Chefs, foodservice operators seek to boost revenues by menuing innovative summer desserts. Sponsored by PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese.
As the mercury finally edges upward, chefs and restaurateurs are looking to warm-weather desserts to help bolster flagging check averages.
Many are hoping their summer dessert menus will help to fire up consumers' spending habits, chilled by lingering economic uncertainty and the prolonged bout of unseasonable weather that has extended well into the spring.
However, getting customers to open their wallets a little further at the close of the dining experience takes more creativity than ever before, experts say. “People want more bang for the buck these days,” says Arlene Spiegel, of Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a foodservice consulting firm based in New York. “They want adventures in eating.”
Full-service restaurants had been experiencing a slow decline in dessert sales over the past several years, says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. “But there is some evidence that Americans are returning to desserts.”
According to NPD, dessert purchases peaked in 2006 when 23.4 percent of all full-service restaurant orders included a dessert-like item. Dessert purchases had been on a slow decline until 2012 when 17.9 percent of all full-service restaurant orders included dessert. That figure rose to 18.2 percent in 2013.
The NPD study found that ice cream and other frozen treats account for 5.2 percent of that 18.2 percent total, while cake makes up 3 percent and cheesecake and pie account for 1.6 percent each.
With consumers looking for ways to temper the summer heat, refreshing frozen treats offer restaurateurs a cool way to boost their check average. Spiegel expects the warm weather will see a wider introduction of frozen desserts like ice cream, sorbet, granité and frozen yogurt on restaurant menus. But those items will have to show some imagination, she says.
In fact, chefs increasingly are exploring unexpected flavor combinations when it comes to creating dessert recipes. At Jack's Oyster House in Albany, N.Y., executive chef Larry Schepici is offering guests a trio of imaginative sorbets for the warm weather. The sorbets, which are served in tuile cups made from cookie dough, vary in flavor, and combine sweet and savory ingredients. Selections include blueberry cabernet, strawberry basil, blood orange port wine, passionfruit mint, and raspberry cardamom.
When customers opt for fresh fruit at the end of the meal, Schepici also garnishes the dish with a quenelle of sorbet about the size of a tablespoon.
The 101-year-old Jack's also has introduced another fruit-based selection for the summer season — Wild Berries Jubilee, a variation on the classic cherries jubilee traditionally made tableside. To prepare the dish, fresh blackberries, raspberries and blueberries are flambéed in the kitchen with blackberry- and orange-flavored liqueurs, and then poured over white chocolate gelato that tops a Tahitian vanilla sponge cake. Schepici says the dessert is large enough for two to share. “People love it,” he says.
Christopher Gatto, executive chef and vice president of food and beverage for the 150-unit Uno Chicago Grill casual-dining chain in West Roxbury, Mass., also is offering a twist on a classic fruit dessert for the summer: strawberry shortcake. Gatto tweaks the recipe by using a moist white cake as a base — instead of the more traditional biscuit — and topping it with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. “We've had success with it,” Gatto says. “It's an old-time favorite and people are going back to familiar things.”
The dish also generates a good profit margin, he says, adding, “It's priced well but also offers the guest value.” Desserts at Uno range from about $5.49 to $6.
Miroslav Uskokovic, the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York, also plans to offer a deconstructed variation on the classic strawberry shortcake beginning in June. Uskokovic's blueberry and peach shortcake is prepared with fresh blueberries; peaches that have been pickled in honey, white wine vinegar and peach juice; blueberry and ginger jam; blueberry powder; micro basil; basil ice cream; and candied pecans.
In addition to pickling peaches, Uskokovic says he has experimented with other fruits as well. “Peaches work very well, but you have to be careful because they're so delicate,” he says.
In addition, Uskokovic is recasting a traditional English dessert with his Apricot Trifle. The dish features apricots in multiple iterations — buttermilk and apricot panna cotta, apricot jam, thyme-roasted apricots, and apricot and black pepper granité. The trifle is presented in multiple layers that also include vanilla tapioca pudding, cocoanut pudding curd and cocoanut granola.
Uskokovic says he attempts to change at least one dessert selection each week on Gramercy Tavern's dining room and tavern room menus, which allows him to work with a variety of fruits that are in season. He notes that about 90 percent of diners order dessert.
Susan Wallace, pastry chef at BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant in Washington, D.C., plans to take advantage of seasonal fruit this summer when she offers a peach parfait. Wallace starts by roasting slices of peach with the skin left on with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and vanilla bean until they are tender. The peach slices are then layered in a parfait glass with homemade cinnamon ice cream and bourbon caramel sauce, and topped with toasted pecan brittle and crystalized ginger. She says the dish will be served with deep-fried churros dusted with cinnamon sugar.
Wallace says she enjoys working with fruit when in season, and also is planning to offer strawberry shortcake with local strawberries from Maryland later this summer.
Chefs and restaurateurs also are finding ways to extend the parameters of desserts. Southern-flavored Hill Country Chicken in New York, for example, has attracted attention for its pie milkshake that blends a miniature pie cup of the day with vanilla ice cream and milk until it reaches a drinkable consistency. The shake is priced at $6.25.
HB Burger, a fast-casual burger concept owned by Heartland Brewery in New York, combines dessert with happy hour by offering “Hard Shakes” — a combination of different ice cream and alcoholic beverages. Selections include Strawberry Shot Cake — Irish cream liqueur, Madagascar vanilla, Irish whiskey and strawberry ice cream; Minter's Mark — bourbon, mint chocolate chip and vanilla ice cream; and Nutty Double Chocolate — almond liqueur, Belgian chocolate ice cream and chocolate fudge. The shakes are priced at $9 each.
“You can have your sweets and get a little buzz at the same time,” Spiegel observes.