At a growing number of restaurants nationwide, dessert isn’t just for dessert anymore. Operators and chefs are moving the traditional last course into the limelight with eateries devoted to what had merely been a meal-ending treat.
Operators of the dessert-only restaurants say they are reaping some sweet rewards from the different dining experience. Finale Dessert Co., which opened its first location in Boston in 1998 and has since added outposts in nearby Cambridge and Brookline, has seen same-store sales increases every year. In 2006, comps were up 5 percent year-over-year, and company-wide sales jumped 28 percent as units older than 2 brought in $2 million annually on average.
Finale is planning to open a location at the Natick Mall in Massachusetts this fall in addition to “numerous” additional sites in development, says co-founder and president Paul Conforti.
But it’s not necessarily an easy course, he adds. “Nationally there’s plenty of competition,” Conforti says. Indeed, any place serving desserts can be a competitor. That means anything from European style coffee houses to Starbucks.
The trick to standing out, he says, is being exactly like those regular restaurants. “A bakery that would be serving desserts might serve them from a counter as a cut or a slice, or European cafe-style places [with] table service might not be incredibly friendly or the atmosphere is not upscale.” Finale tries to combine all of the positive elements, with a few upscale twists of its own. We do plated desserts with port champagne and dessert wines,” Conforti says. As a result, he says, when customers think of quality desserts, they come to Finale first.
He did not say how many of those patrons might have started their dinners at another restaurant before coming into a Finale for their dessert.
In Atlantic City, N.J., Jemal Edwards, executive pastryat Brulee: The Dessert Experience, remembers that Finale was the oldest desserts-only concept he knew when Bruleee opened in February 2005. By the time he was approached by Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen of Libre Management, owner of an Atlantic City restaurant called Cuba Libre, nearby New York already sported several other dessert-only concepts, including ChickaLicious in the East Village.
“Somebody had ventured out and it worked,” Edwards says.
Edwards brought his French and European pastry training as well as his experience working in smaller to medium-sized restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco to serving desserts, adopting a classic three-course French style of service. Each dessert item is an entree preceded by the chef's choice of an amuse sucree, and the experience ends with petits fours.
As an evening destination, Brulee took advantage of providing a distinct dining option for the varied crowds that are attracted to Atlantic City and its nightlife. Edwards would not disclose the restaurant’s 2006 sales volume, but noted that it topped the year-earlier tally by 15 percent.
“Our clientele [runs] the gamut of twenty-something kids down playing at the shore to the older and middle-aged,” says Edwards. “That’s the one thing about dessert. Not everyone loves Cuban or Russian cuisine, but everybody loves dessert. So we really have a broad appeal.”
Room 4 Dessert in New York City is trying to position itself as a part of the city’s famed nightlife by touting itself as a dessert bar. The restaurant's location was chosen to accommodate the 28-seat bar that runs the length of the space. R4D's streamlined menu was drafted to attract people who come in after dinner or before heading out to other activities.
Chef-owner Will Goldfarb, who opened R4D with partners Stephane Lemagnen and Laurent Lanneau in January 2005, says their clientele includes supermodels, grandmothers, college students, hipsters, computer geeks and writers.
"People want to have something luxurious without having to spend $1.000," Goldfarb explains.
The menu’s complex desserts showcase what Goldfarb learned from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and various bistros and pastry shops in Europe. He also worked in the renowned molecular gastronomy kitchen of El Bulli.
Goldfarb said his careful pairings of desserts with distinct and innovative savory items allows R4D to function as a complete dining experience rather than merely an after-dinner or before-theater option.
“We mix experimental ideas with classics’ taste and texture,” Goldfarb says, and his El Bulli training comes through, "mostly in the conception, technique and attitude."
Checks average about $10.25 per person, he says
The two big sellers on this season’s menu, he indicates, are the Laissez Pear, consisting of baked pears “ducasse,” pear bavarian cream, crispy pear skins, and a cake of kabocha squash; and Choc’n’awe, made with white chocolate cake, cacao mousse, sucree safranee, chocolate cream and chocolate ice cream. Both items are featured in a Room 4 Dessert Tasting sampler priced at $14.
Finale also tries to find that sweet spot between traditional and experimental flavors. “I think there is a little bit of both,” says executive pastry chef Nicole Coady. The Boston Pastry at Finale has the flavors of a Boston Crme pie, with layers of yellow cake, pastry crme and berry cream and chocolate ganache. “So it has all the flavor components there, but doesn’t look anything like it,” she says.
The concept strives to be the "Robin Hood of desserts," appealing to diners who want a fine-dining experience that is affordable. Finale’s dinner menu features desserts served on 12-inch entree plates. During lunch, the outlets offer a cafe menu and dessert options from the evening, though sold non-plated at the service counter. Yet desserts and drinks account for 85 percent of sales, according to management.
“For us it was about access. There are these fantastic desserts you could eat at a fine dining restaurant or a fancy hotel,” says Conforti. Prices range from $15 $20. Patrons would “have to spend $100 a person to get dessert because [other restaurants] won’t let you come in at eight on a Friday night and just have dessert,” he continues. “They’ll turn you away or tell you to eat at the bar.”
Signature desserts at Brulee include creme brulee, a vanilla creme brulee served with orange scented madeleines, the Banana Nana, a milk chocolate and banana domed dessert served with bananas foster. Checks typically fall between $18 and $25, with prices ranging from $14 to $21.
Pears, white chocolate and other elements of ambitious desserts may suggest that stocking the pantry of a dessert restaurant would break the bank, but Edwards says food costs can actually be attractive if the production is handled right. He pegs his food costs at 16 percent to 18 percent, “which is astounding for a restaurant.”
Coady would not disclose Finale’s food cost, but commented, “desserts can lower food cost if you can control your inventory. A lot of the inventory can be held in the freezer, so if you can control your inventory you can control your waste and you can usually run a tighter cost.”
Strong sales of alcoholic beverages also help dessert restaurants’ margins. At R4D, customers can enjoy cafŽ au lait or tea, but more than half the items on the menu are alcoholic choices, including sweet, white, red and sparkling wines priced no lower than $10 by the glass. They sell for $101 by the bottle.
Goldfarb says the beverage list subtly changes whenever the food menu is remade.
“We have a really lengthy port menu and dessert-wine menu.” Moore says of Finale’s beverage choices, which also include champagne and dessert wines. “Our staff can actually explain to you what a port is.”
Brulee’s beverage menu is the personal project of corporate mixologist Peter van Thiel, who strives to find interesting and unusual dessert wines as well as new flavors for “dessert cocktails” and coffee drinks. He says 35 percent of the restaurant’s sales come from beverages.
“Desserts and sweet wine go so well together it’s really to our advantage,” Edwards says. Wines share the spotlight with desserts priced from $9 to $24.
“You wouldn’t go to the Palm or Morton’s and not have a great wine with it. We put a lot of energy and effort into our beverage selection,” he says. “It’s truly a complete experience.”