Boosting Incremental Sales Through Desserts

boosting sales desserts heroMake it more difficult for your customers to say 'no' to dessert.

Too often restaurant operators treat their dessert menu the same way customers do — as an afterthought.

“For many restaurants, the dessert is the forgotten category,” says menu consultant Phyllis Ann Marshall of Foodpower.

Many operators relegate desserts to the back of long menus, Marshall says. Others reserve the dessert list to a separate menu that customers find easy to decline. Operators seem to give in too easily to customer disinterest or concerns about calories and weight gain, she adds. Clearly, restaurateurs could do more to promote their unique sweet treats whether by properly training wait staff to talk about desserts or showcasing them in interesting ways.

“I find among three or four people at a table there is usually one who is wishing they could have dessert,” she says. “But they are embarrassed because they think they shouldn’t.”

There are several ways to persuade customers to say “yes” to dessert. Here are some strategies from Marshall and chefs who have found a way to incrementally increase sales through desserts.

Appeal to the Senses

Plant the seed for dessert from the start with pictures and dessert displays at the entrance to the restaurant, Marshall says. Let enticing aromas greet customers when they walk through the door. Often restaurants are so well ventilated no smells can escape the kitchen, so operators might want to invest in a smell machine that can send off wafting scents of peppermint, cinnamon or chocolate.

Don’t Bury Desserts in the Menu

Restaurants with lengthy menus run the risk of losing dessert options among all of the choices, Marshall says. If menus are long, feature the desserts closer to the front of the menu rather than at the end. “The guest doesn’t make it to the dessert a lot of the time,” she says.


Marshall and others are big fans of the mini-dessert — bite-size cupcakes and brownies that are lower in calories but big in flavor. Operators can offer samplers of mini treats to customers at a table, Marshall notes.

Oklahoma City-based Coolgreens offers peanut butter bites that are about 2 ounces each and sold in packages of four. The size and calorie count overrides any customer concerns about indulging in too much fat and sugar, says Angelo Cipollone, director of operations. “It’s a quick bite, a quick dose of protein, and it's low fat,” he says.

Make It Easy

Coolgreens places the cookies and other desserts in a teakwood wine rack next to the cash register, making it easier for customers to grab a bag and add it to their check. Often customers will double up on bags of the bites — one bag to eat at lunch and another to eat later in the afternoon, Cipollone says.

“It’s a great 2 o’clock treat or at the 2 p.m. coffee break,” he says. “It’s a little protein to keep them going. They are loaded with energy.”

Make It Easy Online Too

Operators such as Pizza Hut in Canada are experimenting with different ways to showcase desserts as customers place online orders for delivery. When a customer reaches the checkout page, a photo of brownies fresh from the oven pops up as an option to add to the order.

Depending on where the dessert photo appears on the site, it can ultimately affect the percentage of people who would select the dessert, says Hope Neiman, chief marketing officer for restaurant technology company Tillster.

“Even small changes in calls to action can make a significant difference in cross-sell conversion during check out,” Neiman says. “This is especially true for desserts since customers need to be enticed.”

caramel brookie

Nostalgia and Tapping Into Emotions

“I wish selling desserts was straightforward, but it’s not,” says Cathy Pavlos, chef-owner of Provenance in Newport Beach, California. “Probably the No. 1 issue customers have against desserts, especially here in southern California, is they don’t want the carbs, the calories, the sodium, the sugar. You have to find a way to work around that.”

Pavlos creates desserts that remind customers of their childhood when they were not worried about calories — s’mores served in a jar, strawberry Pop-Tarts made with fresh strawberries from the restaurant’s garden, and Fig Newtons — only at Provenance, they are called Fig Newports. 

“You tap into that food memory,” Pavlos says. “The last time you had s’mores was as a child and you were not thinking about carbs and sugar and calories. You were thinking how good it was and what a great experience it was as a kid.”

Instagram Worthy

Design desserts that photograph well; take good pictures of them and post them on social media, says Marshall. “Make them dynamic — pile on the garnishment,” she says. “The visual appeal can get a guest to take a picture of it and post it on Facebook. You want to encourage that. You want the word going out that you have an exciting dessert.”

Pavlos posts menu items including desserts on the restaurant’s Instagram account, including a recent picture of an ice cream sandwich named after the recent solar eclipse.

“Most of my customers are age 35 and up, and they do not rely on social media as much as the younger crowd,” Pavlos says. “But I do like to see our stuff out there, the comments and the 'likes'. If your restaurant is full of 20-somethings every day, you had better be posting on social media.”

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