To Dessert or Not to Dessert: Sweet Idea or Stale Menu Offering?

The dessert element of dining out is the encore after the applause. The superfluity of a standout meal is made more memorable with that last kiss goodnight. Attention to the detail of a good cup of coffee and a striking dessert plate presentation can set a dining experience just over the top. But what are the challenges that come with it?

Dessert can mean a noticeable bump to a check average. It also slows down the dining room and requires talent lacking in today’s murky and shallow pond of skilled labor. For upscale casual, does it make a lasting impression or does it stifle table turns?

The push for healthier options. Menu engineering is in line with trends, as the climax to a meal has pulled a U-turn with shareable and small plates jumping up and down for attention rather than the sugary finish. With a nod to healthier dining preferences, the push for vegetable-rich, small plates make their way around the table; tempura, grilled, sous vide, roasted and pickled are snuffing the flame out from under the crème brûlée.

The bitter cost of something sweet. A bit in the Washingtonian makes the case for dessert being 86’d, decreeing that restaurants don’t want you to order dessert. True? While gorgeous dishes, especially dessert, can stupefy the onlooker, the ingredients can push food cost percentage over the tipping point. Add the skilled labor to pull off the anticipated shock and awe pastry production, and desserts become less sweet. An extra cocktail that takes seconds to build using ingredients that don’t go bad and require the existing skill of a bartender nudges dessert out as the last course for many operators.

For destination locations, dessert sales can mean 8 percent or more of gross sales. For casual grabs, that number can wither to a scant 1 or 2 percent of sales. With shrink — eating the good stuff, dropping a piece or two, spoilage — the cost to get caramelized banana bread pudding to the customer all but dashes any hope of profitability.  

Good desserts require quality purchasing. There are plenty of proper suppliers that can service the need. Frozen, pre-sliced or portioned desserts are not endangered breeds. So, that isn’t so much the concern. Really, really good desserts mean, at least, one skilled set of hands that can manage consistent production of appealing products that will generate enough money to cover the labor and justify an extra thirty minutes squatting of prime table real estate. That’s a tenuous predicament.

“I prefer to make them,” says Chef Adrian Cruz of Texas’s Orchard Lounge. “Desserts are profitable. I prefer doing the desserts rather than hiring a pastry chef. It's more of me learning to execute that stage.”

The move away from dessert isn’t reserved for fine dining. Border Cafe is one of many formula, chain operations that have ditched the last course. Rather, the chain’s business model, like a growing number of upscale casual restaurants, calls for omitting dessert in exchange for pushing another table turn.

Take into account storage and production space necessary for getting the butter-poached apple and pear tartine with maple ice cream to the table for a gentle $8 or $9, and it quickly becomes apparent that the juice simply isn’t worth the squeeze. Great gelaterias, cupcakes stands, and craft bakeries also nibble into the audience that may skip a sweet something in your place but opt for a walk to the dessert place up the street. Now the labor is lost, too.

But the charm of dessert can’t be summarily dismissed. Does a quality finish trump the few percentage points it takes to deliver a great tiramisu? Maybe bringing the curtain down on a meal has an inherent cost that, like linens, simply is part of doing business to ensure a standout meal worth a return visit.

So, before the last line is written on tonight’s dinner, the experience may fall a few words short of an epic tale. The dessert haves and have-nots are writing a story that will most certainly tell differing tales. Does the last course have to go away? No. Does it need to be reconsidered? It definitely isn’t an automatic.