The Death of Dessert?

I was recently reminded that I neglected to comment on a couple of interesting articles from the Washington Post that appeared last month discussing the decline of dessert. Not the decline of sweets or pastries mind you, but the decline of dessert as a meal course. Dessert, so claims reporter Roberto Ferdman, is a happening that’s vanishing both in the restaurant and in the home. The chief culprit isn’t health or calorie concerns, but time.

Only 12 percent of dinners eaten at home in the United States ended with something sweet last year, the lowest reading in more than 30 years, according to data from market research firm NPD group. Just 10 years ago, in 2004, 15 percent of families indulged after the main course. And 28 years ago, in 1986, the number was nearly 25 percent.

“People don’t have the time for dinner that they used to,” [Balzer] said. “And dessert is seen as the least important part of the dinner meal.”

At the current rate, after all, dessert is on pace to vanish altogether, according to Balzer. “There’s a real possibility that your grandchildren won’t know what after dinner dessert is,” he said. “If the trend continues, 2054 will be the last time dessert is served at the dinner table at the end of the meal.”

The trends aren’t as clear at the restaurant level, though the simple economics of dessert lend support Ferdman’s argument.

“It’s hard to make money on desserts in the restaurant business today,” said Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University who has written extensively about the economics of eating out. “I don’t think many [restaurants] benefit when people order them anymore.”

There are many problems with dessert, but it all starts with one pretty simple truth: The restaurant industry is a place of razor thin margins, and dessert tends to offer one of the thinnest.

Food in general is tough to make money on. Restaurants have long relied on the mark-up they tack onto drinks, not grub, to boost profits. As food costs soar, that reality has only become more true, because there’s a limit to how much people are willing to pay for different parts of their meal.

And then there’s the time problem again, since time is money at a restaurant, at least during peak hours.

Parties that might have finished their dinner in a little over an hour instead linger for closer to two when they opt for dessert. And they stay the extra 30 minutes while consuming only a fraction of what they did during the first part of the meal. It would be different if people ordered drinks more often alongside cake, but they often don’t. It would change things if dessert wines were more popular, finer and more expensive, but they aren’t.

“A cocktail brings in twice as much money as a dessert, and it doesn’t hold up a table at the end of the meal. You have to turn the tables,” Mark Bucher, who owns D.C. restaurant Medium Rare.

Interesting stuff, though it’s far from definitive. It would have been nice had the restaurant article been backed up by some specific research. Still the overall thesis makes a lot of sense and makes me wonder — not whether pastry has a future, but what the dessert course might turn into, because diners definitely aren’t tired of sweets, especially if they’re made well.

Could pastries become more of a midday meal as they are in European cafés? Could restaurants make more of an effort to attract a patrons during off-peak hours to enjoy a pastry or plate of cookies? Why not? In such a scenario everybody would win: the restaurant makes a sale when it ordinarily wouldn’t, the customer has a new occasion to look forward to and the pastry chef has a job. If it sounds far-fetched just think about the recent explosion of brunch. Who ever saw that coming?

Anyway, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the subject. Comment away!

53 thoughts on “The Death of Dessert?”

  1. I did not grow up with dessert after dinner every night. I think the expectation of daily desserts is uniquely American. Dessert in our house was for holiday dinners and birthdays or if we had guests for dinner. If we had guests stopping by for tea (our family is Russian), then we would have the Stella d’oro cookies or some chocolates on a plate or an occasional treat from a pastry shop. If it was a regular night at home and you wanted something sweet, you had some fruit. I don’t provide dessert every night after dinner.
    My husband grew up having a Hostess cupcake or Ding Dong and milk right before bed almost every night. I can’t even imagine.

    1. Ha! He sounds like a man after my own heart. I loved those things!


      – Joe

    2. As an American I can assure you that the situation is much greater than you may imagine. We often seek a dessert for both lunch and dinner… and then maybe as a bedtime snack also.

  2. Most of the comments I was going to make after reading your article were already covered in the 2 articles that you referenced. I would say that for restaurants struggling with margins and time, the solution may be rethinking the format – so serving light, quick things like sorbets, or small plates of chocolates / truffles / petit four / mignardises may offer a pleasing middle-ground for both parties. At the fine-dining end of the budgetary spectrum, people are paying for hedonism and so restaurants may have to continue doing whatever it takes to get people to walk through the door, and then come back for more. Dessert is the course I look forward to most, and I would hate to see it go!

    1. Me too, Choc. I doubt that’s in the future but it seems like something needs to change!


      – Joe

  3. I think restaurants sometimes overdo it and then they see their profit margins suffer (and then put less effort into it later on). They’ll offer a dozen choices, in which only 2 or 3 are truly well made. Unless a restaurant is known for their desserts, if I see more than 3 or 4 items on the dessert menu, it makes me cringe, because it’s a gamble whether it’ll actually be good (and who would want an unpredictable finale to their meal where you might leave sorely disappointed?).

    I do wish there were more pastry shops around in the US. It would make my mid afternoons so much better. Definitely cafes are starting to put more effort into their baked goods by hiring pastry chefs, but a dedicated venue to these types of sweets would be even better… A cup of espresso with some delicious tartes or creme filled pastries would make my day.

  4. And yet there are a number of restaurants up here in the Boston area that serve nothing but dessert – seriously fancied up, seriously expensive dessert plates. They open in late afternoon for the tea-time crowd but they seem to be most crowded late at night – after people have caught dinner or a show or both. When I say crowded, I mean lines out the door, 1 hour wait times crowded. So I’m not sure dessert is going anywhere though it may certainly be evolving.

    1. Hey Karen!

      That’s another solution to the problem that I was thinking about when I was writing this: eliminate the savory side! A couple of dessert-only restaurants opened in Chicago a few years ago. One flopped I believe when they attempted to do savory pastry to round out their offering. Undermined their own value proposition it seems, but I don’t know for sure. Louisville has yet to get on the all-dessert bandwagon!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. Back in the mid-90’s, when I was at college, there used to be a dessert-only cafe in Madison, NJ – I only went there a few times, due to a lack of transportation, but I remember it being a good place to take a date you wanted to impress on the way back to campus after a show or similar.

        I’ve seen a few dessert-only places around the Buffalo area where I live now, but I haven’t tried any of them.

        1. Didn’t know the trend went back to the 90’s. Very interesting, Jane. Thanks!

          – Joe

  5. Well, dessert is not dead in my circles – but it is consumed less often than it once was, not because I’m not prepared to spend or linger (and trust me, I drink with my dessert), but because I’m a woman of a certain age with issues exacerbated by eating sugar. Maybe it’s that the peeps who can afford to do dessert right just can’t afford to eat it. I also think that people don’t respect dessert anymore – not the chefs (who can’t make money) nor the consumers (who rush about and have to drive home afterwards so can’t do it right).

    1. Thanks K-Line! It seems to me that there’s a sort of downward spiral at work. Restaurants don’t have pastry chefs, so they buy a lot of mass market desserts instead, which don’t taste as good so people don’t order them. There’s a heck of a lot of disappointing dessert out there. If there isn’t even a part-time pastry chef at a restaurant (and believe me, I ask) dessert isn’t worth it.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. You are SO right! When I pick restaurants (like, if I’m going on vacation), I choose the ones that have a pastry chef. I mean, if they’ve got it together on dessert, the rest of the meal is bound to be adequate. And, especially in TO it seems, there are often really mediocre tarts and pastries that aren’t quite mass produced, but are so mediocre and ubiquitous. Which in my opinion is worse than bad. Wow, I seem to have really strong feelings about this! I’m almost insulted if I order dessert and it’s bad. And I won’t get it if it’s not made in house.

        OK, one more thing: There’s a restaurant in my ‘hood that’s very good – “local” cooking, really straight-forward but elegant food and they do some of the loveliest desserts. Never fussy but always perfectly made. I love to go there because I know I’ll have a complete meal. It’s such a lovely way to eat.

        1. Your strong feelings are no doubt why you’re here! 😉

          But yes, I get severely disappointed when a dessert is bad, or when it’s clear it came from elsewhere, even if it’s a good bakery. “All our desserts are supplied by X pastry shop”. As soon as I hear that I just ask for the check. Sigh.

          – Joe

  6. I don’t often eat dessert at a restaurant because I’m often full after eating an unnecessarily large main meal. I also find that desserts are often wildly overpriced: A factory-made tart with a scoop of factory-made ice cream with a drizzle of factory-made sauce for $15? No thanks. On the other hand, I would pay for house-made, high quality desserts, but they are rarely on offer.

    1. Hey Youngster!

      That’s exactly what I mean…it’s sort of a self-reinforcing spiral. Less interest = less craft so even less interest. I’ll generally eat something like a homemade fruit crumble even if I’m already full…as long as its homemade. But that’s me! 😉

      – Joe

      1. I’m in this camp too – when I go out (which is rarely), I’m all in for dessert. Problem is, too many places have the ‘standard list’ (recite it with me – lava cake, brownie with ice cream, cheesecake option, tiramisu)… if I’m lucky, there’ll be something even moderately interesting, like a Creme Brulee.

        I don’t need every place to have a signature dessert. What I want is them to have something different than the ‘list of 4’ that I see all the time. And if it’s authentic (not out of a box), I’ll go with it. And if I’m disappointed, I’ll go someplace else.

        And I think that the margins are not the problem – I think that most people who are interested in dessert aren’t considering the $ factor unless it’s exorbitant. But the downward spiral continues…

  7. Growing up in the 60’s, my Mom always served dessert after dinner but not very often was it special. It was mostly canned fruit, pudding or ice cream with cookies . When I cooked for my growing kids, it was similar but not every night.
    Now, the choices for a special dessert in our house is apple pie or an apple or fruit crumble – that is usually only once/month when the kids are home for a weekend visit — but then I’m often told “we’re too full to eat dessert”. For my husband and I, calories are the biggest reason we aren’t having dessert but we sometimes have a dish of ice cream a couple of hours after our meal.
    “Too full for dessert” often the case after a restaurant meal where the entrée portion sizes are too large to begin with and no one ever has a good apple pie anyway!

  8. I agree with K-Line. I like to be careful about the dessert calories I consume, being of a certain age. At the same time, if the menu lists: flourless chocolate cake, creme brulee, carrot cake, key lime pie, cheesecake, tiramisu – I will bet my old Volvo that they are pre-made and will not go near them. A sneer is all they will get from me! Last year, while visiting our son in Las Vegas, NV, he insisted on taking us to an AMAZING restaurant called Sweets Raku, opened 6p-12m, that serves only deserts, fine tea, and wine. The chef is from Japan and her assistant is from Mexico. He told me that many chefs from the “finer” restaurants in Las Vegas go there to see how dessert looks when it is done right. Check out the write ups on-line. The gushing is all warranted. Meanwhile at home, I’d rather have a little dessert after lunch or in mid-afternoon with tea.

    1. Fascinating, Melinda!

      And great point: there are a lot of “tells” on restaurant dessert menus the indicate that the management is hiring it out. Molten chocolate lava cake is another one of those. Cheesecakes, tiramisu, tartlets of various kinds and ice cream cakes are some other common “supplied” desserts. Thanks, Melinda!

      – Joe

  9. I don’t really understand the article. If they are claiming the decline importance of dessert, isn’t the same can be said about entrée? If anything dessert is now becoming more specialised and being appreciate on it’s own. Café house in Europe, Asia and Australia are doing just fine keeping dessert in demand.

    1. Hey Izzy!

      That’s certainly true. I think the idea here is not that sweets are in decline but that in the States pastries and savory courses are parting company. That may well be a good thing, but it’s definitely a cultural shift for a country that used to put sweet things at the end of the evening meal.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  10. I take after my dad & think a meal just isn’t finished until you’ve had a little something sweet–even just a mint. My mom is an excellent baker who crafted everything from healthy cookies to fancy treats (like flan, which for the 70’s in our town was positively exotic).

    I always offer some sort of dessert option post dinner & lunch but am married to one of those would rather fill up on the entrée types so guess I do it more for me & any guests when we have them.

    Did I miss it if the analysis of the topic included whether people who lingered over well made in-house dessert were more satisfied & perhaps more likely to return & recommend?

    That seems to me like a potentially important point.

    1. I didn’t see that in the research but that’s a very interesting thought. More repeat business may well be worth the slower turnover. Nicely observed!

      And I’m like that as well, a little sweet something is a necessity between dinner and sleep, even if it’s something very tiny.

      Thanks Cath!

      – Joe

  11. What I want to know is what is that delightful almond meringue looking puff in the picture and is there a recipe for it?

      1. Holy moly, those sound incredible! Pinned for my next dinner party. Thank you!

  12. Hi Joe
    I think the reason is that is very difficult to find a bakery that actually produces pastries of any quality. Most bakers/bakeries turn out routine run of the mill stuff which takes time but little skill (mass production after all) and hardly tempts the taste buds at all. High end bakeries on the other had are so rare that their prices are stratospheric as production is low which drives prices up. The industry is killing itself.

    1. Yes I think you’re on to something there, Soupçon. Restaurants generally need to mark up anything they sell by 100%. Anything bought from an outside vendor will be hugely expensive by the time it gets to the customer, even though the quality is middling.

      Great point!

      – Joe

  13. Hi Joe!

    I don’t have outlook set up on my computer, so I can’t send an email directly. I hope it’s okay I’m commenting here, even though my comment isn’t directly related to the above post. I’m just wondering (and maybe you’ve answered this question before – if so, I apologize for the redundancy), where you get your sources for the historical aspect of your posts. I was a history student and am fascinated by the history of food, but it seems it’s a bit of a niche field. Any book or article suggestions?



    1. Of course, Kently!

      Great question. It’s funny, if you get into it there are a surprising number of titles out there. Some of them very specialized, some of them not so much. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food is a good intro volume as it has lots of articles, though they’re not always very deep. For pastry a good recent book is Sweet Invention, a History of Dessert by Michael Krondl. If you check the book’s index you’ll find hundreds titles on various subjects. I have dozens of books on various aspects of food history, a lot of them focused on various time periods like the American Civil War, the Middle Ages, Ancient Greece, that sort of thing. Some are highly specialized like the history of corn or tomatoes or pepper, there are lots of those hyper-focused volumes out there two. One piece of specific advice I’ll give is to avoid Larousse Gastronomique which is interesting as a cookbook and curiosity, yet is responsible for a lot of the historical disinformation in the food world.

      The Food Timeline is an online resource that it is very well documented.

      Have fun!

      – Joe

  14. Growing up I had a mostly-stay-at-home-mom who often had time to make a meal in several courses: salad, soup, entree with sides, home baked dessert & fruit. But now, with two working parents in my own household, there is barely time to set the table and cook & eat a one-pot meal. We eat a lot of packaged junk during the day, too, because room temperature stable is the way of lunchboxes. So when we do have a home cooked dinner, I reserve the effort for the protein and complex carbs and veggies. I’m too darn tired and there’s too little time for prep to go much farther. And we’re starved at the end of the long commute–no one wants to eat slowly in courses–and I’m not getting up to serve again once I’ve sat down. So it’s everything on the table at once, or get up and get it yourself. Later in the evening–before bedtime — there’s often time for a treat of some sort. If I’ve had time to be inspired on the weekend by some creative food blog, we might have a tin of something nice in the house. If not, packaged stuff will have to do.
    So your formal dessert course may indeed go the way of the household domestic servant and “homemaker.” It’s not that we don’t want it–it’s just that someone has to have the bandwidth to attempt it.
    (Also, I want the kids to eat their dinner without assuming that if they just pick at it, they can make up the calories later on dessert. This is the healthiest meal you’re likely to have had today, and it’s all we’re having for the next several hours. Enjoy.)

    For the professional dessert makers, there seem to be an abundance of nice places/bakeries/chocolate shops/fancy dessert places around here–a trip to Icing on the Cake across the street from the Los Gatos public library is a very nice weekend afternoon outing, especially with an armload of freshly checked out books.

    1. Very well said, Sialia. Most people today are in that same situation. Mrs. Pastry is a university professor and I work out of a home office, so we have more flexibility than most but still feel the crunch almost daily, especially as the girls get older and more into sports. Considering that almost every cake or pie donated to our grade school events comes from grocery stores or (at best) boxes, it’s safe to say that most people today wouldn’t know where to begin when it came to making a scratch cake or pie, mostly for the reasons you outline.

      So we’re in a full-blown outsourced world. That being the reality, it would be nice if more people bought better stuff from better bake shops (though there’s obviously a big money factor there) or they set aside a little time to make something special during the week. Which is…ehem…what I’m here for. 😉

      Cheers and thanks for a great comment,

      – Joe

      1. As far as the outsourcing goes, people will happily pay a premium for the good stuff – but it’s the convenience factor that wins the day. Specialty bake shops don’t have the hours of the big grocery stores, so you get the good stuff on rare occasions. My homebaked goods are big winners at church sales, etc, but unless I decide to turn out the stuff semi-full-time (and I don’t have the time or setup for that), it’s going to be few and far between. Add in that with the supply chain/family schedules being what they are, the home baking skills are becoming more rare – thank god for the internet!

        1. At least some people will pay more, Roger, no question. But yes, grocery stores have really taken over the role of a bakery for most people. That’s a little depressing, though I’ve got to admit that a lot of grocery store bread and baking departments have gotten better in recent years. Say what you will about the foodie movement, it’s definitely driven quality improvements in a lot of places!

          Cheers and thanks for the comment!

          – Joe

  15. My first thought would be it’s a money issue for many people. As a long-term unemployed person, I can state definitively that the food budget is the only place to cut once you’ve cut everything down to the bone. Within the food budget, dessert is an obvious cut as well as meat and dairy because they’re expensive. We eat vegetarian/vegan more often than not out of necessity rather than preference. Things like steak happen maybe once a year. I love to bake, though, so we have dessert a few times a month. If your choices are a filling meal of beans/veggies/rice or dessert, you’re likely to usually choose a meal, especially if you have children to consider. The same principle applies in dining out. If you don’t have a large budget for eating out, you’ll skip the apps and dessert and enjoy the nicest meal you can to get the most out of the experience. There’s also the issue that the vast majority of restaurants serve pretty desserts at high prices that taste like junk. And the appetisers are sometimes lacking because they’re meant to be consumed with copious amounts of alcohol and again, the taste is not the point. I’d put my one bowl chocolate cake against any fancypants cake in a restaurant as far as taste goes. And I can make soft pretzels with beer-cheese dip with the best of them. It used to be you go out to have something you can’t make at home or can’t make as well, but anymore, even the most average cook can match or surpass many restaurants. Pastry in many areas has gone the same way, mass produced and low quality. Instead of employing pastry chefs, they pay teenagers minimum wage to put frozen prefab pastries on a baking pan and into the oven. I was reading recently about the state of food in Paris, even restaurants there are moving toward using premade mass produced items rather than going through the labor intensive processes. Chains have popped up and even fast food has established a presence. There are new laws and regulations being debated and implemented about what constitutes scratch cooking and what doesn’t. People are unwilling or unable to pay for quality anymore. The state of the economy and job markets are a good indication why that might be. And I also have realized that not everyone cares that much about their food and some even prefer boxed mix cakes and mass produced danishes. I’m hopeful there will be a resurgence of wide-scale preference for real, from scratch cooking and baking. I wish fast food would die instead of dessert. However, an economic reset will need to happen first. Most people are just scraping by, with large amounts of debt, upside down mortgages, and either huge decreases in or a complete lack of income.

    1. Thanks for that very thoughtful comment, Jennifer. I’m with you — there’s nothing like home-cooked…everything. When it comes to food especially, I’m a do-it-yourselfer.


      – Joe

  16. Very thought provoking article. I’ve always thought of dessert as an optional course reserved mostly for special occasions. Growing up, we had dessert after Sunday dinner only (and every holiday dinner, too) and in a family of 6, there were rarely leftovers, so we looked forward to Sundays! If there were a leftover, it went in my Fathers brown bag lunch. Store bought cookies were doled out by my Mom as part of our packed lunches or as an after school treat. Homemade cookies were for holidays! That said, Gramma was old school. She made sure we dined, even if on the occasional TV tray served in the den! There was always homemade dessert after dinner. But, one of my favorite memories was going shopping with her and stopping, mid afternoon, at a diner for a piece of pie or other pastry and coffee. What a treat to not have a dessert held hostage by how much you ate at dinner…and it was baked on site or she wouldn’t have stopped there! Regarding restaurant dessert:
    Like others have noted, rarely are desserts a specialty of the house anymore and like others, the meal is usually so heavy who has room for dessert, especially it’s if it’s outsourced? Plus…many (chain or low end) restaurants want tables to move, or so it seems, by how absentmindedly and/or grudgingly they ask if you want dessert! I guess I eat too often at chain restaurants rather than dine at the finer places.

    1. I like that mid-afternoon pie tradition!

      Cheers and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  17. It could be that people feel less of a desire for a proper dessert course following a meal because we are eating more and more “sweets” in various guises throughout the day?

    As far as I can tell, people aren’t reducing their intake of muffins, cookies, pastries, croissants, whether prepackaged or freshly made, as snacks or with coffee. Then there’s all the sugary drinks from sodas to the latest Starbucks creation. Americans are still eating more sugar than their grandparents did and if you look at the typical diet of the past when dessert courses may have been more common, you’ll find far less sweet consumed during the rest of the day or at other meals.

    1. That’s very possible as well, Tally. Nice observation. There sure is no end of sweet stuff around. Maybe that means good pastries aren’t as special to people as they once were. Very interesting thought!


      – Joe

  18. I have yet to get a truly great pastry in America, except for at a handful of places. That, for me, is the cause of death of dessert as a course in restaurants. At home, it’s simply calories that make me reserve dessert for special meals.

    1. Oh, now…

      I’ll admit that great pastry doesn’t just fall out of the sky in the States, but there’s no shortage of it if you’re willing to look — and be open to things like pies, cobblers and bread puddings.

      All defensiveness aside, I’m in broad agreement that the factors at play in many U.S. restaurants mitigate against quality. No argument there.

      Thanks for the comment!


      – Joe

  19. Unfortunately, most restaurant desserts (other than at very high end restaurants) are very disappointing; especially if you know how to bake!

    On the other hand, that makes it easy to impress guests at your house by producing a homemade dessert: even very simple desserts, like apple pie, or creme brûlée, or double chocolate pudding, get raves at our house because they are made with care and good ingredients. But I’d eat dessert out more frequently if it were as good as homemade, or better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *