The Caterer

Sweet Arts

09 November 2006
Sweet Arts

Cookies, brownies and small bites multitask as snacks, desserts, shareable treats and check builders.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Operators are taking small steps to satisfy the public's sweet tooth. Cookies, brownies, bars and anything else scaled down in size and easy to eat has gained big favor with restaurant patrons.

Plate them and make a beautiful presentation and little becomes big in customers' eyes. Wrap them for easy going and they become portable treats that are eaten as dessert, snacks and indulgences.

These small-scale sweets charm operators as well. They deftly cross age groups, dayparts and segments and adapt easily to kitchen resources, so concepts staffing pastry chefs or bakers can turn out house-made recipes, while operations seeking streamlined preparations may instead choose to purchase frozen dough or ready-to-eat products, both of which can be customized.

From chocolate-chip cookies sold by Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's to reduced-fat brownies students gobble at Clark County (Nev.) School District and chocolate cloud cookies from New York City's Baked, the hand-held treats are ubiquitous for a simple reason: they always sell.

"Cookies and brownies are an all-the-time grazing food, so they make up a major chunk of our business," says Thomas John, executive chef for Boston-based Au Bon Pain, which offers cookies, brownies and blondies as add-ons to sandwich orders. The chain also creates impulse opportunities, stacking them alongside registers.

In response to customer interest in greater variety, Au Bon Pain is testing recipes beyond chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter. John culled on-trend flavor profiles to develop choices that include sugar-lime, chocolate tangerine and chocolate macadamia.

Cookies play a more-unusual menu role at Boston's 131-year-old Locke-Ober. Macaroons, conceived as a light dessert for what originally was an all-male clientele, contribute to the restaurant's historic cachet. About 20 orders of five each are sold daily. Baked from hand-piped dough of almond paste, apricot kernels, egg whites, honey and sugar, the cookies have been made by the same supplier for more than 50 years.

Eye Candy

Los Angeles-based The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf relies on visual- and ingredient-based signals to maintain interest in its sweet choices. Commissary-made brownies are drizzled with caramel or chocolate, filled with nuts and candy pieces, and accented with toppings such as cream cheese, confectioners' sugar and coconut.

"Eye appeal is really important; that's what draws people in to try a product," says Patty DeGrazzio, director of product management.

At Islandia, N.Y.-based Whitsons Culinary Group's business-and-industry operations, treat-sales strategies depend on the account. Manufacturing facilities whose employees visit cafes only at lunch display packaged cookies and brownies near cash registers to encourage impulse buys, while technology firms whose workers take coffee breaks put such products near coffee dispensers as all-day snacks.

The contractor purchases frozen dough for standard cookies, but Ted Fekete, a district manager for business-and-industry accounts, actively encourages unit-level chefs to develop recipes. Cake mix-based creations, among them "Tookies," which add sliced almonds, lemon zest and vanilla extract to the batter, are among the creative output.

Presentation and creative marketing figure heavily in Whitsons' cookie and brownie sales. About two years ago, lagging interest prompted Fekete to cut the standard 3-by-3-inch brownies into eight pieces and package them in cellophane bags with gold ties. They not only started selling more briskly, but also commanded a higher price. This prompted some Whitsons managers to apply the strategy to cookies. Conversely, combining three regular-sized cookies into jumbo offerings proved successful as well.

"If you keep changing the product, customers notice, and that's when they'll buy it," Fekete says.

Cookies and brownies often hold multiple roles on menus, but some operations stock them for specific purposes.

Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver's Frozen Custard & ButterBurgers is known for frozen treats, but sells ready-made brownies and chocolate-chip, oatmeal-raisin and chocolate-candy cookies as more-portable, nondairy choices.

"About 40% of our business is drive-thru, and cookies are great when you're on the go," says Jim Doak, director of research and menu development. "And frankly, kids love them."

Of 27,000 cookies baked monthly at Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, nearly 20% are delivered to rooms on patient trays. The rest crop up throughout the 500-plus bed facilities as grab-and-go treats at a standalone bakery, for impulse buys in cafe food lines and on snack trays for catered meetings.

"People tend to ask for cookies if they're ordering lunch for catered events. They get them for afternoon and morning meetings without meals as well," says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Lynne Ometer, whose team offers nine varieties including peanut butter, toffee crunch and white-chocolate macadamia. "They're popular because they're feel-good food, a comfort food."

Double Duties

All foodservice venues at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C., find a role for cookies, from top-shelf CityZen and Asian-inspired Café MoZU to the casual Empress Lounge. Assistant Pastry Chef Daniel Benjamin makes sure basic sweet doughs can tackle diverse duties.

A simple blend comprised mainly of butter, confectioners' sugar and egg yolks provides the foundation for tiny, rock sugar-studded diamant cookies that accompany cappuccino and espresso, as well as iced, cutout cookies baked for holidays. The same dough also is used as a base for banquet pastries.

Pastry staff regularly prepare the dough in sheet-pan-sized rectangles. It sets overnight and then is vacuum-sealed in 2-pound pieces and frozen up to 30 days.

Benjamin and his team also craft recipes for special events, such as the white-chocolate blueberry cookies the hotel offers as part of a local tourist program and the chocolate-cherry-chunk cookies it serves during the district's annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

"Food has become complex, but cookies are easy to understand," he says. "You know they're going to be good."

Mimi Young, executive pastry chef for Scala's Bistro at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, says her customers are drawn to cookies and brownies in part because they are less of a commitment than other desserts.

"People think since they're smaller, they won't kill their diet. Big desserts can be intimidating, especially after two or three courses," she says.

She also targets pretheater diners for additional sales by packing cookies in compact boxes, ideal for toting off for later enjoyment. Popular choices include fudge-swirl blondies with toffee chips as well as riffs on Girl Scout Cookies such as Thin Mint Chocolate Sandies and Chocolate-Peanut Butter Bars.

Young's team also produces cookies for the hotel's catering department and as grab-and-go snacks at Caffe Espresso, the hotel's coffee shop-bakery. Besides traditional varieties, seasonal choices might include Red Velvet Madeleines at Valentine's Day or blackberry linzer cookies during summer.

Adventurous Accents

Pastry Chef Pichet Ong is counting on sudden cookie cravings to build his new business venture.

"I order sushi or pizza for delivery; why not a pint of ice cream and a bag of cookies?" says Ong, formerly of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's 66 and Spice Market. He plans to provide just such a service at P*ONG, the 35-seat dessert bar he will open this fall in New York City.

Ong plans a $10 delivery minimum and will vacuum-seal the sweet treats in logo packages. Many of the cookies, also available plated or to go, will reflect the Asian accents for which the chef is known. Among favorites are ginger, cardamom, rose jam and pistachio. Others will gain nuances in texture, taste and aroma from nonwheat flours such as rice, buckwheat, coconut and almond.

At fine-dining restaurant Nelsons in Raleigh, N.C., Pastry Chef Sherry Stolfo often spikes cookies with flavored liqueurs to jazz up the Sunday brunch buffet. She teams orange or hazelnut flavors with shortbread and coffee liqueur with Mexican wedding cookies. The menu also features house-made brownies, made with melted Belgian chocolate for extra-moist, fudgy results.

"At brunch you want to cater to everyone, and cookies and brownies bring variety to the table," Stolfo says. "Plus, some people eat a lot at brunch, so it helps to have something light to finish."

Cookies and …

Operators effectively evoke the nostalgia of cookies and milk by pairing cookies, brownies and other sweet treats with complementary beverage-style companions.

  • Pastry Chef Kate Neumann accompanies Plum and Ginger Hand Pies with refreshing almond granita at mk the Restaurant in Chicago (r.).
  • Chef-owner Charlie Palmer's Aureole in New York City offers The Aureole Tasting of Chocolate: Napoleon, tart, Á la mode and ice cream soda.
  • At Violet, Chef-owner Jared Simons' small-plates bistro in Santa Monica, Calif., departing guests receive complimentary cookies and milk along with the check at the end of their meals.
  • Chef-owner Mindy Segal's seasonal plays on her signature Cake & Shake dessert at Hot Chocolate in Chicago include Pears, a layered creation of pear cake, pear mousse and brown-butter buttercream matched with a cinnamon-ice-cream "phosphate."

Bake Like a Pro

Great baking crosses science with art. A few pointers from a cross section of chefs will elevate baked creations and simplify preparations.

  • Add variety to sweetening agents. P*ONG's Pichet Ong often turns to honey, coconut flour, dried fruit, fruit juices and marmalades to augment or replace sugar. The caveat, of course, is that baked goods are carefully calibrated formulas; be mindful of the role that sugar plays in the end result before you swap it for something else.
  • Use unconventional tools for baking needs. At Scala's Bistro, the pastry team finds hammer-like meat-tenderizering tools most effective for pressing down dough for bar cookies, helping keep them firm so they don't fall apart when cut. Potato mashers are ideal for peanut-butter cookies and custard cups can shape tuile cookies into edible vessels.
  • Create cookie component desserts. Cookie favorites such as oatmeal, chocolate chip and peanut butter can form the basis for ice-cream sandwiches. Small cookies can be offered as a respite from the giants that often are used for layering. Brownies are an easy base for sundae-style creations. Trimmings from brownies or blondies can be folded into ice cream.
  • Tap the evocative aroma of fresh-baked products to tempt diners. Emory Hospitals spurs cookie sales by using a vendor-provided, miniature oven to bake small batches in cafes. Culver's Frozen Custard & ButterBurgers is considering adding ovens to its stores in a similar strategy.
  • Add panache with an array of fruit liqueurs. Inject flavors such as orange, apple, blackberry, cherry, raspberry, banana and more. Pastry Chef Sherry Stolfo of Nelsons advises that, depending on the amount used, it may be necessary to cook off the alcohol in a sauté pan for better results.
  • Build a buzz with visual flavor cues. Cut house-made or purchased cookies and brownies into creative shapes, and embellish them with add-ons such as semisweet, butterscotch or white-chocolate chips, frostings and ganaches, coconut, colored sugars, glazed nuts and candy pieces.
  • Make the most of every dough, whether purchased or house-made. Select simple base doughs that have multiple applications and use them as building blocks. To save prep time, mix dough ahead, portion it to fit sheeters or hand-rolled recipes, and freeze it in vacuum-sealed packages.
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