The 10 Minute Manager’s Guide To…Driving Dessert Sales

Scott Hume, Special to R&I — Restaurants and Institutions, 3/1/2009
In R&I’s 2009 New American Diner study, more than 70% of consumers who say the economic decline has affected their dining habits mention cutting back on dessert as a change they’ve made.

The last course is the easiest to pass up for diners who are watching their spending. In R&I’s 2009 New American Diner study, more than 70% of consumers who say the economic decline has affected their dining habits mention cutting back on dessert as a change they’ve made.

In the best of times, encouraging people to “leave room for dessert” is enough of a challenge, say pastry chefs. Tight pocketbooks raise the hurdle a little higher. “It’s a challenge now, but it’s winnable,” says Patti Dellamonica-Bauler, pastry chef at Lark Creek Restaurant Group’s One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. “You simply have to offer a compelling reason for guests to spend that extra money.”

Here are a few proven tactics that can help diners give in (as they want to) when the server arrives with a dessert tray.
Fun For Less

Big Bowl, the eight-unit chain owned by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has built a following for its creative Chinese and Thai dishes, but few diners think of it for its dessert options.

When Big Bowl President Dan McGowan set out to change that perception with a new dessert menu, he wanted final courses that would be in sync with Big Bowl’s entrée flavors yet also fun and attractively priced. If dessert has been losing favor, McGowan believes, it’s because choices have become too serious, elaborate and costly. “I wanted things that were Asian-influenced but also recognizable,” he says.

The desserts, created by Chef Jessie Oloroso, offer variety and uniform pricing ($3.95 each). There is a double-chocolate brownie with toasted-coconut ice cream, a banana-cashew egg roll served with a dark-chocolate dipping sauce, and a chai crème brûlée.

“There’s been a tendency in our business to let prices go to $8, $10 or more,” he says. “If I am ordering a pot pie for $11 as my meal, adding an $8 dessert doesn’t make sense.”
Get Comfortable

Diners’ hesitation to drop a few extra dollars on dessert isn’t the only obstacle ambitious pastry chefs are facing. Budgetary caution can also mean culinary caution, with guests being less willing to embrace new tastes.

Jonathan St. Hilaire, pastry chef at Trois in Atlanta, says he has re-evaluated the balance between familiar and more-whimsical desserts in recent months. A preponderance of exotic choices simply gives frugal customers more reason to close a meal with an unaccompanied coffee.

“Are diners as adventuresome as they were a year or so ago? Maybe not,” St. Hilaire says. “As things are now, people do not want to make new discoveries.”

However, a too-familiar dessert doesn’t encourage them to make the leap either, he says. As a result, he is trying to “stick with flavors and combinations that I know people like while also trying to give those flavor profiles a modern look or twist so that they’re intriguing.”

Apple-pecan pie à la mode with apple-cider reduction and pistachio crème brûlée are recent Trois offerings that strike that balance. And, of course, there’s always chocolate, which is well-represented on Trois’ menu. “You can’t go wrong with chocolate,” he says.
Consumer Price Index

Lark Creek Restaurant Group’s One Market Restaurant in San Francisco has been a popular business-lunch destination since opening in 1993. But businesspeople can be a tough sell for dessert.

No one wants to be the first to order a sweet, says pastry chef Patti Dellamonica-Bauler. “You just need to get the ball rolling, to get one person to order, and then the others at the table are likely to follow,” she says.

Fear of running up a lunch bill that a client or someone else at the table may be paying is a disincentive. To counter it, One Market broadened its price options, developing a section of the dessert menu labeled Singular Sensations. The small treats (five or so bites) can be ordered alone for $5.75 or as a three-choice tasting platter for $15.

“It is insane how successful it has been,” says Dellamonica-Bauler. In fact, the category was added to the dinner dessert menu, too. A mint-chocolate-chip ice-cream sandwich and chocolate-toffee almond crunch cake are almost always offered. Recent choices also have included “pumpkin pie” parfait (maple crème brûlée with pecan streusel) and Meyer lemon cheesecake with huckleberry sauce and candied pistachios.

Additionally, diners can choose from seasonal desserts (such as spicy warm gingerbread with cinnamon-sour-cream ice cream) priced at $10 each or house-made ice cream and sorbets for $8.50 apiece. Together, these categories provide four pricing tiers that help overcome diner reticence about appearing extravagant.
Something To Talk About

Chocolate always can be counted on to pique diners’ interest, and a low price definitely boosts a dessert’s appeal, but nothing sells the final course more consistently than a knowledgeable, well-trained server. At Bastille in Arlington, Va., servers don’t just advise arriving guests to save room for dessert; they whet appetites with descriptions of Pastry Chef Michelle Poteaux-Garbee’s espresso cheesecake with chocolate fudge sauce and cashew brittle and other desserts.

Sales are in the details shared with diners, says Kolin Vazzoler, executive chef at Marché in Menlo Park, Calif. Being sure servers know the elements of desserts as well as they know those of entrées and encouraging them to engage guests rather than simply take orders can help lift sales.

“Every dessert has a story to tell, so let your servers tell them,” Vazzoler says, explaining that understanding the background of a dessert’s creation or its ingredients increases the item’s value as part of an overall dining experience.

Marché’s menu is written daily, but recent dessert choices have included chocolate cheesecake with sour cream; chicory and coffee streusel; and Rangpur lime bombe (shown) with tropical fruit and elderflower. The latter, for example, needn’t be unapproachable if a server explains that it is simply a lime sorbet filled with caramel.
A Simplified Choice

Whether they gravitate to Key Lime Pie Ice Cream Coupe, Warm Chocolate Clafoutis or another finale, diners can satisfy their sweet tooth for $7 at Trois, where all entrées on the Bistro menu are $20 and sides are $8.

Uniform pricing “makes it easier when it comes time to decide,” says St. Hilaire. For dessert especially, he says, the less complicated the decision-making process, the more likely diners are to order.

Marché’s Vazzoler agrees, adding that his $9 price for desserts is likely the ceiling, because double-digit prices have a negative impact on value perceptions.

Including desserts on the main menu lets guests plan a complete meal, St. Hilaire says. “They can decide to share an appetizer, perhaps, and then also get a dessert,” he says. “In this economy, people who are going out want to enjoy everything they can. They want a whole meal, a whole experience.”