Yogurt swirled with fruit continues to be a hit with dessert eaters, but new flavors such as tart, Korean-style frozen yogurt or an array of fresh, chopped ingredients add something new to traditional yogurt.

What is a remedy for rising prices and life’s everyday stresses? Sugar. Desserts connect the diner’s best intentions at the table with the “I deserve it” mindset. Diners remain committed to desserts, according to Technomic research. Of the1,500 consumers polled for Technomic’s recent survey, 85% said they eat dessert at least once a month, and well over half (57%) said they eat dessert at least once a week. No respondents said they never eat dessert. The survey also found that, although consumers still enjoy traditional desserts, such as chocolate chip cookies and apple pie, many are exploring new dessert options such as cheese samplers, fruit plates and parfaits.

Chefs respond to consumer demands for “what’s hot,” “what’s new” and “what’s next,” yet diners also want the familiar with a twist. Classics sell (such as variations on chocolate). So does surprise (for example, peach shortcake with bacon bits or chocolate-covered cornflakes as a garnish for fresh strawberries). Healthy choices matter. The popularity of tart, fat-free frozen yogurt has evolved into its own café society. Marketing what is fresh and seasonal in limited-time specials whets consumers’ appetites. So does a menu that pinpoints value deals or healthy choices. Waitstaff who know when to offer desserts “to take home” raise check averages.   

A forecast of trends shows the rising popularity of:
*  Mini-dessert samplers.
* Items with sweet/salty taste pairings.
* Desserts containing a “surprise” ingredient, such as berries with ground pepper or thyme-laced chocolate cake.
* The cool comforts of dairy (from swirls of tart, frozen yogurt with fresh berries to premium ice creams dripping with caramel sauce and a dusting of sea salt).
* Seasonal, limited-time offerings such as sweet corn ice cream, rhubarb cobbler in late summer, pumpkin flan with candied ginger in October and eggnog cheesecake in December.
* Value bundles (appetizer, main dish and dessert for a fixed price).

Big Bang, Small Bites

The fun of many small tastes on a plate continues to snag diners. The mini-desserts first seen in the fine-dining sector have found their way into mainstream restaurants. At Minnie’s in Chicago, mini-sized chocolate chip cookies arrive in a bowl with ice cream. In addition to mini-savory sandwiches for teatime, Minnie’s offers chocolate mini-croissants.

Some Other Recent Examples:
* Ultimate Dark Chocolate Cupcake Duo, T.G.I.  Friday’s.
* Sweet Shots Cheesecake--three flavors of cheesecake (chocolate, strawberry, Dutch apple), Chili’s.
* Trio ofCrème Brûlées, Wolfgang Puck Café.
* Cheesecake Poppers--bite-size pieces of New York-style cheesecake coated with a graham-cracker-crumb breading and served with raspberry dipping sauce, Arby’s.
* Cheesecake Bites--limited-time offer, Sonic Drive-Ins.
* Array of Mini-desserts--S’mores,Tres LechesLemon Dream, Banana Split and Carrot Cake, priced at $2 each, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.   
* Mini-dessert Sampler--tastes such as chocolate cake, Key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake, tiramisu, carrot cake and exotic fruit cup, Pickle Barrel.
* Creamy Indulgence Sweet Temptations--cheesecake with raspberry coulis; coconutpanna cottawith passion fruit drizzle; and chocolate-passion fruit mousse with pecan-olive brittle, The Wave, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Orlando.
* Decadent Flavors Sweet Temptations--blueberry compote with yogurt gelato; lemon cornbread with vanillapanna cotta; and chocolate mousse with salted caramel sauce, The Wave, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Orlando.
* Dessert Samplers--including pecan pie with vanilla bean mousse, red velvet cake and Key lime pie, Seasons 52 (Darden Restaurants).

Customers are squeezing their wallets more tightly these days, so operators are finding new ways to tempt them into adding dessert to their meals. Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar reintroduced its 3-Course Classics (appetizer, main and dessert) for a limited time. It includes a trio of Sweet Shooters and is priced under $10. Restaurant 15 in Los Angeles offers aprix-fixe, three-course menu from bistro favorites for under $20. Sweet choices include rosewater-scentedcrème brûlée, chocolate croissant bread pudding with caramel sauce and a trio of sorbets.

Sunday brunch at Shaw’s Crab House, Chicago, features a dessert station. Kids eat for under $20; parents for under $30. A dessert-station sundae bar is incorporated into the revamped design for Chick-fil-A; dessert also features smoothies and floats.

Global Tastes

The demographics of the ever-changing American population are reflected on dessert menus. Asian, Latin, Italian and Hispanic influences manifest themselves in such items as tapioca-enriched, fruit-based drinks from Thailand and China, doubling as dessert in noodle chains such as Joy Yee’s Noodle Kitchen in Evanston, Ill. A nod to French sorbets comes on the menu of Arizona-based, quick-service chain Made in Japan Teriyaki Experience, which offers all-natural fruit ices in strawberry and mango flavors.   

Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean inspire creative flavor pairings. Chef Douglas Rodriguez, of Delarosa in Chicago, dreams up desserts, such as a chocolate flan with roasted pears and cardamom. His take on Hispanicchurrosis served withcafé con lecheand espresso ice cubes. Another variation includes sweet corn ice cream tags with chocolate mousse cake and tequila cream.

At a more down-to-earth level, the Apple Chimicheesecake-cheesecake rolled in a tortilla and deep-fried--at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, takes off on Mexico’s fried dough snack, thechimichanga. It has a Granny Smith apple filling and is scented with cinnamon sugar. Latin-style popsicles in flavors such as mango, sweet corn andjicama/orange are featured at Frontera Fresco, a quick-service concept in Chicago and San Francisco created by Frontera Grill chef Rick Bayless. Taco Bueno ramps up ethnic dessert choices with Cinnamon AppleMuchacos--warm apple filling stuffed into toasted pita bread and dusted with cinnamon sugar.   

Traditional Asian snack foods are reinvented as new desserts. Dessert egg rolls at P.F. Chang’s, oozing fruit, cream and chocolate fillings, offer a salute to the classic Chinese appetizer. At Tao Asian Bistro in New York and Las Vegas, fortune cookies gush with white and dark chocolate mousse. Wonton strips replace puff pastry in the Bamboo Room’s strawberry Napoleon.

Pizza gets a second life on the dessert menu at Old Chicago Restaurants, where cinnamon-scented and sweetened Granny Smith apples are spread over pizzini dough to create the “Applezini.” Mazzio’s Italian Eatery bridges sweet and savory with a nine-inch dessert pizza; texture and crunch in the crust comes from crushed Oreo cookies. Flatbread doubles for pizza and dippers for chocolate fondue at Urban Flats Flatbread Co. Miami-based Franktitude offers sweet paninis. ItsDulce de Lechefeatures a banana drizzled with creamy caramel sauce; Nutella, another staple, is used as spread for the strawberry panini.     

Salt and Pepper, Sugar and Spice

Salty anything provides a wake-up note on dessert menus--salted pecans complement hot fudge sauce; grains of sea salt frame flavors in chocolate ganache or frosting on brownies. The passion fruit mousse on the dessert sampler at Disney’s Wave in Orlando comes with salted pecans. Bacon leaps out of its morning role as flavoring in ice cream with peach shortcake at Chicago’s Blackbird. Maple ice cream rides shotgun with peach cornbread and a sprinkle of bacon bits surprises the tongue at Le Pigeon in Portland.      

More unlikely marriages: stout cuts the richness incrème brûléeat Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, and thyme teams with candied orange blossoms and orange purée in the soy ice cream sandwich at The Dining Room of Kendall College, Chicago.

Cool Comforts

The hottest trend in cool desserts, upscale frozen yogurt cafés, such as Pinkberry, Red Mango and Chicago’s new FreshBerry, beg customers to linger with expanded menus and hours, along with artwork that includes eye-catching photos of swirled yogurt with fruit. These chains learned from Starbucks how to turn a 15-minute snack break into a pleasant “third place” stop for surfing the Internet. These yogurt cafes offer padded chairs/sofas, soft lighting, designer color schemes and an atmosphere where conversation is not challenged. Fresh positioning includes tart, Korean-style frozen yogurt and an array of fresh, chopped ingredients (among them mango, strawberry, kiwi, orange, banana, walnuts, coconut, chocolate shavings) from which customers can choose toppings. Just in case the customer wants it, nutrition information is available in leaflets and information cards at the counter. Red Mango’s marketing materials reinforce the mindset of “healthy,” with calorie counts and lists of active cultures in the fat-free yogurt.

Tart, frozen yogurt is now being introduced at broader-menu concepts, too. So bullish is Leeann Chin on frozen yogurt desserts that the chain forecasts its new Red Cherry frozen yogurt dessert will account for 40% of total sales in its new flagship unit in Minneapolis. There is even a dedicated dessert counter, a first for the chain.   

Everything Old Is New Again

Remember Hostess Twinkies, moon pies, lollipops and cherry Pop Tarts? Variations explode as new generations taste these classics with a twist:
* Vanilla-flavored buttercream subs for marshmallow in an updated version of Twinkies at Kim’s Kitchen in Evanston, Ill.
* Houlihan’s limited-time Chef’s Specials menu includes a root beer float with chunk chocolate chip cookies.

More upscale classic desserts are also getting new interpretations:
* Wood Ranch Barbecue & Grill offers signature chocolate desserts such as the Warm Chocolate Experience--a flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and candied pecans.
* Tiramisu is a classic, but Romano’s Macaroni Grill introduces intrigue with fruits in its Three-Berry Tiramisu.
* At Village Inn, milk shakes get company with PieScreams--milkshakes with ice cream and various mix-ins plus a half-slice of pie.

Desserts by the Calendar

With growing interest in fresh, seasonal and local fare, chefs are watching the fruit harvests and restaurants are increasingly menuing seasonal specials and LTOs.

At Wood Ranch BBQ and Grill locations in California, cobblers rotate depending on the harvests of peaches, strawberries or apples. Traditional toppings, such as cinnamon sugar, are often mixed with nuts, coconut or oats.

Limited-time offerings at Sweet Tomatoes include its Strawberry Fields menu in May. The June menu salutes cherry desserts. Even the fruit-challenged winter months get their due; Mardi Gras is celebrated in February with Praline Muffins.   

Indulging in Profit Opportunities

Desserts spell fun and reward. Dessert is the customer’s final impression of a restaurant meal and has a great deal to do with the sense of pleasure that the customer takes away from the establishment after the check is paid. For operators dealing with cautious, price-resistant consumers, desserts can present an important profit opportunity--but only if they offer patrons something new and exciting along with quality and value.

This category begs for innovation and new twists on familiar tastes. Ethnic and regional flavors are starting points for innovation and play. Mini-portions give consumers the opportunity to continue to experience the joys of dessert, even if they are watching calories or pennies (or both). Fat-free no longer means taste-free, so even health-conscious consumers can be afforded more opportunities to enjoy sweets. Desserts focused on the calendar and rare, seasonal fruits give customers a sense of urgency and intrigue--they get the message that they must hurry in for the dessert today, since it may well be gone tomorrow!

For more information about foodservice dessert trends and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.