The rise of the drinkable dessert on restaurant menus
The low-commitment items are portable, customizable, and social media friendly
05 January 2024
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The Café du Monde at The Betty in Atlanta is inspired by the New Orleans restaurant of the same name
Desserts can be a tricky sell. Guests love them and they’re highly profitable, but it’s not always easy to convince customers to invest in the extra time, money, or calories.
One option is to make them drinkable.
Beverage consumption in general is surging as consumers turn to menu items that are fast, portable, customizable, and satisfying, especially in the growing afternoon daypart. Restaurant companies large and small have noticed, and are responding with an array of drinkable desserts.
Whether they’re milkshakes, dessert cocktails, coffee slushes or other options, these sweet, fun, and often textured drinks are striking a chord with guests.
Guard and Grace, a steakhouse concept that’s part of the TAG Restaurant Group and has one location each in Denver and Houston, recently added a cocktail list to its dessert menu.
“We’ve never really had a dessert cocktail menu before, and we wanted to give people what they didn’t know they wanted until they had it,” said the restaurant’s “bar liaison,” Jake Pike. He added that sometimes the dessert cocktails are ordered with dessert, and sometimes they are the dessert, especially after guests have had a full meal and “want a sweet libation to round it out.”
Bill Brillinger had a similar idea with the Café du Monde cocktail at The Betty, a restaurant at The Kimpton Sylvan Hotel in Atlanta where he is head sommelier and lead bar manager.
It’s a variation on the Espresso Martini, the combination of vodka, coffee liqueur and espresso, or sometimes cold brew coffee, that is probably the trendiest cocktail at the moment; menu research firm Datassential reported in July that it was on 164% more menus that month than it was four years earlier.
“I wanted to create something completely different than what’s typically expected of an Espresso Martini,” Brillinger said in an email, adding that the drink is named for the New Orleans restaurant that specializes in beignets and café au lait. “It’s kind of a play on Café du Monde’s famous chicory coffee, with a dusting of powdered sugar on top as a tribute to the world famous beignets.”
To make the drink, he combines Hoodoo Chicory Liqueur with espresso, Crown Royal whiskey, vanilla syrup, and chicory pecan bitters.
Photo: The Espresso Martini at Guard and Grace is so popular that it’s batched into a keg and served on tap. The Creamsicle Milk Punch combines Scotch, Licor 43, Cointreau and Irish cream.
A variation on the Espresso Martini can also be had at Guard and Grace. It’s made with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Moonlight Espresso Liqueur, espresso and demerara sugar, and it’s so popular that it’s batched into a large cocktail keg and served on tap, Pike said.
Almost as popular is the restaurant’s Chocolate Banana Old Fashioned, which is a milk punch made by adding milk and citrus to a cocktail so the milk curdles, and then straining it, giving the drink a clear color and rich mouthfeel.
This particular milk punch is made with Woodford Reserve rye, Flor de Caña seven-year-old rum, and banana brandy. Chocolate milk is added to that, along with a “tiny bit” of orange juice to help the milk to curdle. After sitting for around two hours, the mixture is strained through a coffee filter for a couple of days, removing the milk solids and resulting in a clear drink that’s garnished with a white chocolate banana slice.
Pike also offers a Creamsicle Milk Punch, made with Monkey Shoulder Scotch, which Pike said has vanilla and orange notes, along with vanilla-forward Licor 43, Cointreau orange liqueur and Coole Swan Irish Cream, clarified with whole milk.
“You get beautiful flavors of orange and vanilla. … It makes a very rich cocktail seem very bright,” Pike said.
And finally, he offers the Spaghetti Western, his version of an affogato — espresso with a scoop of gelato. A key ingredient is Grand Brulot VSOP Cognac that has been sent to Ecuador to be aged with local coffee beans. For the Spaghetti Western, it’s mixed with Coole Swan and then poured at tableside around a scoop of honey bourbon ice cream, an act that diners often take videos of and post on social media.
“The look and presentation is something we really go above and beyond with, as well as the taste,” Pike said.
Twisted Root Burger, a 14-unit chain based in Dallas, offers a limited-time shake every month, along with a lineup of regulars including chocolate, vanilla, and a root beer float.
The shakes are made with house-made custard and are extra thick. Sometimes customers complain that they’re difficult to suck through a straw, “but that’s the point,” said Nick Bradshaw, the culinary specialist for that chain as well as Snuffers and Village Burger Bar.
The shakes are intended to pair with the monthly special burger. For December, that was the Happy Hollandaise Burger, made with Swiss cheese, bacon, a fried egg, and Hollandaise sauce.
He paired it with a gingerbread cake shake, using custard spun with a slice of gingerbread cheesecake and then topped with whipped cream, nutmeg, and cheesecake pieces. It’s $7 but can be spiked with Sailor Jerry Rum for an additional $2.
Each of Twisted Root’s monthly shakes can have a shot of liquor added. For anything cakey, like the Red Velvet Shake that’s typically sold in February, whipped cream flavor vodka is usually offered. Fireball Cinnamon Whisky could be added to the apple pie shake that was offered last July.
The shake of the month for January is Coffee and Doughnuts, made with vanilla custard, coffee, and miniature doughnuts. “It’s sort of a hangover cure,” Bradshaw said.
Taco Bell has long offered iced coffee and Freezes, the Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service chain’s word for slushy drinks, but it is expanding, tentatively, into frozen coffee and shakes with two single-unit tests underway.
Photo caption: Chef Shinobu Namae’s signature dish “Fixed Point” is a symbol of the restaurant’s culinary evolution. | Photo Credit: L’Effervescence
Taco Bell is testing frozen coffee drinks at two locations | Photo Credit: Foodbeast
Coffee Chillers — flavored iced coffee blended with ice and topped with sweet cold foam — are in test at a unit in Mission Viejo, Calif., in three flavors: Mexican chocolate, caramel churro, and spiced vanilla.
Churro Chillers — shakes topped with sweet cold foam and churro crumbles — are in test in Irvine, Calif., in Mexican chocolate, dulce de leche coffee, wild strawberry, and sweet vanilla flavors.
“It’s no secret that frozen drinks are continuing to increase in popularity with consumers — especially Gen Zs,” a Taco Bell spokesperson said via email, adding that the chain had been preparing the beverage test for months.
“Consumers continue to be drawn to caffeinated beverages as a pick-me-up, particularly frozen or iced options for younger customers,” the spokesperson added. “We are also testing shakes as an afternoon and evening option. We believe rounding out our product portfolio would make Taco Bell a one-stop shop for craveable eats and treats.”
Caramel is one of the fastest growing shake flavors, according to Technomic’s Ignite menu data; it’s on 12% more menus now than a year ago, and the fastest growing flavor is salted caramel — up 42%, the research firm said. It’s followed by brownie, which is up by 19%; vanilla bean, up 14.3%; and mint, which is up by 6.8%.
The popularity of caramel and vanilla comes as no surprise to Dutch Bros’ chief marketing officer Tana Davila, who said one of the coffeehouse chain’s most popular morning drinks is the Golden Eagle, an espresso drink with half & half, vanilla syrup and caramel sauce topped with whipped cream and more caramel sauce.
She said customers as well as “broistas,” Dutch Bros’ name for baristas, are part of the drink development process.
“Our Strawberry Horchata Chai is an example of that,” she said via email, explaining that a broista developed it when a customer wanted to try something new. “The drink grew in popularity on social media and from there became one of our most popular summer product drops, with nine million views on Instagram and TikTok to date.”
Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers has long had shakes on its menus, made simply by blending its house-made chocolate or vanilla frozen custard with milk and guests’ choice of its 26 mix-ins.
The chain based in Wichita, Kan., is offering an Oreo Cookie Peppermint Shake as a limited time offer.
Freddy’s chief marketing officer, Laura Rueckel, said the brand adds new shakes to drive traffic. “They generate news and excitement among Freddy’s most loyal and new guests,” she said via email. “They improve the check average and create profit for our franchisees. Shakes and other sweet drinks like malts and floats are essential to our overall menu and marketing strategy. Last year, we featured a limited-time Root Beer Float, which has evolved into a menu hack ordered by guests year-round.”
Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers offers a rotating lineup of shakes that the Wichita, Kan.-based chain says help drive traffic
She said the chain will be bringing back its Frozen Hot Chocolate Shake as an LTO in January due to repeated requests on social media. She said shakes with sweet-salty elements would be added later in the year.
“We’ll also feature decadent flavors and textures, including chocolate crunch, peanut butter, and caramel,” she added.
IHOP also relies on consumer feedback for beverage development, said Arthur Carl II, the chain’s vice president of culinary.
“For example, we know fresh strawberries are a core favorite ingredient at IHOP, so we knew integrating them into Wonka’s Scrumpdidilyumptious Strawberry Hot Chocolate was a must,” he said via email.
IHOP’s recent limited-time Wonka menu included the Scrumpdidilyumptious Strawberry Hot Chocolate, and Dreamy Lemonade garnished with cotton candy
That’s part of the Wonka menu that was available as part of a cross-promotional effort with the movie by that name that was released in mid-December. It’s hot chocolate flavored with strawberry syrup and garnished with whipped topping, a drizzle of chocolate sauce and gold glitter sugar.
Carl also takes into account how menu items will perform on social media, which proved successful with the Dreamy Lemonade that’s also part of the Wonka menu. It’s prickly pear-flavored lemonade served in a glass rimmed with cream cheese icing and rainbow sprinkles and topped with cotton candy that guests can stir into the drink.
“Our Dreamy Lemonade has proven a real social media star thanks to the side of whimsy the sprinkled cream cheese rim and cotton candy topper add,” Carl said.
Jack in the Box had a cross-promotional shake earlier this year in time for St. Patrick’s Day: the Mint Mobile Shake, which had Oreo cookie pieces, a whipped, minty topping, and a cherry. The chain introduced it in partnership with Mint Mobile owner and movie star Ryan Reynolds.
As part of the promotion, the quick service chain offered a chance to win free rent to customers who ordered the shake during St. Patrick’s Day week.
In an email response, Jack in the Box said the chain “leans on social media trends, seasonal and surprising ingredients” as its developing new menu items. It added that the incentive to win free rent “was no coincidence, but rather a product of Jack in the Box knowing what customers wanted.”
It added that sweet treats such as shakes “not only contribute to incremental sales, but also showcases Jack’s commitment to satisfying cravings, especially sweet ones.”
Photo Credit: L’Effervescence
Source: Nation’s Restaurant News