Menu innovation hasn’t traditionally been at the core of Chipotle’s strategy: The build-your-own-meal Mexican food giant has added only two new items to its menu in the past two decades. So when in October 2016, then co-CEO Steve Ells announced that the international chain was testing two dessert concepts, the news made headlines. “We believe that this is a good way to entice infrequent or lapsed customers to return, as well as a way to increase sales,” Ells told analysts on a conference call. Following the test, in spring 2017, the chain announced it was launching buñuelos, fried tortilla strips topped with honey, sugar and cinnamon and served with apple dipping sauce, in select markets.
Chipotle’s hardly alone in adding sweets to its core savory offerings. In November, Blaze Pizza, a California-based fast-casual chain with locations across the U.S., tripled the desserts on its menu, introducing a chocolate chip cookie sprinkled with sea salt and a chocolate brownie brushed with olive oil. Nationwide sandwich and wings chain South Philly Cheesesteaks & Fries created limited-time-offer Oreo churros stuffed with cream last year.
“There’s definitely an opportunity within limited service to capitalize on consumers’ love of desserts,” says Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager with Chicago-based market research firm Datassential. “Our data shows that the great majority of consumers eat dessert at least once in any given week.”
To grab a bigger bite of consumers’ dining dollars with desserts, fast-casual and quick-service restaurants have to price and present them right. “The demand for dessert is there, but cost-conscious diners want inexpensive options, not lavish desserts,” says Josh Anish, director of marketing at Quantifind, a data science company based in Menlo Park, California.
In addition, as the terms “quick service” and “fast casual” suggest, speed matters, and many diners are looking for a no-fuss, no-mess meal. That means consumers are more likely to grab dessert if it’s something they can eat on the run or even in the car, says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group.
“What seems to be resonating most in this space are brownies and cookies,” Riggs says. NPD data shows that brownie sales are up 10 percent from the past year, and cookie sales are up 5 percent. “Smaller portions and little nibbles seem appealing, but a full dessert? Not so much,” says Riggs.
Many fast casuals and QSRs have seen success with bite-size desserts located near the registers. For example, Paradise Bakery & Cafe, with locations in the southwestern U.S., sells carrot cake and fudge brownie bites for less than $2 each. National chain Potbelly Sandwich Shop offers a variety of single-serve cookies, ice cream sandwiches and dream bars, as well as bags of mini oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies for those who want a shareable sweet. “Offering variable portion sizes or mini desserts can capture more sales from those who want to limit their treats without skipping dessert completely,” Rodriguez says.
If a fast casual or QSR is strapped for space and labor, adding dessert to the menu may seem unrealistic. However, there are efficient ways to maximize the kitchen, ingredients and staff to offer innovative desserts without draining resources. For example, Chipotle’s buñuelos use the same equipment and some ingredients already found in the chain’s kitchens, which slashes the need to order and store extra products.
Partially prepared desserts, such as pastry shells or cookie discs, can reduce logistical headaches for operators. Rodriguez points out that topping a ready-made cheesecake with a house-made jam filling or using par-baked chocolate chip cookies as the base for a nostalgic ice cream sandwich is an efficient way to give customers something special without having to bake from scratch. And it means operators won’t have to drastically increase staffing to meet demand.
Just because a dessert is a crowd pleaser in the broader market doesn’t mean it’ll work for every concept. Whatever desserts a restaurant picks, “they need to be in line with the current image and marketing message of the restaurant,” says Kimberly Berardi, culinary consultant for Synergy Restaurant Consultants.
She suggests starting with the restaurant’s current menu: Could a savory format be brought to the sweet side, such as when pizza eateries serve mini dessert pizzas or Mexican restaurants offer cinnamon sugar-dusted tortilla chips? In addition to supporting the restaurant brand, these types of desserts allow kitchens to capitalize on ingredients they already have.
Another option is to take a classic dessert, like a cookie, and give it a brand-aligned twist, such as adding Italian olive oil and rosemary to a lemon cookie. “There are a lot of fun ways to create items that are craveable and customizable, yet simple,” Berardi says.
With the right mix of strategy and time- and space-saving products, fast casuals and QSRs can profitably satisfy consumers’ cravings for convenient desserts.