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Sweet Success

On the Menu: Cheesecake

Passion fruit colada cheesecake
—The Cheesecake Factory, Honolulu

Fromage blanc island cheese cake
—ChikaLicious, New York

Low-carb creamy cheesecake on a crunchy nut crust
—Ruby Tuesday restaurants

Mike's famous rich and creamy cheesecake topped with caramelized sugar and crème anglaise
—Brio Tuscan Grille restaurants

Dulce de leche cheesecake marbled with dulce de leche cream caramel and served with fresh island fruit salsa
—Bahama Breeze restaurants

On the Menu: Chocolate

Chocolate and pistachio dariole: Warm chocolate cake with pistachio cream
—Joel Restaurant, Atlanta

Duncan Hines chocolate layer cake served with a glass of cold milk
—Jones, Philadelphia

Lava cake: Warm chocolate cake with a milk chocolate center, topped with vanilla ice cream, chopped nuts, whipped cream and a cherry
—Roadhouse Grill restaurants

Chocolate mousse crepe with banana bisque and candied Mint

Rosina al cioccolato: Chocolate mousse, fresh raspberries and cake soaked with triple sec, served with orange crème anglaise
—Il Fornaio restaurants

On the Menu:
Sampler Platters

Petit fours: Coconut marshmallow, orange clove truffle, hot white chocolate profiterole
New York

Selezione di cr&ethme: A trio of crème br?lèes: maple walnut, orange cardamom, and classic vanilla bean
—Panzano, Denver

Dessert, dessert, dessert: A sampling of tiramisu, chocolate cake and panna cotta with fresh raspberries and strawberry sauce
—Romano's Macaroni Grill restaurants

Blood orange, tangerine and pink grapefruit sorbets orange scented risotto pudding and a citrus tuile
—mk, chicago

Brio trio: Cheesecake, crème br?lèe and torta di cioccolata
—Brio Tuscan Grille restaurants

On the Menu: Fruit

Yuzu custard tart with papaya gel, Muscat-ginger caramel and clementine sorbet
—Tribute, Farmington Hills, Mich.

Spiced pomegranate sorbet with sangria fruit soup, champagne gelèes and molasses cookies
—Postrio, San Francisco

Glorious pear: Ice cream sandwich made with spiced pear cake, cinnamon cream cheese ice cream and a roasted pear with port wine granita
—mk, Chicago

Roasted pineapple carpaccio
—Tru, Chicago

Gewürztraminer-braised Georgia peaches with gingerbread ice cream and a honey glaze
—Canoe, Atlanta

"Save room for dessert?" No matter how much your guests partake of your terrific appetizers and entrèes, a winning dessert menu will seduce even the fullest diner into answering "Yes!" and indulging in something sweet.

Desserts are money-makers. Food costs for dessert items typically run about 20 percent for scratch preparation, and 30 to 35 percent for pre-made desserts. Not only does that slice of cheesecake or scoop of ice cream boost check averages, but if you consider the margins on the coffee or dessert wine that usually accompanies the final course, it's easy to remember why you should pay attention to dessert.

Tavish MacLean, an associate marketing manager with pre-made dessert purveyor Rich's Products in Buffalo, N.Y., says the dessert course presents a definite chance to add to the check. "All of our market research says that people are looking for opportunities to indulge," he says. Moreover, while the overall demand for desserts isn't on the upswing, the demand for upscale desserts is increasing. The reason? As Americans eat out more often and become ever more sophisticated in their dessert tastes, the quality bar rises continually.

What do you need to know to grab your slice of the dessertprofit pie? If you can provide something that looks great and tastes even better, you're almost there.

The art of dessert
Although most operators say the show-stopping architectural desserts that once graced every high-end restaurant in the country are now passè, pastry chefs agree that presenting new, curiositypiquing offerings remains important in selling that final course.

With unwavering dedication to that goal, Sue McCown, pastry chef at Earth & Ocean at the W Hotel Seattle, vows, "I will never do a crème br?lèe or a cheesecake here. It's too expected." McCown would rather serve items like the K-syrah-syrah bittersweet chocolate mousse that gets its name, as well as its chorus-girl leg cookie garnish from the kick of Syrah it contains. The mousse is layered with devil's food cake and cr&ethme chantilly. A sugar slinky dangling from the cup adds a whimsical finishing touch. Credit the curiosity factor for its success, she says. "People order it when they see it carried through the dining room. They don't even ask what it is," adds McCown.

Creativity also abounds at ChikaLicious, a 20-seat sushi-style dessert-only concept in New York City's Greenwich Village. Here, on a menu that changes every three days, Chika Tillman and Donna Ryan serve hot kumquat soup with vanilla ice cream and a ginger biscuit; a warm chocolate tart with pink peppercorns (for a flowery, fruity taste) ice cream and red wine sauce; and their signature dish, a fluffy, crustless fromage blanc island cheesecake. "It's totally different from a New York Cheesecake," which is part of its appeal, says Tillman.

A fun, intriguing name creates interest in desserts and boosts sales, so Mc-Cown puts almost as much attention into naming her desserts as she does in creating them. The cherry crackle poptart, for example, is a delicate pastry that holds sweet and sour cherries and is served with warm lemon crème fraiche sorbet. Her www. cake, in which the "W"s stand for "warm, wild and wicked", is also an attention-grabber.

At Sugar: A Dessert Bar, Chicago, Christine McCabe Tentori takes her inspiration from literature for items like MacDeath by Chocolate cake and Banana Karenina, a tall serving of white chocolate meringue and banana pudding topped with roasted bananas, hot fudge and banana chips. Sue McCown says an intriguing name begs the question, "What is that?" and provides the server with an opportunity to engage in some sweet talk with the guest, and, let's hope, sell the final course.

Creating a head-turning dessert with a seductive name isn't enough. For many patrons at many restaurants, the dining experience would be incomplete without dessert, so it's important that desserts not only be intriguing and tempting, but that they jibe with all of the courses that came before them.

At Tribute in Farmington Hills, Mich., where guests order dessert an enviable 65 to 80 percent of the time, celebrated executive chef Takashi Yagihashi's French cuisine takes on a decided Asian accent and pastry chef Michael Laiskonis's creations follow suit. "I rework the classics and fuse old ideas with something new," he explains. Take his coconut rice pudding strudel. He updates a classic comfort food, rice pudding, by using sushi rice and coconut milk and flavoring it with lemon grass, ginger and vanilla, and wrapping it in pastry. The little rolls are sautèed to order, sliced and plated with a passion fruit coulis, mango-kiwi salad, pineapple coconut emulsion, and green tea ice cream. The result is both familiar and exciting, a combination Tribute's guests can't pass up.

While creativity abounds, pastry chefs are paying ever more attention to flavors and the ingredients from which they come. Every few days, Chika Tillman and her Chika-Licious partner Donna Ryan hit the market to hand-pick the fruit and other ingredients used in their creations.

Tillman credits pastry chefs like Gramercy Tavern's Claudia Fleming with elevating the importance of flavor and ingredients. Tillman says, "It's the idea of mixing a lot of flavors together, but not having unnecessary things on the plate. Pick good ingredients and let them do the talking. If they're good to begin with, you don't have to touch them a lot."

Joel Antunes of Joel Restaurant in Atlanta says using seasonal ingredients is integral to getting the flavor right. He says fruits that "sit 25 hours on a plane" won't fly with his guests, so he tries to use in-season organic products whenever possible. This means his winter menu is graced with lemon tarts and rice pudding with poached apricots he preserved in his kitchen several months ago.

Michelle Gayer-Nicholson, executive pastry chef, Franklin Street Bakery, Minneapolis, agrees: "With the Food Network and people reading more magazines, they're savvier about flavors. They're traveling, throwing dinner parties, and shopping better. It's meant a greater demand for more ingredient-focused dessert items when people dine out."

This truism—that flavor trumps all—is relevant in casual dining, as well. "That's why we don't come out with new cheesecakes very often," says Howard Gordon, senior v.p. of business development and marketing at the Cheesecake Factory. "We work every day in our R&D and culinary kitchens, but it takes months of creating samples to come up with the right flavor profiles."

Chocolate and other classics
Operators know that people love the classics, which makes the rich offering, as well as items like crème brulee, chocolate cake and fruit pies, a must on most dessert menus. In fact, pastry chefs and restaurant operators agree that a successful dessert menu must strike a balance between the new and the familiar, offering something for every customer and every whim. That's why, even at the Cheesecake Factory, dessert diversity extends beyond 38 cheesecakes to strawberry shortcake, giant brownie ice cream sandwich and the 12-layer blackout cake.

It's also why, in addition to his modern French-Asianinfluenced desserts, Laiskonis rounds out his nightly offerings with two soufflès, a crème brulee, warm chocolate cake, and tastings of chocolate and vanilla ice creams and fruit sorbets. At Jones, Philadelphia, comfort takes center stage, reflected in homey desserts like banana bread pudding with brown sugar ice cream and caramel and chocolate sauces and deep dish apple pie with cinnamon ice cream.

Operators also realize that sample platters are another way to coax guests to order dessert. With two, three, or more small servings, tasting plates satisfy customers' desire for "just a bite" of something sweet and offer an enticingly diverse array of flavors, textures and temperatures. At ChikaLicious, Tillman and Ryan offer Pineapple Three ways: sorbet, mousse and braised pineapple. Sample platters are also enticing because they're usually large enough to be shared, especially at casual dining restaurants. At Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo! Cucina Italian restaurants, the trio of tiramisu, crème br?lèe and cheesecake serves four.

What else helps sell desserts? How about a pastry chef who works the room?

While not everyone has the luxury of a pastry staff to support them, Sue McCown gets out into the dining room several times each night, often delivering a complimentary sweet. "If I can get them to order two desserts, I'll bring out a third," she says, particularly because at higher-end restaurants like Earth & Ocean, desserts tend to be smaller, so the extra course is often appreciated and goes a long way toward establishing good will. Smaller portions also help ensure a second visit. "I say, make them small and leave them wanting one more bite," she advises.

Lessons from a dessert titan
What operation knows more about the business of dessert than any other? Quite possibly, it's the Cheesecake Factory, which is named for the iconic American dessert. Its success punctuates Americans' enduring love of rich, comforting desserts. Moreover, with the chain's desserts accounting for an impressive 15 percent of total sales, the Cheesecake Factory illustrates that there's a real demand for that check-building final course. Because the company makes its desserts (25,000 of them each week) at a central location and distributes them to individual units, cheesecakes and other desserts are an exceptionally profitable venture.

What lessons can be learned from this dessert giant? First, that quality counts, and every aspect of desserts, from choosing ingredients to arranging attractive plate presentations, is essential to a successful dessert program. Second, offering a wide variety of temptations practically dares the guest to find a dessert he or she can pass up. While you don't need to develop a 50-item dessert line-up like The Cheesecake Factory's, remember to offer an array of favorite dessert flavors, including chocolate, fruits, cheesecake and caramel.

Third, marketing matters. Okay, so The Cheesecake Factory's name gives them a leg up, but displaying desserts in the entryway and listing them both on the dessert menu and on the main menu, often sells a guest on dessert even before he's seated.

Sharing is another reason The Cheesecake Factory guests are able to find room for dessert. Couples split desserts, and large groups order two or three. "We promote sharing across the menu," says Howard Gordon. He adds that, other than handing guests a dessert menu at the end of the meal," we don't do any suggestive selling. We don't need to."

Now that's a sweet ending.

No Pastry Chef? No Problem!

The argument for purchasing pre-made desserts is a strong one. Ready-to-serve products offer labor savings, portion control, and consistency, ensuring that the Black Forest cake you serve in Providence is identical to the one you serve in Portland.

Today's array of convenience products and ready-to-serve desserts make serving terrific sweets as easy as thawing and plating. Moreover, a simple garnish or plate dressing can boost the profitability of desserts even more. Dinish Gudzar, director of marketing, Toppings and Icings, for Rich's Foodservice says his company's research revealed that a 10-cent dollop of whipped cream, for instance, enables you to charge 45 cents more for a dessert.

The sheer variety of pre-made products on the market makes it easy to create a dessert menu that is not only diverse, offering something for every guest, but one that's different from your competitors' lists.

Popular in the pre-made category are large desserts designed for sharing, according to Tavish MacLeich, marketing manager with Rich's Foodservice's Jon Donaire line. An example is the half-pound slices of ice cream cake, which are large enough to serve a small family and that come in fun retro flavors such as bananas Foster and tin roof sundae.

Bigger is not only better in terms of total poundage, but also in terms of flavor. Another best-seller at Rich's is its line of Double Decadence desserts, which combine such favorites as a layer of brownie topped with a layer of creamy cheesecake. Similarly, Two-Mendous Treats from Sara Lee's Bistro Collection are layeredofferings: cinnamon apple pound cake and caramel apple cheesecake, carrot cake and cinnamon swirl cheesecake. Heidi's Gourmet Desserts deliver several textures of a single flavor with its lemon burst dessert: layers of lemon pound cake, lemon-laced cheesecake and lemon mousse.

At the other end of the spectrum, operators can purchase sophisticated desserts not often associated with pre-made products. For example, Sweet Street Desserts offers restaurateurs items such as European bandes pastries, which can be sliced to any size and are available in such flavors as cappuccino and chocolate craquant. Sweet Street's chocolate pyramid anglaise is an individual serving of a dark chocolate mousse pyramid surrounding a soft white chocolate center.

Plenty of classics, some with unique treatments, are also available premade. From Casa Solana comes a tres leches cake that's scored and ready to thaw, cut and serve. Sara Lee offers a classic individual hot fudge cake, and Mother's Kitchen sells a home-style apple cake filled with whipped cream, drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with roasted pecans.

Want to spend a little more for a dessert that's truly your own? Many manufacturers and bakers work with operators to create signature desserts for their restaurant or chain.

One Sweet Pastry Chef, One Sweet Business

Sometimes businesses evolve in unexpected ways.

In 1987, Minneapolis business partners Wayne Kostroski and Mark Haugen opened restaurants in the Twin Cities area. The large bakery at their Goodfellows restaurant eventually began baking for the entire operation, which, at the time, included the restaurants Tejas and Bar Abilene, as well as a retail bakery at the Minneapolis Marshall Fields department store. The business also started to sell baked goods to a few local coffee shops, resulting in more outside contracts.

By 1994, Kostroski's and Haugen's operation,Cuisine Concepts, had such a demand (mostly for breads) from its own restaurants and from outside customers that it opened its own baking operation, Franklin Street Bakery, in 1994.

Cuisine Concepts' defining moment came last October when it moved Franklin Street to a new $4 million, 20,000 sq.ft. facility and hired Michelle Gayer-Nicholson to head the bread and pastry operation.

Getting Gayer-Nicholson was a major coup, and if her name sounds familiar to you, it should. Among other accolades, Bon Appetit named her "Best Pastry Chef" last year when she worked at Charlie Trotter's famous Chicago restaurant.

As executive pastry chef, part of Gayer-Nicholson's charge will be to operate-Franklin Street's retail bakery, infusing it with her artistic sensibilities, and to expand the company's frozen bakery line and the fresh line that it sells to local hotels and restaurants. While bread will remain the backbone of the business, Haugen says that "we thought the retail operation and having Michelle on board would make a statement about our pastries."

That's not to say that Cuisine Concepts wasn't making a statement before Gayer-Nicholson's arrival. For Franklin Street's frozen pastry line, available through foodservice distributors, the company churns out hundreds of desserts daily, including its best-selling chocolate ancho diablo cake, chocolate cake layered with a chocolate ancho buttercream (the chiles impart a smoky flavor), encased in chocolate ganache. Other offerings include a Bailey's Irish Cream cake, a raspberry white chocolate torte, a sour cream cheese cake, a turtle torte and a carrot cake.

Pastry chef Lynne Hackman is second in charge at Franklin Street Bakery. She says convenience, labor savings and portion control are just part of the reason for their success. "Not cutting back on ingredients," she says, is the real secret. "Using the best products available — eggs, butter, cream, chocolate — and not skimping creates a product that you would never believe was frozen."

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