“Mangia, mangia!” It’s a cry heard from coast to coast in the U.S., as Italian-inspired quick-service and fast-casual restaurants multiply across the country, inspiring consumers to, “Eat, eat!”
Nearly two-thirds of consumers eat Italian at least once a month, according to the National Restaurant Association, and a recent Mintel survey found 37 percent of Americans want more Italian food at fast-casual restaurants.
“Chipotle has done Mexican, and it’s all over the place,” says David Kincheloe, president of the National Restaurant Consultants. “Italian is another potential concept that can be converted to that style.” The consumer demand for Italian cuisine in casual environments is being met by both one-off concepts like Biga in San Diego and chains, like Fazoli’s, a nationwide player with more than 200 locations in 26 states and 32 new locations in the works.
But as the Italian fast-casual space gets crowded, dessert offerings in this category remain relatively limited. At Fazoli’s, for example, the savory menu ranges from create-your-own pasta bowls to a variety of salads. But the dessert menu is decidedly classic: cheesecake, cannoli and cookies. “We are constantly looking at new desserts to satisfy our guests’ sweet tooth,” says Carl Howard, Fazoli’s CEO, but that usually means complementing the classic menu rather than replacing it. More recently, Fazoli’s added a triple chocolate cheesecake.
Low dessert menu growth in the Italian fast-casual space presents an untapped opportunity for innovation, especially given consumers’ increased demand for desserts with authentic ethnic ingredients.
Putting a twist on the usual suspects can pique the interest of diners who may otherwise pass on dessert. Porano Pasta, a new quick-service concept based in St. Louis, offers gelato pops instead of the usual scoop. At Piada, a fast-casual concept specializing in Italian street food with dozens of restaurants across six states, the standard cannoli has been swapped for cannoli chips, rolled Italian cookies lightly tossed in powdered sugar and accompanied by chocolate chip cream cheese dip and gelato pops.
Sometimes the twist can be as subtle as a less expected variation on a classic. Villa Berulia, an independent decades-old Italian-Croatian staple in New York City, does brisk business in both tiramisu and cannoli cake, but there’s a demographic divide between who orders what, says General Manager Stephen Varela.
Younger diners tend to be drawn to the cake precisely because it’s less expected. “They’re more willing to try unique foods,” he says. Attracting millennial diners to the dessert menu isn’t the only reason Varela applauds the cannoli cake: “We make money on that dessert because we can make a whole cake and slice it,” he says.
According to Technomic concept analyst, Lauren Hallow, these fast-casual restaurants have, “developed desserts that give an ode to the standard Italian options, but go beyond what other restaurants are doing.” But in order to maintain their success, she adds, “Fast-casual Italian restaurants should make these desserts their own, but not get too far off the beaten path—they should still be Italian.”
If you’re going to update a classic, a clear and enticing menu listing is key to fueling the confidence diners need to make the leap beyond tiramisu to a less-expected sweet.
If you’re going to update a classic, a clear and enticing menu listing is key to fueling the confidence diners need to make the leap beyond tiramisu to a less-expected sweet, Varela says. However, don’t assume every diner will be a convert. “To be well-rounded, you should have three classics and three unique desserts so you can reach the die-hard Italian fans and the new millennials who want the things they’ve never heard of before,” he says. For example, the dessert menu at Vapiano, an international chain with locations across the U.S., spans both traditional chocolate cake and innovative Cream di Fragola, a dish made with layers of mascarpone, strawberries and cocoa powder.
Highlighting sharable Italian-inspired sweets or diminutive portions can also increase sales. More than one-third of diners are more likely to order dessert if it’s sold in mini portions, according to Technomic. At Salvation Pizza in Austin, an order of cannoli bites—three mini pastries sold for $6—appeals to diners because it’s easier to split than one larger pastry.
Similarly, Mazzio’s, which has 140 restaurants in 10 states, offers shareable cinnamon sticks made of pizza dough basted with cinnamon-sugar butter and dessert pizza. For fast-casual chains looking to strike a profit on the sweet side, getting inventive with sharable Italian desserts may be the answer.