Feature: Sweet dreams

An irresistible dessert menu is a great way to encourage guests to stick around a little longer and satisfy their cravings

The days of dessert being considered an afterthought of the out-of-home experience are long gone. Not only are third-course offerings across the UK restaurant scene expansive and rich with innovation, they’re also colourful, inclusive and brimming
with potential.

A recent YouGov survey asked the British public: ‘On average, how often do you eat a sweet treat of some form (eg a chocolate bar, bag of sweets, a piece of cake or muffin)?’ As of 29 March 2023, some 38% of adult respondents answered once a day, 35% said once or twice a week and an impressive 11% claimed to satisfy sugary hankerings several times a day. You know what that means? That we have ourselves a nation of sweet-toothed consumers – and the most successful operators are those who succeed in giving the people what they want!

Damn right delicious desserts

TOZI Grand Café is a restaurant and bar at London’s art’otel, located next to Battersea Power Station – one of the city’s up-and-coming foodie hubs. Owned and operated by PPHE Hotel Group, the Italian concept offers all-day dining, with a menu including breakfast, afternoon tea and everything in between. Dessert, or ‘dolci’ as it’s known here, offers the sticky and ooey-gooey comfort for which Italian puds are known, featuring Pistachio Frangipane with Strawberries, Whipped Ricotta and Chocolate Cannoli and, of course, Tiramisu. For Jamie Kerr, vice president of restaurants and bars across the PPHE Group, simple names and succinct descriptions are key to boosting TOZI’s pudding sales. “The top-selling desserts are always the ones that use ingredients people are familiar with,” he explains. “In our experience, people are less likely to order a dessert if they’re unaware of the ingredients.”

Perhaps the love for traditional tastes can, at least in part, be owed to our affection for nostalgia. Consumers naturally warm to foods that remind them of happy childhood memories. As Rebecca Calveley, trade marketing manager for La Lorraine Bakery Group (LLBG), explains: “Following Covid-19, people want comfort food, which explains why family favourite flavours including chocolate, peanut butter, apple and caramel are all making a comeback, as well as classic dessert flavours including carrot cake and banoffee pie.”

So, traditional flavours and pairings are a safe bet in terms of consistently hitting the mark with guests, but that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to let loose, have fun and offer a new take on the classics. As Barny MacAdam, taste creator at Santa Maria, suggests: “Operators should look at simple ways to put a twist on a dessert that gives the consumer the indulgence they’re after, but also allows them to charge a bit extra without being complicated to execute.”

This is something Heavenly Desserts – a restaurant chain dedicated to the joyful things in life: pudding and cocktails – has nailed. On top of familiar favourites such as waffles, chocolate pots and cookie dough, the menu also showcases an extensive range of more ‘out there’ creations, such as the ‘croffle’ (part croissant, part waffle), Mexican-inspired milk cakes and the exclusive dessert tapas.

“The key for us at Heavenly Desserts is giving our customers flavour profiles that tap into current trends so we can harness the very best taste and worldwide flavours around,” says Yousif Aslam, the group’s managing director. “We use everything from signature saffron, pistachio and rose, to moreish Lotus Biscoff and Nutella ingredients that remain recognisable to customers.”

Both operators recognise the impact and influence of the growing plant-based movement, striving to provide a high-quality sweet treat offering that can provide something yummy for everyone.

“In terms of dietary requirements, it’s something our chefs focus on when creating dessert menus,” says Kerr. “We should always have vegan, gluten- and dairy-free options on the menus. And if we don’t have a dessert that specifically caters for this, we ensure we can remove certain allergens should the request be made.”

The desire to ensure the menu was inclusive inspired the Heavenly Desserts team to create the tapas offering – something they noticed was trending among diners. Guests can tuck into three dishes for £12 or five for £18, with options including a Duo of Macarons, Caramel S’Mores Mini Tarts and Lemon and Passionfruit Cream Shots.

“This really hit the sweet spot when it comes to adapting to our customers’ needs,” adds Aslam. “Additionally, we have expanded our gluten-free offering and especially focused on bringing in a vegan-only menu in July to cater for the heightened percentage of flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets now desired by customers.”

With all dietary preferences and requirements well catered for, you can really start to think about how to make your menu pop. A relatively easy way to tick this box is to design new seasonal dishes. Adapting your offering in line with scrummy produce is a great way to keep things feeling fresh.

“Summer is the perfect time to serve light desserts such as meringue roulades,” says Gordon Lauder, managing director of frozen food distributor Central Foods. “Available in lots of delicious flavours, roulades are super versatile – they are ideal as a dessert, a perfect pairing with a mid-morning hot drink or can be included as a sweet treat during afternoon tea. Serve with a smattering of fruit to enhance the dish.”

Traditional apple pie is always a winner when it comes to pud, regardless of the season. “It works well hot or cold and can be served with a range of toppings including custard, ice cream and cream,” chimes Lauder. “When it comes to dessert menus, apple pie is a must!”

But you know, there’s no point going to all this effort if your display and marketing activity is below par. It’s a crowded and competitive market, so you don’t want to give guests any excuse to take their custom elsewhere. To achieve this, Emma Holden, head of marketing at Country Range Group, advises: “Display your desserts so consumers can see them clearly and make sure staff are knowledgeable on new arrivals so they can talk confidently to customers about them. Offer specials, mix up the selection and utilise social media to shout about your dishes and create a buzz – you never know, you could become the next online sensation!”

So, you’ve got things cracked in venue, but embracing delivery (more on this on p.38) is a surefire way to boost brand reach, and potentially sales, further. Plenty of dessert products – the humble apple pie, for example – can be easily pre-portioned for convenience, transporting well so they still look and taste divine when they arrive at your customer’s door. For the team at Heavenly Desserts, as well as other franchise models across the restaurant sector, takeaway and delivery are fundamental to overall business success.

“For us, we offer Deliveroo, JustEat and UberEats, which helps us to stay relevant with customers at all times,” says Aslam. “Following on from the pandemic and several lockdowns, we realised that while cooking at home became more of an occasion, eating out was not an option, so to be able to treat yourself to a little luxury and create the ‘night in’ setting with something a little special was super important to maintaining revenue during more difficult times, but now we see it as an additional revenue driver to our main offering.”

Shimmy-shimmy shakes

Milkshakes have become a big deal here in the UK. The colossal growth of the plant-based and dairy alternative market means shakes can now be enjoyed by all, and the fact they’re so darn easy to make and customise means they’re a winner among guests and restaurant staff alike.

Time to get freaky (Image: LLBG)

“Freak shakes are a key trend to look out for this year within restaurants this year,” says Niki Jenman, director of New Forest Ice Cream.  “They are the perfect combination of both drink and dessert and are made even more delicious by using the finest ingredients to create a creamy consistency that’s packed to the brim with flavour.”

Both shakes and smoothies can be easily dressed up with eye-catching toppings that can level up the serve. A show-stopping shake is bound to turn heads every time it’s brought to the table, hopefully inspiring other customers to dive in and order the same. And you know, seasonal variations can work really well in this menu section, too. As Marie-Emmanuelle Chessé, international development project manager at Tipiak, observes: “Summer is a key time for shakes in pretty pastel colours. Think pinks, creams, apricots and yellows. Toppings such as macarons are a great way to ‘pimp up’ your offering and, as they’re available in a variety of colours and flavours, you’re sure to find the perfect macaron to match.”

Chessé’s top tip is to opt for thaw-and-serve macarons, so you always have a stash of stand-out decorations in your freezer ready to go.

Ice cream solves everything

Ice cream is the unsung hero of the restaurant dessert menu. As the perfect pudding accompaniment and a verified hero dish on its own, no meal is complete without at least a scoop to round things off.

“Ice cream can be used in a multitude of ways to create a delicious and quick dessert which can appeal to different ages and customers,” adds Jenman. “For example, an ice cream sundae is a surefire way to serve up a visually appealing sweet treat, while for those who want to keep it simple, a few scoops of the customer’s desired flavours can be a great way to upsell. Even traditional desserts can be made more enticing by a scoop of classic vanilla or a tangy sorbet to grab a guest’s interest.”

Ice cream is integral to the Heavenly Desserts dining experience. Keen to cement its reputation as a dessert innovator, the brand wanted to go further than the classic vanilla gelato accompaniment, with flavours including strawberries and cream, Stracciatella and Caribbean coconut, as well as vegan mango and passionfruit sorbets. “By never sitting still and ensuring our desserts appeal to modern audiences, we’ve carved a path as a trendsetter in the dessert dining space,” says Aslam. “We also focus heavily on the experience, and this means creating beautiful and social media-worthy spaces that people want to share and enjoy with others.”

The good thing is that you make the rules when it comes to your venue’s desserts. With a mix of traditional and more creative options, as well as puds that cater to the full scope of dietary requirements, you’re off to a flying start. Just keep in mind that this is often the last stop on your guest’s culinary adventure in your restaurant – so give them something they’ll want to shout about and come back to try again!

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