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On-Trend LTOs, Promotions Drive Dessert Sales

Leveraging trending dessert attributes in promotional offers keeps menus fresh and relevant.

Leveraging trending dessert attributes in promotional offers keeps menus fresh and relevant.
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Limited-time offers and other promotions will help drive dessert sales in the year ahead, particularly when they reflect the trends around portability, comfort and nostalgia.

“We think comfort food will continue to be popular, especially because of the pandemic,” says Paul Griffin, chief culinary officer for fast-casual burger chain BurgerFi. “The nostalgia factor of comfort foods brings people to a sunnier time and place, and who doesn’t want that right now?”

To celebrate BurgerFi’s 10th anniversary this year, Griffin recently created a nostalgic, limited-time offer Birthday Cake Shake made with confetti cake and vanilla custard, and topped with a mini cupcake, as well as a Birthday Cake Concrete.

Other dessert trends Griffin sees continuing in 2021 include the use of clean ingredients, plant-based alternatives and spicy heat in dessert recipes. “Spicy has been a hot topic—pun intended—so it wouldn’t surprise me to see a play on heat this year,” he says.

Research from Datassential shows that sweet-and-savory combinations remain popular in dessert formulations. Simple, portable and often nostalgic desserts also have been trending, especially over the past year. Donuts, cookie varie-ties—including sugar, chocolate chip and peanut butter—have been among the fastest-growing dessert items. And global-format desserts such as churros, mo-chi and halva have been appearing on more restaurant menus.

Seasonal tie-ins present operators with the opportunity to generate excitement by creating signature limited-time dessert and snack offers. McDonald’s, for ex-ample, recently offered an OREO® Shamrock McFlurry® for the second year running, made with soft-serve vanilla ice cream, “shamrock” flavor and OREO cookie pieces. The new item is a spin on the company’s traditional Shamrock Shakes® that leverage enthusiasm for fun, great-tasting, green-colored treats around St. Patrick’s Day.

“The OREO Shamrock McFlurry is the ultimate indulgence we can’t wait to sink our spoons into,” says Taste of Home food blogger Laurie Dixon.

Ice cream: A versatile platform for experimentation

Ice cream remains an ideal vehicle for both new and interesting flavors and in-gredients that operators can experiment with in their promotional and limited-time offers.

“Ice cream-based desserts are highly versatile, with the ability to transform with different textural and flavor elements,” says Kathryn Shear, senior analyst, Pro Solutions, at Datassential. She notes that indulgent flavors in restaurants’ ice cream desserts—such as brown butter, sugar cookie and churro—score highly among consumers for their uniqueness.

The Salted Caramel Ice Cream Sundae made with OREO Cookie Pieces, for in-stance, is an example of a simple and flavorful dessert that combines multiple textures and on-trend ingredients. It can be made using either vanilla or choco-late ice cream, with OREO cookie pieces mixed in and crumbled on top, along with salted caramel pieces, salted caramel sauce and whipped cream.

Portability key for off-premises

When crafting their dessert promotions, operators should bear in mind that port-ability remains an important attribute of restaurant desserts in 2021.

Smokey Bones, an Aventura, Florida-based barbecue chain known for its hot fresh cinnamon donuts and five-layer chocolate cake, saw a shift in off-premises dessert demand in 2020, says Chief Financial Officer Nicole Milnthorpe, noting that desserts that are relatively easy to execute and travel well will remain im-portant in the year ahead.

“Dessert anytime, anywhere has become a hot trend, and we believe the key to success is to keep it delicious and simple,” she says. “Chocolate cake, a slice of cheesecake or a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie delivered to your door at 1 a.m. are more popular than ever. This is a trend that’s here to stay.”

Many restaurants that had been hesitant to offer desserts for off-premises con-sumption because of temperature or logistical challenges have found ways to execute, particularly in an environment where takeout and drive-thru usage have increased.

BurgerFi took its custard shakes on the road last year, adding them to its app and to the platforms of its delivery partners—a move that led to “dramatic” sales growth, Griffin says.

“Takeout and tech is king, for now,” he explains. “As a brand that sells premium custard products, the temperature of dessert products for off-premises dining” is crucial, but it also “has its challenges.” Still, he adds, “people love our milkshakes.”

Ray Camillo, CEO of Blue Orbit Hospitality Consulting, sees opportunities for restaurants in the year ahead in the milkshake category, particularly because of the format’s portability. When ordering from the drive-thru, for example, consumers may opt for milkshakes because they’re an easier-to-eat snack or breakfast replacement than many popular quick-service offerings, he says.

Milkshakes often find their way into limited-time offers tied to seasonal promotions, such as the Steak & Shake Red Velvet Shake that rolled out for the winter holidays with the option of with or without OREO cookie pieces blended in and crumbled on top. The shakes have an ice cream base blended with red velvet cake and creamy frosting, topped with whipped cream and a cherry.

More sophisticated offerings

While simplicity and portability will continue to be important for off-premises consumption, Camillo says he expects that restaurants will shift toward more complicated and sophisticated desserts for full-service dining on-site in order to drive higher sales.

“Consumers want something they can’t make at home,” he says. “I think there will be a lot of demand for pastry chefs who can make soufflés and other desserts that are difficult to prepare—and that you can really only get at restaurants.”

Although operators may be interested in offering better-for-you desserts, Camillo says many consumers who order dessert have already committed to treating themselves. Thus, he believes restaurants should shift away from individual-size pies and cakes that seek to minimize portion sizes and instead focus on offering full-size slices of their baked goods.

BurgerFi’s Griffin notes that by using high-quality ingredients, restaurants are of-ten automatically imbuing their desserts with a better-for-you halo. “The majority of high-quality products are already better for you—less chemicals and preservatives, cleaner dairy products—and better for the environment,” he says. “Demand for these types of products will continue to grow.”

Griffin also foresees more plant-based dairy and other plant-based products in the dessert category.

“Healthy halo” claims such as vegan, vegetarian and dairy-free have been growing on dessert menus, Datassential’s Shear confirms.

After a year of coping with the challenges of the pandemic, a tense political climate and other issues, consumers are ready to enjoy the simple pleasures of eating desserts from their favorite restaurants, whether that takes place on-site or at home. The feel-good aura fostered by nostalgic comfort food offerings can transport diners to a better time and place.

Learn more about the foodservice trends that will shape the year ahead in Mondelēz International Foodservice’s 2021 Trends Report.

Mondelez International Foodservice offers resources to help operators optimize their off-premises sales, including branding and snacking opportunities.

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