INSIGHTS

Handheld Desserts Ideal for Consumers on the Go

July 28, 2022

Handheld dessert trends perfect for delivery

Operators innovate with cookies, brownies and other favorites that travel well and drive efficiency

Portable handheld desserts remain among the most popular items on restaurant menus, often providing easy-to-execute solutions that support ongoing demand for takeout and delivery.

These treats can satisfy consumers of all ages in such classic forms as chocolate chip cookies or fudge brownies, or they can be used to drive menu excitement with trending add-ins such as pretzel bits or candy inclusions. Meanwhile, restaurant dessert trends feature varieties of handheld ice cream, desserts and snacks such as whoopie pies and churros are gaining more widespread adoption.

“We still see a lot more off-premises business than before the pandemic,” says Sandra Thum, director of marketing at Native Foods, a chain of vegan fast-casual restaurants with a popular Oatmeal Crème Pie dessert, as well as handheld parfaits and a chocolate chip cookie dessert option. “Guests love to grab a dessert on the go and eat it outside, especially now that we have beautiful summer weather.”

In addition, she says, restaurant dessert trends have gravitated toward individually sized and packaged desserts during the pandemic for sanitary reasons, and have tended to avoid shared treats.

Also helping drive the ongoing popularity of handheld ice cream and desserts among restaurant operators is their ability to provide high-margin sales opportunities, according to Datassential. In fact, restaurant operators report that handheld desserts deliver the highest margins among dessert items, and that cookies are the top performers both in terms of revenue and margins among all dessert types.

Cookies evolve with new flavors, forms

Cookies have become an increasingly popular restaurant dessert trend and as a platform for operators to experiment with new flavors and varieties, from stuffed sandwich cookies like the Oatmeal Crème Pie at Native Foods to deep-fried OREO® A La Mode, which has been featured as a limited-time offer at Sonic Drive-In.

The classic chocolate chip cookie remains an enduring favorite, with by far the most menu penetration of any cookie variety at 52.1%, according to Datassential. Chocolate chip cookies also continue to grow at a rapid pace with an increase of 7.0% in the last year and 13.0% in the last four years. Chocolate chunk, with 11.4% menu penetration, has shown similar gains, with an increase of 8.0% in the last year and 28.0% in the last four years.

Other cookie flavors and descriptors showing strong growth in the past year include:

  • Butter, up 22.0%
  • Gluten-free, up 11.0%
  • Mini, up 10.0%
  • Coconut, up 6.0%
  • Caramel, up 5.0%
  • Sugar, up 5.0%

Operators have also incorporated more savory flavors into their cookie recipes, including salted caramel, sea salt and pretzel.

In addition, Datassential cites the emergence of “next-level warming spices” such as cardamom, coriander, turmeric, mace and black pepper, in cookies. Examples include the Cardamom Butter Cookie at Taste of Scandinavia in Minnesota, the Turmeric Sugar Cookie at Katalina’s Bakery in Connecticut and The Dark Side cookie with black pepper at Nothing Vanilla Cookies in Texas.

Native Foods’ Oatmeal Crème Pie, which has been a top seller and customer favorite for several years, according to Thum, is similar to a whoopie pie, the regional dessert that has been gaining traction around the country. Native Foods’ offering includes whipped vanilla crème between two soft-baked oatmeal cookies. The chain’s dessert menu also includes a chocolate chip cookie and a variety of handheld parfaits.

In fact, the chain’s handheld parfaits have long been popular, Thum says, citing the vegan Peanut Butter Parfait with whipped peanut butter crème, banana bread crumbles and chocolate chips as a menu staple. The chain also incorporates seasonal parfait variations into the menu, such as the sweet and tangy Key Lime Cheesecake Parfait, which launched in July.

Pies, turnovers and more

Handheld dessert pies, similar to turnovers, have long been a staple at quick-service restaurants, from McDonald’s Baked Apple Pie to a variety of fruit flavors offered by competitors from Popeyes to Jollibee.

In fact, the website Mashed.com last year hailed Jollibee’s Peach Mango Pie as one of the best desserts overall in the quick-service segment.

“When it comes to fast-food pies, there’s one pie that clearly deserves the top spot,” the website proclaims. “The Peach Mango Pie from Jollibee isn’t just the best fast-food pie, it’s one of the very best fast-food desserts in all the land.”

Other variations include dessert empanadas, which have appeared on the menus of Taco Cabana and Bahama Breeze, for example. Taco Cabana launched Caramel Apple Empanadas as a handheld dessert option for a limited time in 2020, while Bahama Breeze offers Pineapple Cheesecake Empanadas, filled with caramelized rum-soaked pineapple and cheesecake, dusted with cinnamon sugar and a raspberry and chocolate drizzle.

Brownies are another dessert form that continues to gain popularity as a handheld dessert option on restaurant menus. Fast-growing flavors include Peruvian chocolate (up 84.0% in the past year), cinnamon (up 72.0%), sea-salt (also up 72.0%), and toffee (up 61.0%). Consumers’ dietary concerns are also reflected in the brownie category, with descriptors that include vegan, vegetarian, nut-free and gluten-free also all showing gains on menus.

Among the most popular dessert forms enjoying long-term growth have been handheld items such as churros, which have been the fastest-growing dessert item on restaurant menus, up 43.0% in the last four years. Chocolate croissants, up 37.0%, have not been far behind.

Frozen treats have staying power

While frozen desserts and sundaes can pose challenges when it comes to delivery, they have continued to expand their presence on restaurant menus.

Operators are increasing their use of nostalgic flavors such as birthday cake (up 30.0% in the past year), graham cracker (up 40.0%) and cotton candy (up 43.0%) in their frozen desserts. Meanwhile, more exotic botanical flavors such as hibiscus (up 86.0%) and lavender (up 136.0%) have also seen sharp increases.

In May, Sonic, known for its fun menu innovations, rolled out its new SOUR PATCH KIDS® Slush Float, combining the iconic sweet, sour and chewy SOUR PATCH KIDS candy with SOUR PATCH KIDS Watermelon Flavor Slush and real vanilla ice cream.

“SOUR PATCH KIDS uniquely combines sour and sweet for a satisfying candy experience, and Sonic is taking the fun further by mixing that same flavor experience with two of our summer favorites – slushes and ice cream,” says Mackenzie Gibson, VP of culinary and menu innovation at the drive-in chain.

Offering great taste is the most important consideration for operators seeking to boost their dessert menu with more handheld and dessert-on-a-stick options, says Thum.

Additionally, operators need to ensure that their handheld creations are packaged and assembled so they can be eaten on the go without creating a mess, she says.

“Given the continued popularity of off-premises sales, we need to make sure that our desserts travel well and arrive fresh and tasty wherever our guests want to consume them,” says Thum.

For more ideas about restaurant dessert trends and inspiration to drive excitement and profitable sales in your dessert menu, visit the Mondelēz Foodservice Culinary Center.

Handheld Desserts Deliver Results

Portable handheld desserts, handheld pies, and snacks, which surged in popularity during the takeout-and-delivery-only days of the pandemic, have remained popular among both restaurant operators and their customers.

Operators have found new ways to drive excitement around these restaurant and fine dining dessert ideas through creative promotions and the use of innovative and on-trend ingredient formulations. Following are some examples of handheld desserts, handheld pies, and treats that satisfy consumers and help drive results for operators.

OREO® Cookie Confetti & Crème

OREO® Cookie Confetti & Crème

Cold Stone Creamery is conducting an All Things OREO promotion this summer, which includes the OREO Cookie Confetti & Crème™ creation, made with OREO Crème Ice Cream, OREO Cookies, rainbow sprinkles and fudge (pictured). It is also showcasing the OREO Cookie Goldmine™, featuring OREO Crème Ice Cream, OREO Cookies, Golden OREO Cookies and caramel.

Peach Mango Pie

Jollibee is among several quick-service operators featuring handheld pies or variations such as turnovers or empanadas, as desserts. The Philippines-based chain, which has been expanding in the U.S. and elsewhere, has long been known for its Peach Mango Pie, which was recently named the best quick-service pie item by Mashed.com

Peach Mango Pie
Taco John’s Churro

Taco John’s Churro

Taco John’s recently brought back its Churro, which it promoted as a part of its value menu and suggested as a pairing with cold-brew coffee. The house-fried churro is dusted with cinnamon sugar. Churros are the fastest-growing dessert trend on restaurant menus, according to Datassential.

Dessert-on-a-Stick

Cake might not immediately come to mind as a portable handheld dessert option, but White Castle features handheld versions on its menu in the form of Birthday Cake-on-a-Stick (pictured), which was introduced for the chain’s 100th birthday last year. The chain also featured three other varieties: Gooey Buttercake-on-a-Stick, Fudge Dipped Brownie-on-a-Stick and Fudge Dipped Cheesecake-on-a-Stick. Last year it offered a free Dessert-on-a-Stick for a limited time to anyone who was vaccinated against COVID.

Dessert-on-a-Stick
Sonic’s OREO à la Mode

Sonic’s OREO à la Mode

Deep-fried OREO Cookies have long been a popular treat at state fairs and other events around the country, and have also appeared as handheld treats at restaurants. Sonic Drive-In, for example, has promoted its OREO à la Mode as a limited time offer multiple times. The OREO à la Mode is made with America’s Favorite Cookie®, battered and fried to create a crunchy and dippable treat served with Sonic’s Real Ice Cream.