Menus that Hit a Sweet Note

October 22, 2014 No Comments

Dessert and Coffee Best Practices

At Cafe Play at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, the dessert menu is always a fine balance between pleasing the museum’s biggest customers and pleasing the parents who pay for their food.

“We have a lot of families who come at dinner time, and so we try not to provide a lot of sugary things for the kids,” said Miranda Owen, administrative coordinator at the museum. “We also try to be inclusive; if children have any sensitivity, parents might want to keep them away from certain foods, like gluten or lots of sugar.” Owen said the cafe addresses special dietary needs – as well as the parental desire to avoid sugar overload – by offering a wide variety of baked goods from Flying Apron, a gluten-free, vegan bakery based in Seattle.

Donuts served with Chocolate Cuban coffee and dulce de leche sauces/dips are top-selling at the Verde Restaurant, Perez Museum. “Who doesn’t like donuts?” the executive chef said.

Donuts served with Chocolate Cuban coffee and dulce de leche sauces/dips are top-selling at the Verde Restaurant, Perez Museum. “Who doesn’t like donuts?” the executive chef said.

“We have some really nice muffins, cookies and brownies from Flying Apron,” Owen said. “They taste great, and parents don’t have to worry about their nutritional content.”

But according to Owen’s colleague Kat Stafford, museum manager at the Children’s Museum, the most popular sweet treat at the museum is hardly a decadent dessert.

“The kiddos really love the Annie’s Fruit Bunnies,” Stafford said of the vegan, gluten-free snacks, which are made with real fruit juice. “They’re pretty darn good, considering that they’re sweetened with fruit juice.”

In late fall, the Children’s Museum heads into its busier season, which kicks into high gear in the colder months. Stafford estimated that the cafe goes from about 200 visitors per week in the summer months to between 400 and 500 starting in November. “From November through about May, people want to do family activities indoors,” she said. And during those chilly months, the adults of the families can look forward to a refreshment that offers both warmth and energy. “The parents are always happy to see the coffee selection,” Stafford said.

For Chuck Lippert, food service manager at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the seasonal trends go in the opposite direction, with visitor numbers peaking in the summer months.“We can get anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 visitors a week,” Lippert said. “The summer months are definitely the busiest.”

Executive Chef Nicolay Adinaguev of the Verde Restaurant, Perez Museum, Miami, Fla. The goal at the restaurant is to make dessert fun.

Executive Chef Nicolay Adinaguev of the Verde Restaurant, Perez Museum, Miami, Fla. The goal at the restaurant is to make dessert fun.

Perhaps due to these seasonal patterns, one of the cafe’s most popular dessert type items are frozen fruit treats from Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Company. Lippert added that these sweet treats also appeal to the nutritional concerns of parents. “They only have three ingredients: organic sugar, fruit and water,” he said. “Everything we have here is pretty healthy; our menus are health-based, and we like to have healthy dessert options.”

Organic foods and desserts seem to be the current mainstay of museum cafes. According to Meg Marcozzi, marketing manager at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del., the Belin House cafe at the museum offers organic, gourmet food. However, that doesn’t mean forgoing delicious desserts for customers who, like Marcozzi, have “a sweet tooth the size of Texas.”

“We have the most delicious brownies, really moist, not too gooey and not too cakey,” she said. “Our chef also makes chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal cookies, and a rotating selection of pies.”

The dessert rotation is somewhat seasonal, Marcozzi said, with staples like pumpkin pie offered in the fall. “The different seasons bring different people; usually in the spring and fall we have our adult explorers and school groups, who are coming through during the week,” she said. “And in the summer we get lots of traveling families, and around the holidays, it’s a mix.”

For Becky McMillan, cafe manager of the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, the goal of dessert items is to be quick and affordable. A division of the Texas State Preservation Board, the museum doesn’t have an endless budget, and McMillan said customers aren’t looking to break the bank on food, either.

“We sell cookies, lemon bars, brownies – basically, grab-and-go desserts,” she said. “There are families on a budget, so we try to keep things as inexpensive as possible. We know we’re not going to sell a $6 piece of cake; we try to keep the food as affordable as possible for our visitors.”

Even at more upscale restaurants, such as Verde Restaurant at the Perez Museum in Miami, the goal is to make dessert fun. Executive Chef Nicolay Adinaguev, whose restaurant is operated and overseen by renowned restaurateur Stephen Starr, said his most popular dessert item is an American classic among all walks of life.

“Our top-selling dessert is our famous donuts served with Chocolate Cuban coffee and dulce de leche sauces/dips,” Adinaguev said. “Who doesn’t like donuts? I see these menu items as a sweet ending to your meal; it’s a perfectly sweet combination and a fun dessert to eat. It shouldn’t be a huge portion, just enough for the guests to enjoy and leave satisfied.”

Another valuable selling point for museum desserts is to feature items that tie in to the theme of the museum.  At the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which is dedicated to Native American culture, menu items that reflect native American and southwestern culture are prevalent. Salads with names like “Indian Fair” and “Dreamcatcher” are intermingled with Mexican dishes like posole, totopos and quesadillas.

“At this cafe, the menu items are a little bit more on the rustic side, because we are southwestern and we are native American,” said Irene Rutigliano, restaurant operations manager at the museum. “What we do is high-quality, casual fine dining.”

It might be partly due to the native American theme, then, that the fry bread sundae is the most popular dessert item. However, Rutigliano maintains that there’s another, simpler reason that this sweet treat sells well. “It’s because it’s awesome,” she said.

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