Saving Room for Dessert

“Would you like fries with that?”

It’s a phrase most Americans have heard more times than they can count—and it’s no doubt resulted in millions of dollars in sales at restaurants across the country. But creative operators are now looking beyond savory add-ons to bundling deals that include dessert. It’s time for QSR and fast casual staff to ask, “Would you like a cookie with that?”

According to Datassential research, desserts are now served in 91 percent of all restaurants and in 84 percent of all quick-service operations. To increase sales, marketers are finding that creative bundling can catch consumers’ attention. In fact, 31 percent of consumers would be more likely to purchase dessert if it were part of a combo meal.

Know Your Customers

“There is definitely a continued move toward menu consolidation with an emphasis on customization,” says Peter Napathalung, senior manager of market insights at Chicago-based market research firm Technomic. However, customers’ appetite for combo meals isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor; it varies by demographic, he says. “Our research shows that the older a customer is, the less likely they are to look for bundles or combo meals.” While 62 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds gravitate toward those meal deals, only 49 percent of consumers 55 and older respond with as much enthusiasm. QSR and fast casual operators should dig into their customer demographic data before doubling down on dessert bundles to ensure they’re offering deals that appeal to their target diner.

Test Before Committing

While bundling can help customers better understand the value of a restaurant’s dessert offerings, the right strategy is rarely straightforward. For cafe and bakery chains like Starbucks and Panera Bread, it’s easy—and lucrative—to bundle cakes, cookies or pies, or offer them as a $1 add-on to beverage or meal purchases. But for chains that focus on build-your-own savory mains and those that haven’t had meal bundling engrained in their brands’ DNA for decades (think McDonald’s), promoting dessert sales can be trickier. That’s where testing comes in: Selling bundles as a limited-time offer before permanently adding them to the menu can help determine what combinations drive the most sales.


Bundling desserts in limited-service restaurants

At Blaze Pizza, a fast casual franchise with locations across the U.S. and Canada, dessert has been a slowly expanding experiment, but one that consumers are responding to positively. 

“The only appliance we have is a pizza oven, so that’s a constraint for us,” says Brad Kent, the brand’s executive chef, of the decision to offer three desserts that hover around $2 each: a s’more pie, a cookie and a  brownie.

“We encourage the sale of a pizza with a salad, a pizza with a drink or a pizza and dessert, and aim to keep that entire meal under $10,” Kent says. Rather than posting set combos on its menus, Blaze positions dessert bundles as a last-minute add-on or promotion, training staff to suggest the combo or offering deals like buy a pizza, get a free dessert. “We haven’t moved into combo meals quite yet, but I’d never rule anything out, especially as we move to expand the menu,” he says.

Play Off Events and Seasonality

Another chain that approaches bundling desserts with mains as an LTO rather than a set menu category is BurgerFi, a franchise based in North Palm Beach, Florida. While the burger chain’s dessert items are typically sold a la carte, certain markets have run seasonal LTOs that bundle a burger and dessert for $10. “It could be a back-to-school offer, for the start of summer or even just a weekend,” says Scott Johnson, BurgerFi’s director of marketing. “The bundles make it easy for a consumer to order dessert with the meal, so we do see a sales increase. It’s a great way to encourage trial of the dessert items.”

Think Beyond the Traditional Meal

Don’t think of desserts as just a way to grab more dollars on top of lunch and dinner purchases. According to Datassential, 28 percent of dessert purchases are stand-alone. “This 28 percent should not be ignored, as fast casual operators may find additional success when positioning desserts as a snack,” says Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager at Datassential. “In fact, just over half of consumers’ last dessert was eaten as a morning, afternoon or late night snack. Operators can look for opportunities to identify specific snacking motivators, like occasions, packaging and even health attributes.”

Convenience store chain 7-Eleven offers snack-focused bundled deals like three mix-and-match grill items for $3 and two packaged bakery snacks for $2.29. Restaurants can adapt and modify this type of strategy with deals on three- or four-packs of cookies for midday snacks, and frozen dessert and French fry combos for late night cravings, for example.

With the right approach to marketing, testing and daypart menu planning, QSRs and fast casuals can see success with dessert bundling.