Chocolate whoopie pies
To get a boost from the health and wellness trend, bakers are making bite-size desserts with clean label ingredients.

KANSAS CITY – There’s a reason people save the best for last, and manufacturers of indulgent desserts are hanging their hats on it.

“Dessert is the last impression you leave on a customer,” said John Alair, president of Kenilworth, N.J.-based Taste It Presents.

People expect it to be delicious and indulgent, a sweet cap to a meal.

As the food industry rides the shifting currents brought on by more informed consumers and on-the-go lifestyles, the definitions of delicious and indulgent have also evolved to keep up with changing tides. Good taste will always top the list of purchase motivators, particularly in a category like dessert, but instead of artificial flavors and high-intensity sweeteners, shoppers are looking for premium ingredients to deliver on decadent taste: high-quality chocolate, large pieces of fruit and other inclusions.

Desserts have also been swept up in the clean label wave. Using recognizable ingredients seems to give health-conscious consumers permission to treat themselves to something that isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice.

“Consumers want to indulge but feel good about it, so we’re eliminating artificial ingredients,” said Lauren Lopez, director of marketing for the In-store Bakery & Deli Division of Rich’s Products Corp., Buffalo, N.Y.

Mini portions also provide an answer to the dilemma of the desire to indulge but also watch calories. This compromise on portion size allows consumers to get their sweet fix without guilt, and bakers are responding with mini brownies, cheesecakes, pies and other treats. These smaller sizes also help desserts find a place in consumers’ increasing mobility as they eat at the table less and less.

With increasing disposable income and an “everything in moderation” philosophy, shoppers are ready to spend their dollars and calories on indulgences, and dessert manufacturers are more than happy to oblige.

Maintaining the mini movement

As consumers continue to snack throughout the day, the plate-and-fork meal occasion is becoming almost a thing of the past. And while not all indulgent desserts lend themselves to the portability of snacks, the small meal movement gives momentum to the mini-dessert trend.

This is especially true when it comes to decadent cakes, according to Doris Bitz, senior vice-president of retail sales and marketing for The Original Cakerie, Delta, B.C.

Cherry pie
Smaller portions are driven by several factors including calorie-counts, portability and smaller household sizes.

“Our petite cakes are big sellers because people don’t want leftovers,” she said.

Consumers want to have their indulgence, but when it’s over, the craving is fed, and there are no regrets.

Nielsen data also reflects the movement to miniature. In the 52 weeks ending April 30, brownies and dessert bars overall saw a 12% increase in dollar sales with mini brownies rising 4%. Mark Van Iwaarden, marketing director for Denver-based Legendary Baking, attributed this trend toward smaller portions to millennials, whose buying power continues to increase. Their mobile lifestyles, smaller households and income have them seeking out mini and portable everything. It’s what inspired Legendary Baking’s single-serve pie and pie-by-the-slice products that will be rolled out for food service in the near future, Mr. Van Iwaarden said.

Even though snacking has the jump on portability, it’s not to say that some indulgences can’t be enjoyed on the go, too. Eli’s Cheesecake Co., Chicago, expanded its products to offer portable, shelf-stable tarts that are baked and topped in-house and made for both food service and retail packaged categories.

The company does offer reduced-calorie options, but Marc Schulman, Eli’s president, said that, when it comes to indulgence, consumers would rather just go for it.

“The calories just have to be worth it,” he said.

On that front, the new line of tarts gives a controlled option without sacrificing the indulgence.

Eli's Salted Caramel tart
Desserts in smaller portions featuring trendy flavors such as salted caramel help satisfy sweet cravings without overindulging on calories.

Other handheld choices include Ghirardelli brownie bites from Just Desserts, San Francisco, which come in 8- and 12-count packages.

Smaller portions and portable indulgences have driven innovation for Rich’s Products. Its Brookie and Sweet Middles lines are both mini desserts easily eaten on the go. Brookies combine cookies and brownies into a handheld treat, while Sweet Middles feature frosting sandwiched between two soft mini cookies. They come in four flavors that feed off other trends for decadence: Carrot Cake, Chocolate Souffle, Creme Brulee and Oatmeal Raisin Crisp.

Handheld decadence suits any time of day, and that includes breakfast, as seen in the rise of prepackaged brioche and chocolate croissants. Bakerly, a Long Island City, N.Y.-based company that produces brioche and other pastries in France for distribution in the U.S., offers small, individually packaged chocolate chip brioche and chocolate-filled croissants. And Richmond, Calif.-based Galaxy Desserts, under its Brioche Pasquier brand, makes the Pitch line, which consists of small, handheld brioche rolls filled with chocolate or strawberry. Both flavors, individually wrapped in packages of six, are aimed at on-the-go kids who want a special sort of treat.

A premium experience

As the American economy picks back up and gas prices go down, consumers find themselves with more disposable income than in previous years. So when they look to treat themselves, price isn’t always the first consideration anymore. Dessert manufacturers can now put out products worthy of the price point, worthy of the spend.

This was Just Desserts’ strategy behind making its brownie bites with Ghiradelli chocolate.

Just Desserts Ghiradelli brownie bites
Bite-size brownies made with a premium ingredient, such as Ghiradelli chocolate, draw consumers seeking an on-the-go indulgence.

“If consumers are going to indulge, we give them an opportunity to indulge in the best,” said Ana Speros, customer service manager and marketing coordinator for Just Desserts. “These bites are crunchy on the outside and gooey and dense on the inside. They’re very similar to a rich, homemade brownie.”

At the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (I.D.D.B.A.)’s Dairy-Deli-Bake Seminar and Expo, held June 5-7 in Houston, keynote speaker Anthony Bourdain discussed consumers’ willingness to spend for a premium food experience and suggested that neither money nor calories matter as much anymore.

“The one-of-a-kind experience matters,” Mr. Bourdain said.

In the past, an indulgence was seen as sinful in terms of money and health, Mr. Bourdain said. But today, this new world of food provides a whole new context.

“I don’t see ‘indulgent’ as getting fat,” said John Conner, president of Sparks, Nev.-based French Gourmet. “I see it as a good thing. There’s a place for it.”

Above all else, taste is king. When people spend money on food these days, they want it to be delicious and worth their dollars and their calories.

“It’s all about tasting phenomenal,” Ms. Lopez said.

By focusing on premium ingredients and taste, bakers can ensure that their products hit the sweet spot.

Tapping international tastes

Mr. Bourdain suggested that American food culture is catching up with the likes of Europe, Asia and Latin America in terms of the passion that revolves around food.

Truly, it is becoming a small world after all. That is evident at companies such as Taste It Presents, which offers upscale ethnic desserts with Italian, Spanish and Asian flair. Mr. Alair identified crossover opportunities for a number of consumer demographics, where “Americanized” versions of ethnic desserts provide opportunities to shift them into the mainstream coast-to-coast.

Green tea cheesecake
Today’s desserts are all about twists on the traditional, and tea flavors are appearing on several menus, including green tea cheesecake.

“Green tea cheesecake has been very popular, as well as matcha green tea,” Mr. Alair said. “I knew it had been popular in areas like California and the East Coast where there there’s a strong Asian-American clientele, and there’s now a genuine market for it.”

Today’s desserts are all about twists on the traditional, and tea flavors are appearing on several menus, such as Tea Latte cakes from The Original Cakerie.

“People are really loving Starbucks and tea,” Ms. Bitz said.

Rocky Mountain Pies, based in Salt Lake City, has a reputation for taking a cue from other desserts and cultures for its latest pie creations. The company recently expanded into Canada and Mexico and created pies for those specific markets — Saskatoon Berry Pie for Canada and Caramel Apple in Mexico. Rocky Mountain Pies sells 50,000 Caramel Apple pies a week in Mexico, and the company gaining traction in the U.S., too.

The company delves into decadence with its S’mores Chocolate Pie, which reinvents a nostalgic summer treat into pie form, and its Pumpkin Chiffon, which offers a new take on another much-loved dessert. Sea Salt Caramel Apple Pie banks on the trendiness of sea salt caramel. Rocky Mountain Pies also turned raspberry lemonade and strawberry margaritas into pies of the same name.

Sometimes a twist comes by mashing up two traditional stand-bys to create something totally new. Hometown Foods USA, Miami, offers Crumb Bundts, an old-fashioned coffee cake baked in a traditional Bundt pan.

“The pan is what gives notability to the cake,” said Gary Schwartzberg, founder and chief executive officer of Hometown Foods USA.

Delicious and nutritious?

In an era of healthy mindsets and better-for-you options, indulgence doesn’t have to be a dirty word. When it comes to their indulgent products, more and more bakeries are emphasizing the use of wholesome ingredients rather than making “diet” versions of otherwise indulgent treats.

“We’re not in the business of selling ‘diet’ donuts,” Mr. Conner said. “If we all thought like that, Godiva wouldn’t be in business.”

Consumers want authenticity in the foods they eat, and they define that as ingredients they recognize, that they can pronounce and that they could find in their own kitchens. According to a survey done by Lightspeed GMI and Mintel reported in the “Free From Food Trends U.S. May 2015” report, desserts clocked in as the third most suspicious category of foods when it comes to controversial ingredients, ranking behind frozen meals and snacks. What constitutes a controversial ingredient is largely subjective, but companies have been removing hot button ingredients such as azodicarbonamide, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), trans fats and artificial colors and flavors.

More and more food companies are going back to basics: eggs, milk and butter. According to several pie bakers, all-butter pie crusts are common now. Butter was previously not the fat of choice in the quest for making the flakiest pie crust, but shoppers are reading labels and voting with their dollars. Shortening is out. Butter is in.

With the clean label and organic movements in full force, consumers seeking indulgence and decadence can still find what they’re looking for in places like Whole Foods Market. For example, Just Desserts launched a line of organic and non-G.M.O. certified grab-and-go items that include single-serve cupcakes, cakes and mini Bundts, all of which are Whole Foods compliant.

“When you indulge, you should be able to feel good about what goes into it,” Ms. Speros said.

Rich’s Products removed all artificial ingredients from its desserts in an effort to deliver sweet treats shoppers can feel good about. The discarded ingredients included HFCS and artificial colors and flavors.

Gluten-free layer cake with fruit and creme
Desserts that feature fruit may be seen as permissible indulgences.

The Original Cakerie takes advantage of fruit ingredients for seasonal items. The company offers a line of summer cakes that come in flavors including strawberry, peaches and cream, key lime, raspberry, and three berry.

“Fruit is a hot trend because it’s a permissible indulgence,” Ms. Bitz said.

In addition, the company launched a line of gluten-free layer cakes last year under its Inspired by Happiness brand, which won a FABI Award from the National Restaurant Association for its innovation in taste, marketability and creativity.

Pie bakeries have also seen a surge in popularity for fruit pies. And bakeries can’t cut corners with jelly fillings. Consumers expect the real deal: large pieces of fruit in their fruit pies.

“Berry is huge for us,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said of Legendary Baking’s pie sales.

The bakery features multiple berry combinations in its pies, including the company’s popular Red, White and Blue variety.

Rocky Mountain Pies also features a Red, White and Blue pie made with cherries, apples and blueberries.

Inspired granola bites
Oats & Honey Chewy Granola Bites are made with honey, butter, seeds and nuts. Deep Chocolate Brownie Bites feature butter and chocolate chunks and are topped with dark chocolate.

Also under the Inspired by Happiness brand, The Original Cakerie recently introduced a high-protein indulgent snack that addresses the aftertaste sometimes associated with high-protein foods. Oats & Honey Chewy Granola Bites are made with honey, butter, seeds and nuts. Deep Chocolate Brownie Bites feature butter and chocolate chunks and are topped with dark chocolate. Both products are gluten-free and deliver 4 to 5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving, all without trans fats, G.M.O.s or artificial colors. This new line of snacks brings together the trends of bite-size treats, premium and clean label ingredients.

That’s where indulgent desserts are finding growth today: at the intersection of mini, premium and clean label.