Just desserts: sugar and spice and everything guilty has desserts still capturing patrons’ palates

Just desserts: sugar and spice and everything guilty has desserts still capturing patrons’ palates – restaurant marketing

Bill Carlino

JUST DESSERTS

Sugar and spice and everything guilty has desserts still capturing patrons’ palates

Despite increased consumer concerns over high-calorie menu offerings, operators of both upscale and casual-style restaurants are reporting that dessert sales are as sweet as ever — from exotic creations flamed at tableside to a basic apple pie a la mode.

“Dessert captures the whole dining experience,” says Jim Dodge, a former executive pastry chef at both the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco and the Grand Hotel at Mackinaw Island in Michigan. “It represents a customer reward or celebration for a good meal.”

And though the food cost associated with these ambrosial meal complements may run as high as 40 percent, restaurateurs now command as much as $10 for complex works of culinary perfection, hiking check averages as much as 25 percent.

“I’ve never had one customer point to a particular dessert and ask, `How many are in this?'” says Nancy Silverton, owner of the 140-seat Campanile in Los Angeles. “Others may order a fresh fruit cup, but they’ll top it with whipped cream.”

Silverton, who also operates a retail bakery, estimates that desserts account for just over 10 percent of total sales at Campanile.

Offering 12 daily selections at a fixed price of $7, some marquee desserts at Campanile include ricotta cheesecake with dried blueberries and pine nuts, individual peach pie filled with a compote of fresh peaches and a pear tart with a light custard sauce.

“Some people might be a little more selective now, but dessert consumption hasn’t changed that much since I was a chef’s apprentice in 1936,” states Albert Kumin, the veteran executive chef at the International Pastry Arts Center in Elmsford, N.Y. Kumin is also a former pastry chef at the White House and an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America.

“There may be more of a selection of lighter items than years ago, but the dinner who goes out once a week will usually order dessert in some form,” he adds.

Mary Beth Liccioni, co-owner and pastry chef at Le Francais in Chicago, a 95-seat operation featuring contemporary French cuisine, agrees that customers aren’t depriving themselves of dessert.

“In reality, health concerns have nothing to do with it,” Liccioni maintains. “About 95 percent of the people who walk through my doors order dessert. But we’re not insensitive to those who watch calories. If someone wants one of our desserts with less sugar, we’ll make it.”

Liccioni says all desserts at Le Francais carry a prix fixe at $8.50 and some showcase items include creme brulee with a fresh fruit soup, white chocolate mousse with caramelized pineapple, and coconut ice cream.

Often, even the most conscientious calorie-watcher will skimp on other meal parts in order to “save room” for dessert.

Christopher Northmore, executive pastry chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, subscribes to the theory that if customers are going to splurge during the meal, it will be on dessert.

“About 70 percent of the people who eat here opt for dessert even if it means leaving a portion of entree,” says Northmore, who was also a member of the 1988 Culinary Olympic squad that competed in Frankfurt, West Germany. “But like any other foods, dessert preferences are seasonal,” he continues. “In the summer customers tend to shy away from the heavier chocolate cakes and mousses and instead order fresh-fruit plates or sherbets.”

Northmore says that two signature dishes for the operation, which features a fine-dining restaurant, a grill and extensive banquet facilities, are “Big Apple Dessert,” a mock apple consisting of Bavarian cream and topped with dried cherry sauce, and a praline creation layered in lattice strips to resemble a basket.

At the prestigious DuPont Hotel in Wilmington, Del., executive pastry chef Kees Thuys says dessert selections should be changed with the same frequency as the entree offerings, on a weekly or even daily basis.

“You must alternate dessert selections as you would your lunches and dinners,” Thuys says. “When you have new items, customers are more inclined to try them.”

Thuys, who oversees a staff of 15, says that the DuPont Hotel accrues more than $1 million in dessert and bread sales.

In addition to servicing the dessert requirements of the 330-room DuPont Hotel, Thuys also supplies dessert and fresh-baked products to the DuPont Country Club and the employee cafeterias in the DuPont office buildings.

Hovering at a price of about $5.50, the DuPont Hotel’s dessert offerings include a chestnut mousse cake, a poached cassis pear, a baumkuchen parfait filled with raspberry and cherries and wrapped in a butter cookie shell, and the house specialty — strawberries Henry VIII, strawberries and caramelized sugar flamed at the table with Gran Marnier and served over vanilla ice cream.

Dessert aficionados say the influx of restaurants hiring pastry chefs is an accurate indicator of the public’s ongoing infatuation with dessert.

“The old axiom was that pastry chefs weren’t cost effective to have on staff,” Dodge says. “But with the increase in ancillary costs, like rent and equipment, restaurants had to devise a way to increase revenue, and dessert was a good vehicle. But you have to have professionals making delicate items, like tiramisu or chocolate mousse.”

While smaller restaurants staffed by one or two bake shop employees can usually fulfill the daily dessert quota, large-scale operations, like The Manor in West Orange, N.J., and the Chicago Hilton & Towers hotel, pump out both exotic desserts and basic postmeal staples in mass-production quantities. With a total seating capacity of 700 and featuring 11 separate banquet and dining rooms, The Manor produces some 300 bread and dessert products from scratch on a daily basis.

The Manor’s executive pastry chef Nicola Petullo, oversees the production of about 60 to 80 separate cakes for both the a la carte and buffet-only dining rooms in addition to creating custom-made wedding and event cakes for catering functions. Wedding, birthday and anniversary cakes at The Manor range from a two-tier product to an eight-level creation.

The Manor staffs a bake-and-dessert crew of seven employees, who operate in a 3,200-square-foot space earmarked solely for that purpose.

At the 1,600-room Chicago Hilton and Towers, food and beverage manager Chris Hayes says that in addition to the three a la carte restaurants, the hotel serves 500,000 people annually in its banquet department alone.

“Desserts are a big part of this hotel,” Hayes says. “They seem to move exceptionally well in our catering division. Banquet guests believe that because the meal is prepaid, they’re almost obligated to eat dessert.”

According to Hayes, every dessert is made from scratch, including those for the hotel’s three restaurants. The hotel has a bake shop, a pastry department and an ice-cream production facility.

He also says the range of desserts run the gamut from rhubarb pies to tortes and ice-cream parfaits. For the hotel’s coffee shop and room service, the hotel offers a cream pie of the day.

“However, we don’t ignore the health conscious guests either,” Hayes notes. “We serve both a no-cholesterol bread pudding and fruit cobbler, where we use egg whites and a sugar substitute.”

Across town at the Hotel Nikko, food and beverage director Terry Rawlins uses a two-pronged approach to market desserts in the hotel’s upscale restaurant, Les Celebrites.

During lunch, dessert selections remain simple and time-conscious ranging from basic tarts to a plate of assorted cookies. At dinner nine dessert selections are presented to the customer at tableside but prepared in the back of the house.

“There are two types of diners when it comes time for dessert,” Rawlins opines. “Those who order it and those who don’t.”

Les Celebrites’ signature creation is the chocolate bag with fresh fruit, a selection the restaurant has featured since it opened in 1987.

To prepare the item, the pastry chef coats the inside of a wax paper bag with melted chocolate until it is about one-quarter-inch thick. When the chocolate hardens, the wrapping is peeled away, leaving a chocolate-formed bag. The inside is then filled with pound cake, fresh fruits and a raspberry sauce.

Rawlins says another creation that has steadily gained in popularity is the pear tart, made of almonds and pastry cream molded into the shape of a pear. A piece of marzipan is then shaped to resemble a worm coming out of the top.

Yet, despite people’s tendency to stereotype fine desserts with upscale operations, some of the nation’s well-known casual restaurants have focused their attention on dessert marketing and higher check averages.

At the 160-unit TGI Friday’s, national marketing director Joy Frederick says Friday’s customers have a “selected indulgence” with regard to dessert.

The Dallas-based operation attempts to sway guests undecided about ordering dessert by strategically positioning four-color cards at each table.

Two months ago Friday’s unveiled two new creations — “Pie in the Sky” and the Bread Pudding.

The Pie in the Sky concoction is a three-layer cookie pie consisting of white chocolate Macadamia nuts, double chocolate chips and chocolate chips with nuts, set in a base of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, hot caramel and whipped cream, while the bread pudding is baked with raisin bread, pecans and pineapple and then topped with hot caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream.

“In addition to being a family restaurant, Friday’s is also a special-occasion place where families will celebrate things like anniversaries and birthdays,” Frederick says. “So desserts are almost a given when parties like that come in.”

Nevertheless, while desserts with impressive descriptions might entice customers to become adventurous, without proper plate presentation even the most complex creations lose their appeal.

“You can’t overemphasize proper dessert presentation,” Le Francais’ Liccioni cautions.

“At our restaurant each dessert is individually made and garnished. If a dessert doesn’t look appealing, then customers won’t order it.” [Tabular Data Omitted]

PHOTO : Clockwise from top left: A chocolate bag dessert with pound cake and fresh fruit filling

PHOTO : from Les Celebrites in Chicago; an Alsacienne apple tart with pastry cream, also from Les

PHOTO : Celebrites; and a tray of petit fours from The Manor, in West Orange, N.J.

PHOTO : Above, three dessert specialties from The Manor in West Orange, N.J.: top, Strawberry

PHOTO : Grand Marnier cake; Charlotte Royale with apricot glaze; and Hot Apple Tart with

PHOTO : strawberries and calvados sauce.

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