The Best Desserts Rarely Sell Themselves
My position on desserts is simple: what we serve our guests has to be outstanding, it has to be in line with our brand, and it has to be high quality. If we don’t make it in-house, then we partner with those suppliers who have as much passion about their craft as we do. So, if we bring in someone else’s cheesecake, it is one of the best cheesecakes we can buy.
Whether you are going to spend extra to bring in high-quality desserts, or make them in-house, remember that we are visual creatures — we eat with our eyes first. If your guest is expecting “giant New York” cheesecake and your server presents a slice of shriveled up, dried out cheesecake that they ripped out of the box, with a big ol’ thumbprint and a chunk missing out of it, served on a tired looking plate … Well, you get the picture. The delivery is just as important as the quality of what we are serving.
Dessert is special, it’s a treat. Your guests are already full from a delicious dinner, so how do you get them to justify those additional calories? First you have to catch their attention. Eye catching desserts sell. You don’t want them to regret those extra calories, so that tiramisu must be the best tiramisu they’ve ever had. After all, it’s about how we make people feel that leaves a lasting impression.
That being said, even the best desserts rarely sell themselves. You can have the best dessert menu around, but if your servers take the ‘vending machine’ approach and bring only what your guests ask for, your dessert sales will struggle. Train your servers and call takers to make suggestions, and to enhance the guest experience. How many times have you heard a server say, “do you want dessert” or “did y’all save room for dessert?” Those questions kill me. How un-inspiring, and really ineffective. What do you mean? What do you have? What’s your favorite desert here?
How about, “we have the best tiramisu that I have ever had, would you like a slice? And how about a latte to go with that?”
Most restaurants call this upselling. We call it enhancing the guest experience. Your servers shouldn’t be like a sleazy used car salesman, trying to increase their PPA by selling your guests something they don’t want or need. Instead, look at it from the perspective that you want your guests to have the best experience possible. And what better way than to help educate them on a dessert that they may enjoy or turn them on to a menu item they may not even know about?
It’s all about strategy! Our servers are also trained to come by mid meal and remind our guests to save room for “our award-winning bread pudding.” They also mention that it takes an extra 15 minutes to prepare. This peaks guest interest in the dessert, conveys that the dessert is special, and that it’s made fresh and is not sitting in a hot well.
Servers also strategically pre-bus their tables before bringing the dessert menu. Dirty dishes are a reminder of how many calories you’ve just consumed. We want to minimize buyer’s remorse. Remove the evidence as quickly as possible and you’ll probably get them to bite – pun intended! If you don’t catch your guest before they have to loosen their belt, offer them a dessert ‘to-go’ to enjoy later. Remember, though, product quality and guest experience are still paramount. Don’t offer a takeout dessert that doesn’t travel well. In our case, bread pudding is best when it is fresh, so we offer it take-and-bake style with heating directions.
Your servers and call takers are the ambassadors of your brand and know your menu better than anyone else. We have a server who can sell us out of bread pudding every shift. She also is aware that our bread pudding takes 15 minutes to prepare, so she will switch her focus to cannoli or send them with something to go if we are on a long wait at the door.
I also feel that a good dessert menu should be a blend of ‘expected’ desserts along with desserts that are unique to you. Those unique desserts become one of your differentiators, what sets you apart from the operator down the street.
For us giant New York cheesecake, chocolate-dipped and traditional cannoli, tiramisu and gelato are ‘staples’ in an Italian restaurant, but then we have our own style of bread pudding, house-made cinnaknots, specialty cheesecakes and spumoni ice cream. All of which are unique to us in our market.
Spumoni ice cream is a house favorite, and we give it away! While you can find Spumoni in just about any Italian restaurant in New York and New Jersey, it’s not as common in Northern Colorado, so we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with a complimentary scoop of Spumoni ice cream, on a decorated plate, with a song from our team. This has turned on many guests to this traditional Italian dessert and they order it the next time they visit!
As for our award-winning bread pudding, it’s not the typical gut bomb bread pudding, with raisins and a dense texture. This is our own spin on bread pudding, using toasted Italian bread and a Grand Marnier cream sauce, it’s light and fluffy and comes out in a sizzling cast iron skillet and is a showstopper. It really sets us apart and is kind of our hook!
Cross utilization of ingredients, whenever possible, keeps your inventory team and your bookkeeper happy and is always a best practice. So, we make our signature bread pudding and cinnaknots with ingredients already stocked. Cinnaknots are our fresh (un)garlicked knots baked in butter, then dredged in a cinnamon-sugar mixture, and served with our house-made cream cheese icing. They are unique to us and easy to make utilizing ingredients we already have in-house.
In the end, there isn’t a silver bullet to selling desserts, but rather a multifaceted approach. It is a combination of quality products, a well-trained team, a little strategy and lots of hospitality.
Wholly Stromboli’s Cinnaknots
MELISSA RICKMAN is co-founder of Wholly Stromboli in Fort Lupton, Colorado, and member of the World Pizza Champions.