If Americans are known collectively for having a sweet tooth, they’re indulging it less at dessert time.
The frequency at which Americans served dessert after dinner at home has dropped from 24% in 1986 to 12.4%in 2014, according to consumer research firm the NPD Group.
The decline has less to do with health concerns than a lack of interest and spare time, according to NPD analyst Harry Balzer: “Dessert adds to the effort of making a meal,” Balzer says in an NPD press release. “You have to prepare it and clean up, plus it adds to the cost.”
Restaurants are taking a similar tack, given the extra time and effort required to offer a wide selection of desserts. As the Washington Post reported in February, profit margins on dessert are thin, if non-existent. What’s more, diners are less willing to pay high prices for desserts than for entrées, and those who do order dessert linger at their tables longer, which can slow a restaurant’s turnover.
An earlier piece in Washingtonian magazine lamented the dwindling attention paid to desserts by the city’s nice restaurants: ”In our supposed golden age of Washington dining, the end of the meal is marked by $9 dishes that look like something you could whip up yourself—without a cookbook,” wrote the publication’s dining editor, Todd Kliman. One example he noted: a single dollop of ice cream without a garnish.
Kliman explained that restaurants have little incentive to hire pastry chefs, especially since they take up valuable kitchen space. Perhaps that’s why pastry chefs are striking out on their own to launch dessert-only restaurants, such as New York’s famous Dominique Ansel Bakery and Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar.
For the chefs that put all their chips on desserts, the stakes are high, but so may be the rewards. Upon winning the latest season of the hit cooking competition show Top Chef, Los Angeles-based chef Mei Lin said, “If you’re going to put on a meal, dessert is a must. But if you’re going to do a dessert, it needs to be mind-blowing.” She won the cooking show’s grand finale on the merit of the dessert she served to the judges, when a dessert had not even been required.