Crafting a Fast-Casual Dessert Menu

April 15, 2019

Crafting a Fast-Casual Dessert Menu

Made-to-order concepts include elevated snacks, dessert options.

A quality finish

Fast-casual restaurants have built their concepts around both speed and quality, and those attributes apply to their snack and dessert offerings as well. Cookies are a popular option, but as this gallery shows, operators are offering a range of sweet treats that can be enjoyed on-premises or on the go.

Smore Pie

S’more Pie

Blaze Pizza applies its “kissed by fire” theme to the dessert menu with its S’more Pie, made with toasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between two biscuit cookies. Other desserts, also finished in the chain’s high-temperature ovens, include a Sea Salt Cookie and an Olive Oil Brownie.

Ice Cream Sandwich

Potbelly Sandwich Shop offers a variety of cookies as snack or dessert options, along with an Ice Cream Sandwich that includes hand-scooped vanilla ice cream between two freshly baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

Fat Elvis

The Fat Elvis

Twisted Root Burger Co. is known for its fresh custard shakes as much as it is for its half-pound burgers and house-made toppings and condiments. A customer favorite is the Fat Elvis, which features the custard blended with peanut butter and chocolate, a bacon peanut crumble, whipped cream and — the pièce de résistance — a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Courtney Cakes

Courtney’s Cakes

Which Wich Superior Sandwiches conjures a homemade aura for its dessert offerings with Courtney’s Cakes and Courtney’s Cookies, named after the chain’s co-founder, Courtney Sinelli. The cakes come in three varieties — chocolate, carrot and birthday cake.

Brownie Bites

Brownie Bites

Au Bon Pain includes a sweet treat in some of its Bon To Go box meals. Brownie Bites, suitable for eating on the go, provide the finishing touch after a wrap and some pretzel crackers.

The fast-casual dining segment was built around offering fresh, made-to-order menu items featuring high-quality ingredients and speedy service.

Incorporating sweet snacks and dessert items into that unique value proposition requires some careful planning. These items must be suited for eating on the go, while simultaneously reflecting the quality and craftsmanship of the rest of the menu.

Cookies have emerged as one of the signature snacks and dessert items in this segment. They are often described with such terms as “handcrafted” or “fresh baked” to better align with the made-to-order ethos of these operators.

In the fast-casual segment:

  • Cookies appeared on 73.2% of dessert menus in 2018, compared with 35.5% of menus overall, according to Datassential.
  • Cookie penetration on menus has grown 16.2% in the last four years, the research finds, and 86% of consumers say they either “like” or “love” these treats.
  • Brownies, another grab-and-go dessert that can reflect the quality and craftsmanship of the fast-casual segment, also index high. The items appear on 40.8% of fast-casual menus, compared with 24.2% of menus overall, according to the Datassential research.

Chocolate chip leads the pack

The most popular cookie flavors on fast-casual menus, according to Datassential:

  • Chocolate chip (56.2% menu penetration).
  • Oatmeal (30.5%).
  • Chocolate chunk (20%).
  • Sugar cookies (17.1%).

Among the fastest growing cookie flavors across all menus are:

  • Toffee, up 77% in the last four years, with 4.3% penetration on fast-casual menus.
  • Macaron — actually a type of cookie rather than a flavor — up 47% on all menus, with 1.4% penetration in fast casual.

Cookies are also a social media sensation. According to data from Tastewise, a tech start-up that uses artificial intelligence to scan social media, restaurant menus and online recipes, consumers are gaga for cookies with ingredients ranging from chocolate chips to bacon bits.

Tastewise found that mentions of cookies are up 23.1% in the past year on social media, with strong gains in flavors that include:

  • Pumpkin (up 383%).
  • Coffee (up 89%).
  • Lemon (up 78%).

On restaurant menus Tastewise cited cookies as appearing with increasing frequency as part of ice cream sandwiches, in lunch deals or combos and in the form of “skillet cookies.”

Some operators have blended the brownie and cookie trends to create a treat that combines the best of both. Pret A Manger, for example, offers a Chocolate Brownie Cookie it describes as a double-chocolate cookie with chocolate chunks — “Perfect for when you can't decide between a fudge brownie or a chocolate chip cookie,” according to a February SNAP! food profile from Datassential.

“Kissed by fire”

Fast-casual operator Blaze Pizza, which specializes in pies that are made to order in superheated ovens, has built a dessert menu that leverages its unique positioning, says Brad Kent, chef at the Pasadena, Calif.-based chain.

“Everything we do in the restaurant, if it can be 'kissed by fire,' it is,” says Kent. “The desserts are no different.”

The chain’s signature dessert is its S’more Pie, featuring a marshmallow toasted in the oven, sandwiched with chocolate between two biscuit cookies. As an item that many people associate with sitting around a campfire, the S’more Pie ties in naturally to the shareable nature of pizza itself, Kent says.

The other two mainstay dessert options at Blaze are a Sea Salt Cookie and an Olive Oil Brownie, both of which also are toasted in the pizza oven for about a minute before serving.

The sea salt, Kent says, offsets some of the bitterness of the chocolate in the cookie and helps elevate the recipe above what one might expect from a cookie at a quick-service chain.

Similarly, the extra virgin olive oil gives the brownie a quality halo and also lends some fruity flavor notes, he says. In addition, extra virgin olive oil is widely used as an ingredient on Blaze’s pizzas, says Kent, so incorporating it into the brownies helps tie the menu together, especially when the treats are toasted in the oven before serving.

“The brownies are ‘kissed by fire' as well to crisp them up and give them a little more character than you would find straight out of a box,” he says.

Ice creams, milkshakes and custards

Other dessert items that frequently appear on fast-casual menus include ice cream — particularly in the form of ice cream sandwiches — and milkshakes and custards.

“Our custard shakes are homemade every day and are freshly churned with every order,” the company says.

One Twisted Root specialty is called the Fat Elvis, which features the chain’s classic custard blended with peanut butter and chocolate. The chain then adds a bacon peanut crumble to the custard, and tops it with whipped cream and — for an unforgettable finishing touch — a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

The chain injects variety into its custard shake menu with its Shake of the Month offerings, which have included flavors such as Banana Foster and Honey Ricotta.

Snacks and desserts are an important part of any restaurant’s menu. In the fast-casual segment, creative operators are tailoring their treats to meet the demands of their customers and to dovetail with the rest of their chef-driven menus.

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