With standalone dessert restaurants sweeping throughout the country, Will Hawkes discovers which trends are here to stay and which sweet products can add value to your menu.
There's no false modesty when it comes to the sign outside Heavenly Desserts in Loughborough: "the ultimate luxury dessert experience", it boasts. A quick glance at the current takeaway menu helps substantiate that claim. The section entitled Signature Creations take in the likes of the Royale, made with Nutella, Ferrero Rocher and hazelnut supreme ice-cream, and Sinful! But Oh So Heavenly – strawberries, raspberries, banana, mango, maple syrup and mango sorbet – both available on the customer's choice of waffle or crêpe.
A rich blend, certainly, but not unique when it comes to the modern British high street. Branches of Heavenly Desserts can be found in 27 towns around the country, with more promised soon, and rival chains like Creams and Kaspas are also increasingly common. Independent options run the gamut from Soho swank – Crème, which specialises in cookies, soft-serve ice-cream and coffee – right down to homely high-street offerings. Dessert-only restaurants have become a big player.
What they tell us about customers' preferences is fascinating, too. "Our customer base tends to be young adults and families who love to visit, whether it's for a late-night snack or for a coffee catch-up during the day," says Heavenly Desserts area manager Eden Falconer, of the time before Covid-19. "The majority of our locations are near large universities, too, so we tend to be quite a hot spot for students.
"The evenings are definitely our busiest periods, particularly from 8pm onwards, but this does depend on the location. Our Oxford branch is more popular during the day because it is situated around shopping and retail outlets, which makes it a lot more accessible."
The Cream of Loughborough
The Baxter Gate development in Loughborough would be recognisable to many Britons – there are places like it up and down the country. Built on the site of the former Loughborough General Hospital, it's a mixed development, taking in PizzaExpress, Nando's, a cinema and a variety of other common middle-England options.
Across the road from the peri-peri kings is Heavenly Desserts. It's no longer a surprise to see a dessert-only restaurant in this sort of company, according to Falconer. "The trend for dessert restaurants has grown significantly in recent years and it's incredible to see the number of different branches and brands available," she says.
"[Heavenly Desserts'] extensive menu is definitely the key to our success and why we remain one of the most popular dessert restaurants in the UK. Our menu features more than 130 different desserts, and in 2018 we introduced gluten-free options to meet current demand. We plan on introducing a vegan range shortly to ensure our menu is inclusive for all."
Biscuit maker Lotus Biscoff is a key part of the Heavenly offer, according to Falconer. "We introduced the Lotus Biscoff range after a large social media campaign to generate excitement," she says. "The response from customers has been really positive and the products have all been incredibly popular.
"Using the Lotus Biscoff crumb as the final sign-off for the products in the range is really effective because not only does it tie in with the flavour already achieved from the spread, but also adds texture from the crunch. We have had customers visiting the store purely out of excitement to try the new Lotus Biscoff range."
The popularity of dessert-only restaurants signals just how keen Britons are on afters, but what they like is constantly evolving. The success of dessert-only restaurants has been built on biscuits, according to Holly Wales of CSM Bakery Solutions, who also suggests that standalone dessert menus are not just for dessert-only restaurants.
"Offering a solo desserts menu or an extended one is sure to attract a younger audience, as well as increasing spend across age groups," she says. "It's not just standalone dessert restaurants that can benefit from this – pubs, cafés and other hospitality venues can also increase revenues by offering a range of on-trend as well as classic desserts.
"Cookies, in various formats, are a great way to ensure the menu appeals to all age groups, from Instagram teenagers to an older audience, and are now seen as an integral part of any dessert menu. Presentation is key as it can create a ‘wow' moment when served."
CSM Bakery Solutions has a number of different types of products that can be used in desserts, including Baker & Baker Supreme Cookie Pucks and the Baker & Baker Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
According to Zareen Deboo, foodservice channel operations manager for Ferrero UK and Ireland, nostalgia is another key factor in what dessert customers choose. "Comfort-food bakes and desserts are making a comeback," she says. "The favoured lockdown recipe was the brilliant banana loaf. Adding Ferrero's Hazelnut and Banana Brownies with Nutella [gives] a twist to this classic dessert."
Kirsty Matthews, insights and marketing manager at Macphie, agrees. She believes that with the current pandemic "throwing up so much uncertainty", consumers are seeking comfort from anything that feels familiar. "We're seeing a real appeal for nostalgic products that evoke childhood memories or a sense of reassurance," she says.
"The concept of ‘kidulting' is popular with retro treats targeted toward adult consumers as we look to relive simple joys of childhood.
A nod to familiar flavours like jam and sponge or topping desserts with retro sweets could tempt customers to delve into your desserts."
Nostalgia is a form of escapism, which is understandably popular right now. According to Gordon Lauder, managing director of Central Foods, customers are also looking for lower-calorie treats. "As people work their way through the ever-changing guidance on living through the pandemic, as well as trying to understand the current political uncertainty, they are increasingly looking to treat themselves to help them get through these unsettling times. This is where dessert-only operators and dessert menus can come into their own," he says. "Offering a half or smaller portion of dessert is a great way to encourage a purchase."
In a sector suffused with innovation, one thing stands out amid the noise: punters love ice-cream. For operators, the options are endless. Take Jersey Dairy's Jersey Luxury and Jersey Gold soft ice-cream mixes, made from the company's own milk, which comes exclusively from Jersey cows, for example.
"Ice-cream can make or break a dessert," says David Ashton, UK business development manager at Jersey Dairy. "Serve an inferior ice-cream and a carefully crafted dessert will be flooded with its artificial taste, whereas the full flavour of ice-cream properly made with quality ingredients will add depth and richness to the dessert, complementing sweetness with creaminess."
Of course, there's plenty of room for experimentation within the world of ice-cream. How about chocolate Jaffa Cake orange flavour – available from Suncream – or gelato-filled chocolates (pine cones, snowmen and Christmas wreaths), like those produced by Henley Bridge. New Forest, meanwhile, is bringing innovation and (American) nostalgia together in the form of its malted milkshake flavour.
"Our Malted Milkshake flavour ice-cream wowed the judges at this year's Great Taste Awards, receiving a prestigious three-star accolade," says Christina Veal, director at New Forest Ice Cream. "With restaurants and specific dessert shops going all out on indulgence, Malted Milkshake ice-cream is perfect for serving alongside American favourites like pecan pie, banana split or pancake stacks."
Sweet like chocolate
Chocolate ranks alongside biscuits – or cookies – and ice-cream as a staple of any dessert menu. Callebaut suggests that pancakes or waffles be topped with its real Belgian chocolate callets "for added indulgence", while its ruby crème brûlée should be added to menus for "the perfect cold-weather dessert". Meanwhile Dezaan has recently launched its cocoa range for chefs – Simon Brayn-Smith, vice-president of Dezaan Cocoa, hails its versatility.
"Chefs can experiment with the different flavour profiles of cocoa powder to create a variety of ice-creams, desserts and dessert cocktails," he says. "Try using the nutty and caramel notes of Terra Rossa to create gooey hazelnut brownies, the floral and citrus notes of True Gold for an on-trend cocoa crème liquor or the deep, rich flavours of True Dark in a zesty spiced orange cake."
And then there's sugar, the basis of any great dessert but also the whipping boy of modern health advice. There is an alternative, though, or at least that's what the creators of Zùsto, a sugar substitute largely derived from corn and chicory, believe.
Ross Sneddon, executive pastry chef at the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, has been trialing Zùsto in a number of recipes. "Zùsto has been a real problem-solver for us," he says. "I can now have one offering across several individual dietary requirements – it is perfect for diabetics and is allergy-free. I have used it for cakes, tarts, scones, pastry, croissants, ganache, bread, anglaise, butter cream, jams and syrups, and it performs brilliantly."
CSM Bakery Solutionswww.csmbakerysolutions.com
Ferrero UK & Irelandwww.ferrero.co.uk/Ferrero-UK
New Forest Ice Creamwww.newforesticecream.com