In the frozen dessert category, there remains room for new, regional ice cream and frozen yogurt concepts that put forward good nutritional values, unusual ingredients and a modern, contemporary prototype. PHOTO COURTESY OF

The end of the summer season is always the perfect time to revisit the dessert category and especially frozen desserts. While ice cream may initially come to mind when one thinks of frozen desserts, the restaurant industry’s ever-increasing interest in all things healthy means that more dessert operators today are shifting their focus from rich ice cream offerings to more nutritious fare—like frozen yogurt and fresh fruit toppings.

Many emerging chains including Desert Swirl, Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt, Meadows Original Frozen Custard and Pinkberry are promoting healthier menus along with customization of ingredients. While each chain differs from the others in menu selection and concept positioning, all are promoting a fresh, proprietary product in an interactive environment. Whether the signature offering is frozen yogurt, ice cream or custard, the chains encourage customers to create their own personalized dessert through choice of flavors and toppings.

At Desert Swirl, for example, frozen yogurt is presented as a health food, but the chain also offers dozens of gourmet ice cream flavors. Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt specializes in frozen yogurt with the flavor and texture of premium ice cream—but without all the calories, sugar and fat. Meadows Original Frozen Custard has been a family favorite in Pennsylvania for half a century.

On the other hand, Pinkberry, after just two years in operation, is rapidly exploding in both Los Angeles and New York City with a simple yet unique frozen yogurt formula. The limited-service frozen yogurt concept (based in Los Angeles, with more than 20 stores in operation) has garnered an almost cult-like following of yogurt lovers—including celebrities—while at the same time spawning a number of imitators in Los Angeles. Now the chain is winning over a whole new crop of devoted fans in New York City, where it recently launched its fourth successful unit. The menu features frozen yogurt, smoothies and shaved ice.

Opportunities in Seasonal Specialties

This year, consumers stopping by their local chain restaurants for special holiday treats will most likely be perusing the dessert menu. During October, pumpkin-flavored items are the main theme of Limited Time Offerings (LTOs) appearing on menus—for example, Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie at Cold Stone Creamery.

In November and December, as the winter holidays approach, desserts become a more important category of LTOs, helping customers get into the spirit of the season and building excitement during this busy time of year. Desserts based on simple flavor modifications to existing menu items can be easier to produce than new, seasonal appetizers or entrées. It looks as if chains’ holiday dessert LTOs are a seasonal tradition in the making. This year, limited-service restaurants will account for 54% of the seasonal dessert LTOs.

Many are extending the trend of using additional flavors and ingredients in appetizers and entrées into desserts. In the past, desserts at limited-service restaurants (LSRs) consisted mostly of milk shakes and ice cream. More recently, LSRs have taken the initiative of adding greater variety to dessert menus and enhancing old favorites. Moving beyond the milkshakes and sundaes typically menued, Sonic added a Jr. Banana Split to its menu, and Burger King recently introduced Dulce de Leche cheesecake.

Full-service restaurants (FSRs) have always had a variety of desserts, but they are now increasing flavors and mixing up ingredients to further strengthen their dessert menus. Restaurants such as Friendly’s, Eat ‘n Park and Cheesecake Factory have had a strong dessert focus in the past but are further enhancing it with new items that make use of branded candies such as the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. Other FSRs are using dessert menus to create value for customers with numerous three-course combos promoted. Some, such as Carrows, are also getting into the act with special holiday items like a Peppermint Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae. Other trends seen in the dessert aisle:
  • In the mix. Desserts play a vital role at innovative operators. PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans, a Raving Brands concept, hits all three dayparts with coffee, pastries and desserts, as well as domestic and imported wine and tapas; this is beyond what one would anticipate from a coffee shop.
  • Incorporating ice into desserts. A range of offerings are available to operators, from smoothies to sorbettos. Gelato is a traditional Italian dessert prepared with milk, sugar and nut, fruit or chocolate flavor, while sorbetto is made with water and fruit. Chicago’s Caffé RoM’s gelato and sorbetto are imported from Italy, and are prepared with fresh fruit and other high-quality ingredients. Italian gelato highlights include hazelnut, chocolate, pistachio, and French vanilla. Sorbettos include mango, limone, passion fruit and peach. Other iced treats include smoothies in banana, strawberry, caffe, caramel, mixed berry, mocha and orange flavors.
  • Limited service does not mean limited flavor opportunities. Eat’n Park debuted new strawberry desserts this year, including MerryBerry Strawberry Shortcake, a made-from-scratch strawberry pound cake topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries, strawberry syrup and whipped cream. The MerryBerry Strawberry Dream Cake consists of ribbons of strawberry and amaretto cream surrounded by almond spice cake.

    Regardless of the segment, dessert often remains an overlooked opportunity for operators year-round. LSRs can use new desserts to build add-on options to combo meals and increase check averages. For those LSRs looking to strengthen their dinner business, dessert represents a meal part that should not be ignored. FSRs can use dessert innovation to increase the likelihood of bundled menus or increase check averages with their desserts, which have an average price of $6.01, according to Technomic’s Digital Resource Library.

    As with any menu enhancement, there are a few operational and financial issues to consider. LSR customers typically have time constraints and might not be interested in adding an extra item to their meals. LSRs also give customers all their food at the beginning of the meal, so it is important to find a way to offer desserts as an add-on but not deliver them until after the entrée. FSRs have to watch out for lowering check averages with too many bundles and make sure that any desserts added fit into their positioning. By addressing these issues first, operators will be better able to decide how dessert options can contribute to their ongoing success.

    Operator Profile: Pinkberry

    Pinkberry, created by owner Hyekyung “Shelly” Hwang, debuted its first location in the West Hollywood section of Los Angeles in January 2005, opening to immediate success and spawning rapid growth. There are 17 stores in Los Angeles, as well as locations in Manhattan, where a fourth unit opened this spring. Pinkberry plans to launch 30 new units in New York City by the end of 2008.

    Despite the industry buzz, the continued success of concepts like Pinkberry remains to be seen. The frozen yogurt craze, which began in the 1980s and hit its peak in the 1990s, may not be sustainable long-term. Yet there are signs of a resurgence. South Korea-based Red Mango is betting on a new consumer trend—the 140-unit frozen yogurt giant made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles, and four additional locations were planned for California and Washington state this summer.

    Although leading frozen dessert chains like Dairy Queen, Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery have long dominated nationwide markets, there remains room for new, regional ice cream and frozen yogurt concepts that put forward good nutritional values, unusual ingredients and a modern, contemporary prototype. However, while the positioning of concept and menu may initially attract customers, the taste, texture and satisfying flavor of the dessert is what will ensure the chains’ success.

    Dessert chains appear to be following the example of chain operators in other categories. By broadening their menu focus to include healthier alternatives, original recipes and high-quality, branded ingredients, frozen dessert operators can stay on trend and promote variation, fresh flavors and perceived health benefits. 

    By the Technomic Information Services Editorial Staff. For more information about foodservice dessert trends and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.