has worked with brands such as Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream and Milk Bar, says dessert concepts are all about the experience, which is usually fun and lighthearted. “Most dessert spaces are playful, upbeat, youthful and lend themselves to social media,” she says.
Traci Weems is an associate with GTM Architects, Bethesda, Md., which designed Pluma in Washington, D.C. “Dessert concepts are lighter, bright and cheery; you want the desserts to shine,” she says. “Picking a palette for a dessert concept can be different because the desserts become part of the aesthetic.”
Part of the fun of these locations is making them extremely conducive to social media posts. Jeni’s likes to incorporate Instagrammable spots into its locations and often includes stadium-style seating. “Incorporating a variety of seating encourages people to linger, potentially buy more, and also capture and post their experiences on social media — essentially acting as brand ambassadors,” Babcock explains.
The Dolly Llama locations feature plenty of social media-friendly elements, including the chain’s iconic llama and “Wanted” llama prints along the walls.
Pluma bakery’s eye-catching blue tile floor has become a favorite among Instagram users. “Everyone takes photos of that,” says Weems. “It’s recognizable as Pluma, and the blue is their brand color.”
The food largely sells itself in dessert concepts as one customer sees the extravagant creation that another customer orders. But the more you can display your offerings, the better, says Babcock, and using display cabinets for customers to see during the queuing — and decision-making — process is vital, even with something as pedestrian as ice cream.
When designing a dessert concept, Babcock likes to engage customers on both sides of the queue: before ordering, they can see the food; and after the cash register, she likes to display merchandise.
Weems tends to place the display cases in a central position if there’s no queue by them “so customers can see them right away.”
It’s also a good idea to make sure dessert concepts are very visible from the sidewalk, Weems points out, and seating can help with that as passersby see both the desserts on the table and the display cases beyond them.
Urban vs. Suburban
Dessert concepts can be successful in big cities or in suburban areas, and Webster believes that if anything, there are more opportunities in the suburbs following the post-pandemic migration from cities. People living there, she says, “are looking for the quality, variety and interest they had available to them in the city.”
In contrast, Babcock believes dessert concepts tend to fit best into urban markets. “They’re quite spontaneous,” and customers tend to find them when they’re strolling, she says. They can work in more suburban locations, but usually are best in lifestyle centers, which “are more like an urban environment,” she says.
Clementine’s began in St. Louis but has started to see success in the suburbs, and Keefe anticipates expanding both urban and suburban stores “as we are definitely anchors in most of the communities.” Her goal is to have 20 locations by 2026. And she’s flexible when it comes to the spaces where Clementine’s can go into. The concept’s smallest location measures just 204 square feet and only serves customers from a walk-up window; the largest is 2,300 square feet.
The Dolly Llama restaurants have worked in smaller markets and cities, says Shomof. “It is important that we have some factors involved: whether it’s close to a school or university, it’s a popular travel destination, or even within a smaller community that would drive traffic through word of mouth,” he says.
Crumbl Cookies has seen a lot of success around shopping plazas, which help it integrate into the local community. The stores are flexible, and while they ideally operate out of around 3,000 square feet, small spaces work, too. All stores have open kitchens to provide an immersive experience, and this, Jones says, “is something we want all of our customers to have.”
More important than the size is that all locations are identical, Jones says. “We place a very large focus on customer experience, and it’s important that the experience is the same.”
Identical stores, adds Paige, “help solidify brand identity. We want you to feel like you are in your home store from wherever you are in the country.”
Opening a Dessert Concept
Dessert-only concepts can be less expensive to open than a traditional restaurant because the operations focus on a particular portion of the menu. They often require less equipment, especially if product isn’t made on-site. But it takes about the same amount of time to get these concepts open, Babcock says, due to the permitting processes.
Dessert concepts also tend to cost less because the usual ratio of back of house to front of house is usually reversed, with more space being given to the former, says Weems. This also means fewer upscale finishes are required in the front of house, again cutting costs.
The narrower the focus of a dessert concept, the easier and less expensive it is to open, so operators can get into this format faster and easier. They also typically require less equipment.
The back of house at Bahama Buck’s typically constitutes about a third of the entire space, and the concept has low equipment needs. In the front of house are the shaved ice machines and syrup racks. And in the back of house, there’s a three-compartment sink, a sugar barrel, a dunnage rack to store items like sugar and ingredients for the soda machine, and an ice machine that makes blocks of ice. There’s also a walk-in freezer in the back of house and, ideally, a desk with some shelves above it for a manager to work at.
ID Studio4, Irving, Texas, who works with the brand. This is to store both ingredients and cups. He’s looking to add an additional freezer to hold the growing number of “party packs” that target online sales.“Wherever we can get shelving we put it on the wall,” says Bryan Clopton, studio director,
Hello Robin makes its cookies at each store and also has a production facility. Each store has ovens, mixers and freezers to provide a bit of theater for customers that want to watch cookies being made.
Crumbl Cookies makes and bakes its products from scratch at each location. For this, each store requires equipment such as convection ovens, mixers and a three-compartment sink. The restaurants don’t require a lot of storage, Paige points out. “With our rotating menu, they get the exact ingredients in the exact amounts so they don’t have leftovers.”
Crumbl has adapted to many of the equipment-related supply chain challenges from the past couple of years by being flexible. “We have close vendor relations established with the supply chain and have backups for every piece of equipment, with a B and a C option if we can’t get A,” Paige points out. And while he now requests equipment earlier, he adds, “We build so many stores that there’s always equipment ready to be shipped.”
Clementine’s may focus on small batches of ice cream, but it needs plenty of equipment in its commissary. Equipment includes batch freezers, which Keefe prefers over continuous freezers for better quality, mix and flavor tanks; hoses; pumps; a walk-in cooler; and a walk-in freezer.
Bakery concepts like Pluma and Nino’s need ovens and large floor-standing mixers. Sheeters are also important, as is a proofer. At Nino’s, the proofer is about 2 by 3 feet, but Pluma’s is larger, around 4 square feet.
Going forward, dessert-only concepts are in a good position. Webster sees an interest in classic desserts featuring innovation from modern ingredients and sensibilities or international influences. She also expects to see concepts that increase the healthfulness of otherwise indulgent offerings.
With Americans’ continued desire to eat out and engage in unique experiences, dessert concepts are likely to have some staying power, especially if they offer consistent quality that can be customized and have social media appeal.
And if you don’t believe us, check TikTok.