Restaurant Dessert LTOs Drive Sales by Creating Urgency

March 2, 2022

Crave-able items generate buzz, give operators a food marketing hook

Here today, gone tomorrow: That’s the key to the appeal of limited-time offers in the restaurant industry.

“LTOs are powerful because of the fear of missing out,” says industry consultant Ryan Gromfin, aka The Restaurant Boss.

The fear of missing out, which he abbreviates as “FOMO” in a recent online presentation, can give customers an incentive to visit a restaurant to experience these items sooner rather than later, when the item might no longer be available.

Research from Datassential showed that seasonal restaurant LTOs fell sharply early in the pandemic, but LTO promotional strategies for restaurants had rebounded almost to pre-pandemic levels by last spring. The company’s Insider database tallied 1,035 seasonal restaurant LTOs in the fall of 2019, but only 582 in the spring of 2020. By the spring of 2020, the number had climbed back to 923.

Desserts are among the most popular LTOs across many restaurant segments, according to Datassential’s Scores research. In quickservice restaurants, for example, desserts accounted for about 26.5% of LTOs, last spring, an increase of 4.4% over the prior year. At fast-casual restaurants, desserts accounted for about 20% of LTOs, an increase of 2.9% over 2020, and desserts were the No. 1 LTO at midscale restaurants, with 37% of new LTOs, up 15%.

Restaurant dessert and snack LTO offers should be crave-able in some way, much like their entrée LTO counterparts, Gromfin says. Often these are what he describes as “over-the-top” texture and flavor combinations.

“It should be an item that the restaurant is known for far and wide, and that is unique to them,” he says.

He suggested, for example, a unique combination such as a beignet made with OREO® Cookie Pieces, with a chocolate-caramel drizzle.

“It should be something that people are going to want to order right now, because they can’t get it anywhere else,” Gromfin said.

He cites Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, which the coffee chain has rolled out as a fall seasonal LTO each year for the past two decades, as an example of the power of LTOs. Like any good LTO, the item starts generating word-of-mouth buzz before it appears, and then continues to give the chain a marketing hook throughout the season.

“If Starbucks put the Pumpkin Spice Latte on the menu all year long, it would sell all year long, no question about it,” says Gromfin. “But each time it comes back, or when it is about to go away, that gives Starbucks something to talk about, to advertise, to email, to run on Facebook, to put pictures on Instagram.”

Although dessert LTOs can be a great way for operators to test new items, Gromfin suggests that operators resist the urge to move successful LTOs onto their permanent menus. Part of the reason why these LTO food promotional strategies are successful lies in the urgency they create among consumers, which evaporates if the item is available any time.

Working with Brands on LTOs

Baskin-Robbins is always seeking new flavor combinations that grab consumers’ attention to create its LTOs, and often incorporates well-known brands into its new ice cream flavors.

“With every new ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, we’re looking for flavor combinations that are bolder and more delicious,” says a spokesperson for the ice cream chain. “This means combining familiar ingredients to create crave-worthy flavors with just enough of a twist to delight existing customers and excite new.”

One of Baskin-Robbins’ newest LTOs, launched in March, features Golden OREO® Cookie Pieces in a new flavor combination.

“There is no denying it—our customers love OREO,” the spokesperson says. “We’ve worked with OREO on a number of limited-time scoops, sundaes and cakes in the past—and they always become fan favorites.”

The last time Baskin-Robbins featured Golden OREO cookies as an ingredient was in 2015, but this year the chain wanted to bring Golden OREO back in a new specialty scoop.

Baskin-Robbins believes the success of its collaborations with OREO lies in the balance of the ingredients.

“The pairing of crisp and buttery vanilla Golden OREO cookies, and a crunchy graham cookie ribbon against a blend of Baskin-Robbins’ cool and velvety Irish Cream and Belgian chocolate flavored ice creams is simply an unmatched pairing,” the spokesperson says. “It is both a bold and recognizable pairing, and gives our customers a reason to celebrate every day of March as if it was St. Patrick’s Day!”

Likewise, Sonic Drive-In recently brought back its Double Stuf OREO Waffle Cone and Blast as limited time offers through March 27.

The Double Stuf OREO Waffle Cone features a waffle cone made of chocolate OREO Cookies and layered with sweet OREO Crème, filled with ice cream and topped with another layer of sweet OREO Crème and OREO Cookie pieces. The Double Stuf OREO Blast is a “spoonable” dessert featuring ice cream blended with sweet OREO Crème and OREO Cookie pieces, topped with more OREO Cookie pieces.

“In capturing the delightful taste of OREO Cookies, our culinary team wanted to ensure every aspect of the iconic cookie was infused into the Double Stuf OREO Waffle Cone and Blast treats,” says Scott Uehlein, executive chef at Sonic.

Incorporating brand names such as OREO into LTO dessert offers is a great way to drive sales, says Gromfin.

“Brands are brands for a reason — people know them, they like them, they are comfortable with them, they trust them,” he says, adding that it’s important for operators to give the brand the proper credit on the menu.

“If you are going to leverage a brand, which you should, make sure you are leveraging that brand ethically,” says Gromfin.

For more menu inspiration to create restaurant dessert LTOs that generate buzz and drive sales at your restaurant, visit the Mondelēz International Foodservice Culinary Center

LTOs Return for Repeat Performances

Part of the appeal of LTOs for operators is that they build demand among fans before the products are even launched. These food and dessert offers can often start to generate buzz weeks before they launch, and operators can leverage that limited time buzz through restaurant promotions, advertising, social media, and other marketing vehicles throughout the offer.

TGI Fridays: OREO Madness Fully Loaded

The casual dining chain has brought this dessert back after eight years due to popular demand. This limited time restaurant dessert offer features house-made giant OREO cookies stuffed with Cookies & Cream ice cream, coated in sprinkles, chocolate sauce and fresh strawberries. It is part of the operator’s “Remixed & Remastered” throwback menu of revamped customer favorites that also include two other crave-able items: Sizzling Cheesy Mac & Cheese Bites and the Ultimate Cheesy Bacon Cheeseburger.

Mod Pizza Squad Cake

LTO dessert offers can also serve as fundraisers to support a cause, as Mod Pizza demonstrated with last year’s colorful Squad Cake to raise money for workers in times of crisis through its employee relief fund. This “cake for good” is a cola-flavored yellow cake filled with cherry cream filling, covered in a bright pink coating and finished with sugared sprinkles.

Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburger Pumpkin Pie Concrete

Pumpkin beverage LTOs have become ubiquitous, but every chain seeks to put their own unique twist on them. Freddy’s Pumpkin Pie Concrete, which appears on the chain’s menu each fall, is made with fresh vanilla frozen custard that is blended with a whole slice of pumpkin pie, crust included, then topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with cinnamon.

McDonald’s OREO Shamrock McFlurry and Shamrock Shake

These popular limited time restaurant dessert offers create buzz not only because of their taste, but also their unique color and texture to help customers celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The OREO Shamrock McFlurry, first launched in 2020, includes vanilla soft serve, minty “shamrock flavor,” and OREO Cookie pieces. The Shamrock Shake includes vanilla soft-serve with shamrock flavor and garnished with whipped topping.

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