By focusing on a limited selection, restaurants can drive sales and buzz around dessert.
The world of restaurant diners can be divided into two groups: dessert people, and non-dessert people. While for some, a meal is incomplete without a sweet bite or two at the end, others are content to finish with a savory main or bitter coffee. In fact, a past survey from Statista found that half of consumers order desserts rarely or never.
And restaurant owners and kitchens have similarly ambivalent feelings. While dessert can be an opportunity to boost a check average, it also requires precious resources like manpower and expertise that are in short supply in kitchens, particularly since the pandemic began.
“Baking is a science whereas with savory items, there can be more twisting and turning, more experimentation,” says Matt Wilde, chef of Bob’s Pizza, a Chicago mini-chain. “If you want to have a full dessert offering and make it a focus, that usually requires at least one dedicated person, maybe more.”
But some restaurants are experimenting with a new idea, namely, the single-dessert menu.
“I have always loved the concept of having one really great dessert and having it be something as classic and simple as cheesecake, but one of the best slices of cheesecake our guests have ever had,” says Jeremy Salamon, chef and owner of Agi’s Counter in Brooklyn, New York, where the menu is inspired by nostalgia for the city’s Jewish deli culture.
Cheesecake appealed to Salamon because it’s a New York staple, and his cheesecake is simple but decadent: plain, made with Philadelphia cream cheese, and topped with a seasonal garnish.
In fact, cheesecake, with its infinite options for customization, is a popular choice for single-item desserts. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tap 65 puts an unexpected spin on the traditional Indian dessert, gulab jamun, which is fried balls of milk dough soaked in a sugar syrup. Tap 65 spices the gulab jamun with cardamom and saffron, then stuffs it into a house-made cheesecake, and tops it with chai whipped cream, a glucose biscuit, and berry compote.
“We initially had two other desserts that we had talked about adding to the menu,” says Chris Swanson, general manager at Tap 65. “We tested through and decided we could have one good dessert or three mediocre desserts, but this one really made us sit up and say, ‘wow.’ I think we made the right decision; the cheesecake has probably been posted on Instagram a thousand times.”
Many restaurants with limited dessert menus seem to gravitate toward dishes that can easily be made in large quantities and garnished individually for diners, like the offering at Bob’s Pizza, where guests can order a house-made oatmeal cream pie, which consists of fresh vanilla sweet cream sandwiched between soft, chewy oatmeal cookies and packaged in a paper bag like a fancy version of the snack cakes you might have had in your lunchbox as a child.
“When people go out for pizza, dessert isn’t usually a priority, so I wanted it to be simple but good and not take away from our focus,” Wilde says. “The time and effort isn’t simple—we make the cookie batter and fresh-bake them and fill them and package them. But the pickup is simple, since we present them for in-person diners the same way we do for carryout.”
The ability to prep beforehand makes dinner service smoother without sacrificing the needs of guests who have a sweet tooth.
“With the cheesecake, the prep team can bake it up at 8 a.m. and have them ready for service,” Swanson says. “Then it’s just plating, so it’s a relatively quick pickup.”
In addition to the ease of pickup, single-item dessert menus also limit the number of extraneous ingredients that a kitchen has to carry. Since many ingredients for dessert dishes don’t overlap with the savory menu items, an extensive dessert menu can often lead to an abundance of components that are only used for one dish.
In restaurant kitchens, where space is at a premium, even one extraneous bottle can become an issue, particularly if it’s for a dish that isn’t often ordered.
And it seems that there’s something psychologically appealing to diners about seeing a single sweet option at the end of their meal.
“It’s a draw for diners to try the one dessert on the menu,” Salamon says. “We didn’t really expect that to be the mentality, but it has absolutely worked. About 95 percent of customers order the slice, partly attributed to the fact that we only have the one dessert. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
It’s been a similar experience at Tap 65.
“It’s a super easy upsell when you’re not presenting the guest with five items,” Swanson says. “We get a greater return on desserts per guest than giving them a handful of options, and we haven’t had any pushback on the limited menu. The cheesecake gets rave reviews, and we sell a ton.”