Desserts in smaller portions help satisfy sweet cravings without over-indulging on calories. Rich and trendy flavors such as salted caramel also dip into consumers’ demand for premium, decadent tastes.

There’s a reason why 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, Taste It Presents, Kenilworth, NJ. 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, In-store Bakery & Deli Division, Rich’s Products Corp., Buffalo, NY.

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

Bite-sized brownies made with a premium ingredient such as Ghirardelli chocolate draws in consumers wanting a snack on-the-go and to treat themselves.

Maintaining the mini movement

As consumers continue to snack through their 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, retail sales and marketing, The Original Cakerie, Delta, BC. “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 reflects the movement to miniature. In the 52 weeks ending April 30, 2016, brownies and dessert bars overall saw a 12% increase in dollar sales with mini brownies rising 4%. Mark Van Iwaarden, marketing director, Legendary Baking, Denver, 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 foodservice in the near future.

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 foodservice and retail packaged categories.

The company does offer reduced-calorie options, but Marc Schulman, Eli’s president, indicated 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.

Other handheld choices include Ghiradelli brownie bites from Just Desserts, San Francisco, that 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 hand-held treat. 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.

Hand-held 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, NY-based company that produces brioche and other pastries in France for distribution in the US, offers small, individually packaged chocolate chip brioche and chocolate-filled croissants. And Richmond, CA-based Galaxy Desserts, under its Brioche Pasquier brand, makes the Pitch line, which consists of small, hand-held 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.

In order to get a boost from the health-and-wellness set, bakers are making their desserts with clean label ingredients by removing controversial ingredients such as artificial flavors, colors and high fructose corn syrup.

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. “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. “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 (IDDBA)’s Dairy-Deli-Bake Seminar and Expo, held June 5-7 in Houston, keynote speaker Anthony Bourdain talked about people’s 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,” the renowned chef said.

In the past, an indulgence was seen as sinful in terms of money and health, and as Mr. Bourdain noted, Americans have traditionally been restrained when it comes to food. But today, this new world of food provides a whole new context.

“I don’t see ‘indulgent’ as getting fat,” said John Conner, president, French Gourmet, Sparks, NV. “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.