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!