A Winning Combination: Chocolate Hazelnut

Three words: chocolate hazelnut spread. It’s long been a staple on grocery store shelves, but now more restaurants are embracing the Italian import.

Menu mentions of Nutella—the brand name synonymous with chocolate hazelnut spread—shot up 76 percent in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015, according to a MenuMonitor analysis of the top 500 restaurant chains.

And the sweet, nutty spread isn’t only popping up in more eateries—it’s also spreading into more creative dishes. 

“We’re starting to see it expand beyond the usual places, like crepes or pancakes,” says Peter Napathalung, senior manager at market research firm Technomic. “Operators are looking for more places to inject the flavor because its popularity isn’t going to die any time soon.” 

Amy Arnold, corporate pastry chef for DineAmic Group, knows that. When she began crafting the menu for the recently opened Bar Siena in Chicago, she knew chocolate hazelnut spread would be her starting point. “I was always getting so many requests for Nutella desserts,” she says. A calzone filled with chocolate hazelnut spread wasn’t just the first dessert on the debut menu—it was the only plated option. Diners raved about it and, as the menu expanded, they began asking if the pastry chef ever planned to make a chocolate hazelnut spread-stuffed version of the restaurant’s bombo (cream-filled Italian donuts). “We received so many requests, that I recently replaced our chocolate buttercream bombo with a Nutella buttercream bombo instead,” she says.

The sweet, nutty spread isn’t only popping up in more eateries—it’s also spreading into more creative dishes. 

Arnold’s hardly alone in finding diners’ craving for chocolate hazelnut nearly insatiable. Ice cream chain Carvel partnered with Ferrero, maker of Nutella, to create a line of chocolate hazelnut ice cream, soft serve and sundaes in 2014. “Our guests went nuts,” Carvel President Scott Colwell said, when announcing that chocolate hazelnut flavors would grace the menu again last year. And last April, Canada-based coffee chain Tim Hortons introduced a chocolate hazelnut donut and stuffed pastry pocket for what was supposed to be a limited time. Yet consumer response was so strong that the additions returned, and in March 2016, Tim Hortons unveiled two new nutty creations: a Nutella-filled butter croissant sprinkled with sugar, and a cookie filled with Nutella and topped with crushed hazelnuts. When its parent company posted strong earnings for the fourth quarter of 2015, executives specifically called out the chocolate hazelnut spread as one of the drivers. 

These spread-filled, poppable pastries are successful in part due to another powerful trend: snacking, says Clare Aigner, a consumer research analyst at Technomic. “Snacking is big now,” she says. “But bite-size portions also allow consumers to try [the spread] without investing too much money, or to share it socially, which is appealing.”

While packing snackable items with chocolate hazelnut spread is a solid method of introducing the flavor, not all consumers are evangelists for the flavor just yet. Monica Rodriguez, founder and co-owner of The Skinny Piggy dessert bar in Chicago, has found that offering free samples is appealing to customers who are intrigued by chocolate hazelnut, but might not be as familiar with the flavor combination. 

Millennial diners seem to be largely driving the chocolate hazelnut mania.

“There are still some people who don’t know what it is because it’s not as common on menus as peanut butter or chocolate,” she says. “But when we give them a taste, it blows their minds.” Two of the bakery’s most popular items are the Nutellanana, a malt milkshake with chocolate hazelnut spread and bananas, and the Everything Nice, a nutmeg cake rolled in cinnamon and sugar, filled with chocolate hazelnut spread and topped with a Rumchata cream cheese frosting. “We have customers in their late twenties and early thirties who come in week after week and ask for those items,” says Rodriguez. 

Indeed, millennial diners seem to be largely driving the chocolate hazelnut mania. “Nutella offers this emotional connection, particularly for millennial diners,” says Technomic’s Napathalung. “It evokes comfort and nostalgia, and that sense of bonding is a huge part of the appeal, from a marketing perspective.” 

For Rodriguez and other food operators like her, the one-two punch of marketing draw and sales driver is encouraging even more creative uses of the popular spread. “We’re always experimenting with new ways to incorporate it,” she says, “because it sells like crazy.”