A. Elizabeth Sloan

Super-stressed and pleasure-seeking Americans are sending sales of sweet goods, desserts, and sweet snacks soaring.

According to the Consumer Network of Philadelphia, Pa., sweets and chocolate top the list of Americans’ favorite foods, ahead of steak and pizza. Bon Appetit’s “What America Eats” survey found that nearly half of all evening at-home meals and 90% of casual dining restaurant dinners end with dessert. Snacking frequency is also on the rise. RoperASW reports that 26% of Americans eat two meals a day plus snacks (up 9% since 1989), 29% three meals a day plus snacks (up 11%), and 2% only snacks.

With 71% of Boomers purchasing cookies; 66% donuts; 63% special occasion cakes; 62% coffee cakes, Danish, pastries, and sweet buns; and 55% pies, it’s not surprising that comfort, old-fashioned, and nostalgia-driven treats will remain a key focus. In chain restaurants, cheesecake was the most frequently added new dessert item in the 2002 Chain Account Menu Survey. Trendy specialty versions gave way to strawberry, one example of an overall return to basic dessert flavors.

Dataessential Research reports that chocolate (36%), apple (17%), strawberry (11%), cherry (6%), raspberry (5%), lime (4%), coconut (3%), banana (3%), and lemon (2%) are the dessert flavors most often seen on restaurant menus. Chocolate éclairs ranked second on Restaurants & Institutions Menu Census list of overall leading restaurant sales gainers; fruit and nut breads came in eleventh. Apple pie remains the most ordered pie; chocolate, carrot, or cheesecake the most ordered cake; and cookies, sundaes, and brownies the most ordered “other dessert.” The homespun trend has also given rise to new flavor descriptors, including hand-rolled, brick-oven baked, and sugar dusted. Expect other American favorites to come on strong, such as Edward’s Fine Foods’ frozen turtle, lemon meringue, key lime, and Georgia peach pies. Southern specialties like Flowers Bakeries’ Red Velvet Bingle or Old Colony’s new hand-held fruit-stuffed version of traditional lemon bars. Little Debbie’s individual Banana Nut Loaves, Zebra Cakes, and Hostess’ Lemon Poppy Seed Mini Muffins, Merit Crullers, and Apple Spice Cup Cakes further exemplify the trend.

At the same time, the demand for indulgent, high-end desserts continues to grow, and all evidence suggests that consumers are willing to pay the price. R&I’s Menu Census reports that crème brulee is now the top-selling dessert in fine-dining establishments. Upscale “flair” favorites, such as crepes Suzette and bananas Foster, and classic cakes are back in vogue. Premium, high-end treats like Pepperidge Farm’s Dessert Bliss or Mississauga Ontario’s Starr-chef-inspired Culinary Delights cheesecakes are right on target. Look for a new series of ethnic delights to emerge from Europe, such as miniature gourmet desserts—Napoleons, Swiss rolls, mini-three layer raspberry torts, and round specialty creme-filled pastries, now being marketed by Holland-based Quality Pastries. Our love of everything Latin will cause the flan, dulce de leche, caramel/coconut cakes, and other classic desserts to gain unprecedented attention. Main Street Gourmet’s Que Rico Crème Cakes come in tropical flavors, including dulce de leche and piña colada. With the new focus on Italian regional cooking, led by the Olive Garden restaurant chain, expect country Italian favorites like cannoli and tortufo to move center stage.

Taking a page from candy marketing, sweet goods manufacturers are also learning the value of gimmicks, movie tie-ins, form changes, and fun. Parmalat Baking Groups’ Mother’s Blasters have a crackling candy in the cream center, and Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy Glow Blasts contain yellow-coated candy glow chips. Kraft/Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy has teamed up with the upcoming E.T. movie sequel. Pillsbury’s Deluxe Classic premium cookies are 50% larger than other ready-to-bake cookies and designed for adults. Sara Lee Bakery Group offers hefty, homespun 10-in, 47-oz Signature Selection Pies. Nekot introduced S’mores Poppers in chocolate and marshmallow flavors, Quaker introduced Chewy Dips granola bars, and Haas Baking Co. introduced Extra-Gooey Butter Danish. Sales of Kraft/Nabisco’s poppable Mini Oreos and Ritz, in re-sealable bags, continue to grow, while its Chips Ahoy brand broke new ground with a cookie bar form.

With 146 million Americans overweight, 16 million diabetic, and 54 million on low-carbohydrate diets, watch for sugar-free and lower-calorie sweets to explode. Nabisco, Keebler, and Mother’s lead the pack with sugar-free lines. Even SnackWell’s offers a few sugar-free options. In addition, watch for nutritious products like bars and beverages to continue to get more indulgent and dessert-like. After all, it’s hard to refuse a nutritionally complete mocha chocolate, chocolate chip mint, or kiwi lime mousse bar.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.