Fast casuals innovating desserts, snacks to boost post-lunch traffic

| by Cherryh Cansler
Fast casuals innovating desserts, snacks to boost post-lunch traffic

Much to the dismay of mothers everywhere, many people these days are eating their dessert before dinner. Data from LevelUp reveals the most popular time for ordering desserts is now between 2-4 p.m.

"Dessert orders during the traditional dinner hour (5-7 p.m.) tend to decrease slightly," Alex Shuck, director of analytics at LevelUp, who studied sales over the past year of top merchants using LevelUp's network. The company works with more than 200 restaurants, including sweetgreen, Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Tropical Smoothie Cafe, to custom develop mobile apps,

"In the case of some restaurants, dessert sales pick back up between the 7-9 p.m. time frame. Certainly, that could suggest people are eating dinner later, but overall, the 2 to 4 p.m. time frame is the real ‘dessert hour,'" he told Fast Casual in an email interview.

The data suggests Americans are indulging in a mid-afternoon sweet to beat the post-lunch slump, Shuck said.

"Chocolate chip/chunk cookies and brownies tend to be the top selling dessert items, but restaurants are beginning to craft up new dessert items in an effort to boost sales — like the Nutella Pizza one of our local Boston restaurants recently started selling," he said. "Never fear, the cupcake trend hasn't gone anywhere — consumers purchasing cupcakes are leaning toward flavored cupcakes like red velvet and peanut butter versus the more traditional flavors of vanilla and chocolate."

Out-of-the-box flavors aren't only for cupcakes, however. Red Mango, an all-natural frozen yogurt brand, has gone off the beaten path with banana chai and roasted peanut butter LTOs and boasts other innovative offerings, including snickerdoodle, red velvet No. 9 and vanilla latte.

Fruit and vegetable combinations that are healthful and unexpected are a flavor profile gaining popularity, Jim Nortarnicola, CMO and VP of franchise sales for Brix Holdings, Red Mango's parent company, told Fast Casual in an email interview.

"Particularly in frozen desserts," he said, such as carrot and avocado.

Snacking vs dessert

While the 2-4 p.m. time frame may be increasingly popular for ordering dessert, NPD Group's Warren Solochek told Fast Casual that snacking, in general, is also on the rise.

"It is an interesting issue because what people call ‘dessert' today is not always a traditional dessert item. If they are having a bite around 2 p.m., sounds more like a snack occasion to me," he wrote in an email. "This may be a traditional dessert (sweets) or it may be a beverage (espresso-based coffee) or it may be a smoothie or a burger….lots of choices are available to consumers."

NPD found the biggest growth in snacking traffic in restaurants has occurred during three time periods:

  •  5 a.m.-10 a.m. 
  • 11 a.m.-2 p.m. 
  • 5 p.m -8 p.m.

"What is of more interest is the items (food or beverage) that are purchased as a part of a snacking occasion," he said.

For example, NPD data found the 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. time frame included an increase of the following menu items: 

  • Carbonated soft drinks.
  • French fries.
  • Burgers.
  • Iced tea.
  • Mexican nachos.
  • Salty snacks    

"The key is that snacking does not always include traditional snack food items," Solochek said. "Often, the items purchased for snacking occasions are beverages or food items that could also be a main meal item. The breadth of items purchased as a snack is quite wide."

Capturing the afternoon snacker

Offering innovative flavors is one way to capture the sweet tooth of the snacker, Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, shared in an email with Fast Casual.

"Flavors encompassing desserts include more extreme like ginger, sumac, charred and smoke, the sweet browns — natural sugars like honey, maple, coconut, brown sugar, raw sugar," she said.

Flavor inspiration, however, is also coming from global, regional comfort foods.

"As in French mini fruit tarts, scandinavian kringles, babka from Israel and Middle East, and from the U.S. look to pecan pie, key lime pie," she said. "It is because we are in a bit of a stall right now with the political unrest, hurricanes and mass shootings. It causes consumers to move to a fearful place and return to comfort food, to an extent."

Another way to entice customers looking for an afternoon pick-me-up is to not only offer decadent menu options but to also have a few healthy treats.

Restaurants will win by feeding consumers' cravings for indulgence without sacrificing healthfulness, said Mindy Armstrong, partner and growth strategist at Harvest Collaborative, a firm specializing in the customer experience and menu trends, in an email interview with Fast Casual.

"As more companies enter the healthy foods space — plant-based, gluten-free, low-calorie, etc. — the most important factor will be securing consumers' trust," said Armstrong, who pointed to Halo Top as an example of a brand "using ingredient innovation to help re-imagine healthier versions of traditionally unhealthy foods."

The low-calorie ice cream brand, which was previously only sold in grocery stores, openedits first scoop this month in Los Angeles. It's serving seven classic Halo Top ice cream flavors — vanilla bean, cinnamon roll, pancakes and waffles, red velvet, caramel macchiato, sea salt caramel, and chocolate chip cookie dough — as well as soft serve.

While the flavors sound rich, a small soft serve is between 70 and 90 calories and has 5 to 6 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving. 

Red Mango realizes the importance of giving guests both healthy and indulgent options, which is why it serves a line of Skinny Sorbettos, which have 10 to 15 calories per serving, alongside its more decadent offerings.

Menu items aren't the only tool brands should use to incentivize post-lunch traffic, however.

"At the foremost, free Wi-Fi is important to many customers, especially those who frequently work remotely or from home," said James England, senior vice president at Fourth, in an email to Fast Casual. "Additionally, for places looking to get the attention of moms, having a play area or child-specific features are especially helpful. Finally, we recommend offering specials during that time that could drive additional traffic.

Cover photo: iStock

Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage

Cherryh Cansler

Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for

wwwView Cherryh Cansler's profile on LinkedIn

Sponsored Links:

Related Content

Latest Content

Get the latest news & insights





Why fast casuals should ditch plastic straws