The Great Dessert Divide: How to Turn Around Your Least Popular Meal and Make a Profit

By: Isabelle Hahn

6 Minute Read

Jul 26, 2019

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When you sit down to eat dinner at a restaurant, how often do you stay for dessert? 

Many of us have an undeniable sweet tooth, but dessert is a meal that involves an emotional decision rather than a logical one. We see it as a decadence, which is partly why we're likely to shy away from the final course when presented with a dessert menu. 

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As it turns out, we tend to go with dessert when we’re given the option ahead of time. One restaurant franchise automatically added an “opt-out cookie” to customers’ orders, but gave them the option to remove the cookie from their cart. A whopping 99% of customers kept the cookie. The restaurant eventually had to remove the opt-out cookie because they couldn’t keep up with demand.

According to the Washington Post, dessert also tends to be the least profitable meal for restaurants. In an industry of razor-thin margins, customers are not as likely to spend more money on dessert. Restaurants then must find ways to keep food costs down in order to lower the price of the menu item, and we all know it takes great (more costly) ingredients to make great food. 

Restaurants are missing out on an opportunity to make a profit on their least popular meal because, according to Charles Levine, selling a dessert is just that — selling.

Here are eight tips from restaurateurs on how you can turn your dessert menu into profit.

1. It’s not just dessert, it’s the act of serving a table correctly

“It’s not just dessert, it’s the act of serving a table correctly,” says Levine, who is the Owner of Citron in Baltimore, Maryland and has thirty years of experience in the food service industry. “If the server goes back too quickly with the dessert menu, you might not engage those people. If your server asks, ‘Would you like to see a dessert menu?' that doesn’t work either. A server has to approach guests at the right time and ask, ‘Does anyone here like chocolate? Does anyone like ice cream?’ There’s a way to approach people that’s universal.”

Levine has a sweet tooth, so he works very closely with the pastry department. At Citron, they’re passionate about desserts and change the menu about eight times a year. Their menu is made up of classics that everyone loves, as well as thoughtful seasonal items. 

“It’s hard to get rid of a piece of cheesecake,” Levine says. “It's based on who your clients are, and what their tastes are like. There are some standard items that don’t go away because, even in the dead of winter, people love ice cream.”

2. Engage your customers in the experience

Knowing your customers is another important piece in persuading them to order dessert before walking out the door. There are many reasons why a table would turn down dessert. Maybe they’ve had too much to eat, or just aren’t in the mood. The key to selling dessert is engaging your customers in an experience.

Just because dessert is at the end of a meal, doesn’t mean it has to be rushed. For Boqueria in NYC, it’s important to offer comforting, playful desserts that bring back memories and encourage people to spend time together. 

“Many of our diners are more adventurous, and like to try a wide variety of dishes during their meal,” writes the Boqueria team over email. “The lively and social aspect of tapas in general is all about connection, and we love to see people lingering over desserts and conversation.”

3. Keep up with the trends but rely on the classics

At Boqueria in New York City, churros are the fan-favorite and remain a staple on their dessert menu. Like Citron, you can find rotating seasonal desserts on Boqueria’s menu — including Tarta de Manzana (homemade puff pastry topped with saffron-scented apples) in the fall. 

Variety is extremely important in a dessert menu, writes the Boqueria team over email. “Maintaining a balance between crave-worthy favorites like rich chocolate-based desserts, seasonal rotations and some lighter options with fruit tends to work well.”

4. Make it shareable

To create a greater sense of connection among guests, Levine of Citron suggests coming up with a shareable dessert. Even if you don't have a pastry chef on-site to create a full dessert menu, focus on just a few key desserts that will play well with groups or pairs of diners.

5. Utilize social media

Boqueria has utilized the power of social media to put their desserts in the spotlight. They’ve become well known for their churro sundaes and churro s’mores, and were featured in an Insider video for their sweet creativity. The hashtag “#BoqueriaNYC” has over 1,000 posts, and the team is used to patrons snapping a pic of their sugary creations before chowing down.

Another great example of using dessert to take over social media are Black Tap’s Instagram-worthy milkshakes. These shakes were specifically designed for Instagram to wow dessert lovers everywhere. 

6. Offer the dessert to go

Another great selling tip is to offer dessert to go. Suggest that a piece of cake or pie will hit the spot later if your guests are extremely full. If you're serving a couple who is celebrating an anniversary or birthday, offer your dessert special to bring home to the kids. These sales don't require very much effort and are an easy way to increase a check. 

7. Pair your dessert with a specialty drink

Selling desserts is also one of the easiest ways to increase per-person check averages. If you don’t have the bandwidth to create new desserts every season, try focusing on limited-time-only items instead to raise excitement. Or, try pairing a dessert with a fun drink or coffee item. 

Bootleg Special in Boston’s South End is known for its Louisiana Cajun-style food. And down south, it’s all about beignets and chicory coffee. 

“What we do to complement our desserts is serve chicory coffee,” says Co-Owner Chris Young.
“It’s pretty common in the south to add chicory to coffee. We have a dark roast bean to go with the roasted chicory.”

8. Keep things simple

For restaurants struggling to sell desserts, or just getting started, Young advises to stick to the simple, delicious classics, but always go homemade. 

“You have to remember to have some fun with it,” says Young. “People are out, having a good time, so why not have fun with them? Keep it simple, and keep it really good.” 

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