Bring back the dessert trolley!

Maison Francois dessert trolley

Calling the sweet-toothed…

I have felt sorry for pastry chefs for the past 41 years. It was in the summer of 1981 when I opened my restaurant, L’Escargot, that I saw at first hand just what these talented individuals have to put up with.

They were the first into the kitchen every morning to use the ovens before the rest of the chefs, as well as being the last to leave, having to complete the final table’s orders and then clean up their section. They were inevitably anonymous: when was the last time you saw the name of a pastry chef at the bottom of a dessert menu? And, although the same amount of care, attention and thought goes into everything that they created, their desserts were never that well appreciated or even enjoyed.

A dessert was always the hardest thing to sell back then and it remains so to this day. Customers do not seem to have the time for a sweet course at lunchtime and in the evening the dessert course is invariably the easiest to skip for a variety of reasons: you’re running late, you’re on a diet, or you simply don’t have room.

Dessert sales were about one-third of our overall sales, a figure that does not seem to have changed that much over the years. Our restaurateur son reports that at Clipstone they manage to sell desserts to 40% of their customers at lunchtime and to 42% at dinner, while over in The Quality Chop House it is to 25% at lunch and 38% in the evening. Only at his Portland restaurant does he manage the magical figure of 100% – because there is no alternative. They offer a three-course menu at both lunch and dinner. These figures are fairly universal.

That is despite the fact that desserts can not only be a fitting end to any meal but also can be both seasonal and also highly evocative. Recently I have enjoyed a wonderful millefeuille of rhubarb which my guest said reminded him of his year in Paris 40 years ago; a delicious bowl of Capezzana olive-oil ice cream (which I generously split with two friends); a blood-orange and almond cake; and, most intriguingly, a garlic kheer at Manthan restaurant on Maddox Street, London. This is a dessert that involves soaking garlic in white wine vinegar and boiling it in water before mixing the garlic with hot milk, sugar, cardamom and a bay leaf and subsequently adding saffron and charoli (an almond-flavoured seed). This dessert can be served hot or cold and it opened my eyes to the potential of garlic.

It seems to me that the easiest way for restaurateurs to improve sales is by increasing the percentage of tables to which desserts are sold but I also understand that this is easier said than done. Here are a couple of suggestions.

All desserts should be on a separate piece of paper that is presented to the customer after they have finished their main courses and their table has been cleaned and cleared of the salt and pepper. Such a design would also put an end to the practice of certain restaurants of demanding to know which dessert you fancy even before you have enjoyed your first course! I for one do not want to see the desserts on offer before I have ordered my first and main courses and I even less want to see what first or main courses I could have ordered when I am thinking about a dessert or cheese.

This was the significant change introduced at Clarke’s restaurant in 2014 and one that has made a big difference to their sales of desserts. The removal of the salt and pepper signifies a fresh start, according to Paul Baldwin, the restaurant’s general manager. ‘When the dessert menu goes down, it is up to us to judge how long to leave the table to enjoy it. Maybe five minutes, never too long. Then we can move in and sell a menu that deep down, everybody loves. For me, it is the icing on the cake.’

There is one other extremely effective way of improving sales of desserts and that is via the introduction – or should I say the reintroduction – of a dessert trolley.

Some of us will remember these of yore. Large trolleys full of sweet things: large cakes, bowls of trifle, millefeuilles and fruit tarts. Quite a lot of them involved chocolate – though desserts today are much more likely to feature healthier fruit-based options. These trolleys stood proudly by the entrance and transfixed any child as they walked past them. Then they disappeared, perhaps with the growth in stature, and control, of the kitchen from the 1990s onwards. The thinking was that all dishes, including all things sweet, had to be finished in the kitchen.

This was a terrible mistake in retrospect, for two very different reasons. The first is that we ‘eat’ much more readily with our eyes, particularly desserts. I am not a fan of being shown a raw steak or a whole fish, as was the custom at L’Epicure in Soho. But I can be persuaded by the sight of a tarte Tatin or of the ice-cream trolley at Le Gavroche. And that was the second corollary of the disappearance of the dessert trolley – the opportunity to convince the wavering to change their habits and order a dessert was taken away. For good.

Such a trolley was always part of the design game plan for Maison François, the chic but laid-back French bistro opened by François O’Neill on the site of the former Green’s just before the first lockdown. He had always wanted one and worked with Rewthink, the Kent-based specialist creators of front-of-house products for the hospitality industry. The introduction of the trolley proved, and continues to prove, highly successful – from every point of view, according to Ed Wyand, the restaurant’s general manager, and the head chef, Matthew Ryle.

Maison François’ trolley is on three levels: the top one offers the most room for the larger desserts; the second offers a range of small petits fours, madeleines and macaroons; while the bottom one offers individual desserts, a tarte au citron, a rhubarb tart and a gâteau opéra. The trolley is swiftly wheeled round once the main courses are cleared up – to great effect, apparently.

According to Wyand, the trolley sells desserts to 55% of the restaurant’s customers – a far higher proportion than most restaurants – and this figure is consistent over both lunch and dinner. As Wyand explained, ‘if you don’t have room for a Paris Brest you must surely have a little space for a truffle or a macaroon with your coffee’.

And for Maison François there are definite advantages to staffing according to Ryle. ‘As there is no pastry service, there is no need for any staff to be plating the desserts during lunch or dinner, meaning we can offer our staff extra prep time at lunch and then the evening off. It does not seem to require any more chefs during the day to set it up… I have a team of three pastry chefs, which with days off means that there are two for set up each day.’

Trolleys do not work in restaurants on more than one level. But as more and more seem to be emerging in new, modern spaces where they can most readily be accommodated, I believe that there could be a very exciting future for the dessert trolley.