I have a sweet tooth. I am rarely too full to pass on dessert. However, an article in Washingtonian magazine suggests that restaurants (at least those in metro DC) may inadvertently be saving people like me from ourselves by offering less attractive options for dessert or even foregoing offering dessert all together (Why DC Restaurants No Longer Care About Desserts, Feb 4). The interesting part of this is that the retreat from dessert is largely driven by economic and operational concerns.
In the post-crash economy, pastry chefs are no longer seen as essential employees but as pricey appendages.
“It’s not just saving the salary,” one restaurant owner told me. “It’s saving the space, too. To have a good pastry program, you need a designated area of the kitchen, you need a place to store the ingredients. The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has become the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Everything’s smaller now. There isn’t the space.”
More and more, the task falls to chefs and line cooks who, lacking any background in baking, have contrived to fill their menus with simple, quick-fix solutions. Puddings, custards, panna cotta (an Italian term for what is essentially Jell-O made with cream) don’t require a lot of effort or expense; all can be made in the morning and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator.
Some restaurants have given up entirely. “More restaurants than you would think” are outsourcing their sweets to independent bakers, says Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare, with locations in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. Bucher’s is among them. “You give them your recipes and they’ll make them for you. That way you can still say that they’re your desserts.”
All of this suggests that doing desserts “right” is a costly proposition. It requires specialized capacity and likely some specialized ingredients that are not used in other dishes. So it is not just about people it is also about having additional (relatively lightly used) inventory. All of that adds complexity and costs. That leads to the choices of simplifying the offering or outsourcing. Arguably, this is not unlike decisions made in lots of other industries. If producing some component requires a unique set of skills or equipment, it is often best to outsource to a specialist who can create scale economies across multiple clients. The specialist can then likely do things both cheaper and better than the generalist.
But there is a difference between desserts and some other settings. GM likely can’t produce a windshield as efficiently as a specialized supplier. But it is also the case that GM doesn’t price the windshield separately from the rest of the car. Most restaurants don’t bundle the sweets with the savories. If you want dessert, you have to pay extra. Can’t the price of dessert be increased to cover the cost of doing things in-house? As the article notes, restaurants have jacked up the price of appetizers and booze to maintain profits without raising the price of entrees. Why won’t the same thing work for desserts?
The question is why so many restaurateurs have opted not to jack up the prices of dessert, too.
“It’s just not worth it,” a successful owner told me, noting that the prices of dairy have gone up by as much as 150 percent in little more than a year. High-fat butter, a necessity for gourmet baking, sells for more than $4 a pound, double what it was in the summer of 2013. “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.”
I have to admit I am a little confused by this quote. Why wouldn’t higher input prices make a price hike reasonable?
The focus on time, however, makes a lot of sense but requires a couple of caveats. Assuming that tables are a bottleneck and that the process is running at capacity, dessert really could be a money loser. If serving dessert extends the time a party holds a table by 20 minutes, then a restaurant could be losing serving several parties over an evening if most parties opt for dessert. Further, it just takes one person in the party to slow everything down. If a couple decides to split a dessert, then the return (in terms of dollars per minute of table times) on dessert could be very low even if the margin on, say, a slice of cake is high. The same concerns do not really apply to cocktails. Customers consume cocktails while perusing the menu or waiting for their appetizer. That does not really extend the time they hold the table.
Now the caveats are those assumptions that tables are what limit capacity and that capacity binds. The former is plausibly true if the dining room is small. Less so if dishes require lots of work after orders are placed. In such a setting, kitchen staff or equipment is likely the bottleneck. But capacity is only relevant if it binds. Suppose, for example, that tables limit sales on the weekend but not on weekdays. If Tuesdays are slow, ditching dessert could in fact be costly. If relatively few people are coming in, it is worth trying to sell them as much as possible. Said another way, there is tradeoff between maximizing check size and maximizing the number of parties served. The former is relevant off-peak while the latter is the dominant concern at peak times.