At Seasons 52, the restaurant chain that put fresh, low-calorie meals on the map, the dessert sales are as healthy as the entrées [AB1].

Nothing on the menu is more than 475 calories, and that includes Mini Indulgence desserts, pioneered by the restaurant’s first location in Orlando, Florida, in 2002.

“Today, the percentage of guests who have dessert [at Seasons 52] is in the high 70s,” says chef John State. “In other restaurants, 30 or 40 percent is considered good.”

Mini Indulgence desserts, like the rest of the food, are made with fresh, quality ingredients in order to pack a lot of taste into a small space¾in this case, a shot-sized glass.

“It surprises me how many people almost can’t wait to have dessert here, because it’s portion-controlled: The variables are set, so they don’t have to feel like they are tempting themselves,” State says.

The small dessert trend may have started with Seasons 52, but it has also migrated, says Kathy Haden, foodservice analyst with Mintel Menu Insights, Chicago, Illinois.

“This trend has showed an interesting evolution from fine-dining and full-serve bites and samplers to now being a part of the snacking trend in quick and limited serve settings: Snacking continues to fill needs for smaller indulgences, for pick-me-ups to go with drinks, and for more options on value menus,” Hayden says.

Refreshing the Category

So while it is a way for consumers to eat less, Hayden sees it as an opportunity for foodservice providers to add on more sales and breathe some new life into the dessert category.

Kirk A. Parks, pastry chef and a partner at Rathburn’s, a fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta, says that 80 to 90 percent of diners order one of his four- or five-bite desserts.

At $3.95 each, compared to an average of $8.50 for appetizers, they are a welcome deal to diners, he says. “Our customers can order multiple desserts and get a lot of different items to taste instead of one big, same dessert.”

Minis are often positioned as “try a few”—smaller than a half-sized dessert, and priced around $3, says Hayden. “If people order two or three, that starts to add up.”

The only time cost might become a concern is when the small desserts get more elaborate. “The price points would have to differ depending on what the items are,” says Annika Stensson, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. 

“For example, a signature item made with exotic fruit and the highest-quality chocolate would allow for a higher price point because of the premium ingredients and uniqueness, while bite-sized versions of more traditional desserts like brownies would likely be somewhat lower because those have fewer ingredients and less creativity.”

Traditional Taste

Since minis appeal to just about everyone, most full-service restaurants’ small dessert offerings are often based on classic recipes.

“We offer year-round favorites like classic pecan pie and old fashioned carrot cake partly because guests are comfortable ordering desserts they’ve had at home,” says Seasons 52’s State. “You can eat in major cities and have a chef’s indulgence, like roasted pear and blue cheese ice cream and it might be great, but it might not appeal to everyone.”

Seasonality is punctuated throughout Season 52’s offerings as well, with a pumpkin pie mini with double gingersnap crust in the fall and blueberry cheesecake in the summer. 

“Even for customers just stopping in for a business meeting and leaving without dessert, that visual, seeing those desserts, is enough to bring them back with their family and looking forward to having a treat at the end of the meal,” State says.

It might just be the experience of sharing that takes this movement from a trend to a lasting favorite. According to Stensson, “Consumers are increasingly interested in nutrition and the smaller size appeals to those diners while some staying power comes from the variety, mimicking tapas and small plates.”

Beefing Up The Minis

Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, a family sports restaurant based in Tampa, Florida, has built its mix-and-match program on choice and familial sharing. “We have three different desserts to choose from at just the right price and portion,” explains Chris Elliot, CEO.

“If you just want a bite you can choose one [dessert] for $1.99, or two for $3.79, and if you’re in the mood to share you can pick any three for $4.99. “This style puts the customer in control; it allows them to make the best decision for each visit.”

It’s been the right decision for Beef ‘O’ Brady’s as well. The chain started offering the new desserts early this year. “We are seeing great success with the mix-and-match desserts,” Elliot says. “At the price points we set it is very affordable for the customer to add on a dessert, and stores have seen a positive sales bump in the dessert category.”

By Wendy Toth

Industry News, Beef 'O' Brady's, Seasons 52