By Mindy Armstrong, Insights Manager, FoodIQ
Dessert is a tricky menu part. We love it; we crave it, but often at the conclusion of a big meal, it loses its initial appeal. And this perception, this reality, has led marketers to either treat dessert as an afterthought with little attention, or as an opportunity to push on it harder, knowing that the check averages often go up when it's part of the meal occasion.
This difference can be seen when comparing Fast Casual chain menus with QSRs, noting the importance of the menu part and running with it over the last few years. And rather than ignoring the introductions, consumers are embracing the new offerings and reminding us that dessert is just as important as it's always been. Some recent launches include Taco Bell's churro, Whataburger's new lemon pie and KFC's sweet and savory chocolate chip cookies.
Fast Casual, on the other hand, hasn't embraced dessert as readily. As a matter of fact, according to Mintel Menu Insights, when looking at dessert category mentions across all segments, Fast Casual only grabs 5 percent of the dessert offerings, whereas Fast Food doubles that number with 10 percent. With the exception of some of the smaller, regional, better burger chains, like Smashburger with their milkshake options, we haven't seen the level of innovation that we've come to expect from this segment. Are they missing an opportunity? Or does the model that has worked so well for the segment limit its ability to expand its menu parts beyond the entrée with much success?
As an almost unfair comparison point, independent stops all over the country have shown us what dessert could be, reminding us why we crave the indulgence. Even Top Chef has brought us another form of their franchise through their "Top Chefs Just Desserts" premiere. The independent operator's ability to create a destination, like the Honeyed Pumpkin Pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Brooklyn, a must-try-even-though-I'm-so-full opportunity is one that can be admired. But, the ability to duplicate the emotion that is tied to a slice of dessert at a mainstream level has proved to be much more difficult.
The Fast Casual segment, built on personalization, made-to-order quality and ingredient freshness, seems to be poised for a renewed focus on dessert, especially for those that have figured out the rest of the menu already. Perhaps looking to the National Restaurant Association's list of the 2013 top dessert trends is a good place to start, where house-made ice cream, bite-size desserts and classic desserts have been a mainstay for the last couple of years. But perhaps adding a Fast Casual spin to these trends is the way to approach the opportunity.
To start, look to the pillars of the segment as inspiration to the model.
Customization: Steaming, individually-portioned cakes or pies coming out of the oven during the lunch rush with choice of warm sauces and toppings that make it your own.
Fresh flavors: Daily, or weekly, house-made flavors unique to the cuisine, season or region. Handling flavor as a rotating LTO is another opportunity to create interest.
Made-to-order: Offer a signature dessert item that is prepared while you eat your entrée. Order it as you walk down the line — it's made fresh for you while you eat and then served at just the right time. Warm sauces and fresh toppings could be provided table side to complete the personalized service.
Cuisine-driven authenticity: Sweet versions of street food forms appropriate to the cuisine like tortillas, wontons and empanadas could offer a fun way to deliver high flavor in snack-sized varieties.
Portability: Look beyond traditional desserts to signature drinkable desserts that can either accompany a meal or be a snack option for on-the-go guests. Again, this could be an opportunity to differentiate through unique flavor profiles or cuisine-driven opportunities.
From there, the most important reality of dessert is remembering that it is not a functional decision. It is an emotional one that is often made on impulse. Because of this, it must deliver on an expectation that was created the moment that the decision was made, whether it is based on nostalgia, curiosity or hunger.
The most exciting bit is this: Dessert, as an experience, has the capacity to move a dining visit from a last impression to a lasting impression, or what we like to call, a returning customer.
Mindy Armstrong, Insights & Account Manager at FoodIQ.Her background in branding, food marketing and menu innovation in the restaurant industry gives her clients a unique advantage in the development of insight-driven menu concepts.
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Cover photo: Stu_Spivak