2009 October: The Sweet Life

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carrot cakeIt’s no secret that times are tough for restaurant operators. Money is tight, customer numbers are down, and more than ever profi t margins are at a premium.

But even though you may not be able to add that second location (yet), there are ways to boost profi ts in this down economy. How? By taking advantage of one of the most popular ingredients on the planet: sugar.

After all, the only thing better than a great pizza is an even better dessert. “Some people just can’t live without dessert,” says Vincent Disanza, owner of Familia Pizzeria in Las Vegas. “They seem to enjoy indulging in things they can’t get other places, so a lot of the desserts on our menu you can’t fi nd in other restaurants or even in other pizzerias.”

Best of all, adding desserts to a pizzeria’s menu is a low cost, high margin way to boost the bottom line. Not only are desserts an easy up-sell for existing customers, they can even serve to draw new visitors.

At Linda Winchester’s Black Rock Pizzeria in Reno, Nevada, where all of the desserts are homemade, many customers now come in specifi cally for the after-dinner offerings. “A lot of times they will ask before they sit down, ‘What’s for dessert today?’ so they know whether or not they need to save room,” she laughs. “The focus is still on the pizza, but people do come in knowing that they’ll get a dessert here that they won’t get anywhere else.”

These are menu items that all but sell themselves. “Everyone is always way too full when they fi nish their meal to even consider dessert,” says Jeff Freehof, owner of The Garlic Clove Italian Eatery in Evans, Georgia. “And when you ask them if they want to see the dessert tray they always say ‘no.’ But desserts sell visually. You’ve got to get it under their nose. Then they always change their mind.” Black Rock Pizza’s Winchester agrees. “They just have to see a piece of boysenberry pie go by with ice cream on top and that gets their attention,” she says. “Then it’s, ‘Oh, wow, what is that?’ ”

As a result, good presentation is key when selling desserts. Because, while a good-looking slice of apple pie a la mode is a no-brainer sale, half melted ice cream and stale chocolate cake can do more harm to your pizzeria’s bottom line than not. Some operators go the glass case route, displaying everything up front by the customers, while others plate desserts individually in an existing cooler on
of the counter. For take-out operations, displaying full desserts next to the register and then cutting off slices as customers order them is often an effective approach, as take-out containers are rarely designed with presentation in mind, although packaged brownies, cookies and other grab-and-go items work well there, too. Frozen desserts obviously require more careful storage, but scooping them out of a freezer and plating them right in front of the customer is a time-tested method of presentation.

Disanza says he posts pictures of his desserts at the front of the store, which helps get customers thinking about something sweet while clearing up any confusion about his traditional Italian desserts. “A lot of times people might not exactly know what a cannoli is,” he says, “so they might otherwise not order it. The pictures give them an idea of what they’re getting.”

Fortunately for pizzerias, there isn’t much that doesn’t go well with pizza. Traditional Italian desserts like tiramisu, zeppole and spumoni are popular choices, although cheesecakes, packaged brownies, cakes, cookies and frozen desserts are also solid sellers. Even outside the box offerings like dessert pizzas and sweet stromboli are fair game. The trick is fi nding desserts that make sense for the pizzeria itself. Although homemade and exotic offerings are great, you don’t necessarily have to start off that ambitiously. Buying a few cheesecakes each week from a local bakery or ordering a few gallons of gelato from a supplier is an easy way to get started offering desserts without investing too much time or energy.

If it takes off, then you can get more involved. “When we first opened, I knew we’d be too busy to make desserts,” Freehof says, “so I started off buying everything. One by one I started replacing them with home made, and now I just make sure to set that time aside each week. People love them. It’s easier to sell anything when you can slap that homemade label on there.”

And, according to Winchester, even non-bakers can get into the act with a little creativity. “There are always things that kitchens can do to make homemade desserts,” she says. “You don’t have to do full pies, but you can make fruit bars. You don’t have to do layer cakes; sheet cakes are fine. The thing is, when you make something from scratch you can tell and the customer can tell.” ?

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Desserts Made Easy

Think the kitchen in your pizzeria is too spartan to offer much in the way of dessert prep? Think again. Consider the possibilities of the pizza oven.

Not only can the go-to pizzeria appliance be used to heat up fruit bars, brownies and other prepared desserts, creative cooks can even enlist the oven for making basic pastries, preparing “dessert pizza” crusts, cinnamon stromboli and other baked treats whipped up in the stand mixer and sent through the oven.

And that’s not all. A deep fryer can be put to use making pizza dough zeppoles –– doughnut-like Italian fried pastries that are often filled with custard, fruit or pastry cream and topped with powdered sugar –– or even cannoli shells that can then be piped full of sweet mascarpone cheese. And how about all that coffee you crank out? Put some of it to use in a basic tiramisu.

Tim Sprinkle is a writer from Denver, Colorado, who specializes in business topics and feature writing. His work has appeared in a variety of national publications.