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Get (More Than) Your Just Desserts

Get (More Than) Your Just Desserts

"Would you like to look at the dessert menu?" This question, offered at the end of most meals, often comes with weary looks from diners who think they've had their fill of the main part of their meal. But shouldn't dessert be part of the conversation from the start of a dining experience?

"If you're taking the time to go out to eat and have an experience, dessert finishes the sentence of whatever statement is being made by that restaurant and chefs," said Kelly Fields, executive pastry chef at Willa Jean in New Orleans. "It's as important as the cocktail or appetizer."

Diners often think of dessert as an afterthought, as something that may be a burden on top of an already-filling meal. But just because dessert is the final word, it doesn't mean diners should ignore it — or that your staff shouldn't try to sell it. You have a dessert menu or section for a reason — to get more sweets out to your tables.  And the plate doesn't have to overflow with rich, heavy items either.

"People come in for indulgent meals and I knew I'd be up against people not having room," said Meg Galus, executive pastry chef at Chicago's Swift & Sons and Boka restaurants. Here she refers to the rich steakhouse meals at Swift & Sons. "I made sure there'd be options for lighter dessert on the menu where they can take a few bites instead of a rich chocolate dessert."

Case in point: When Swift & Sons first opened in the fall of 2015, Galus introduced a chocolate trolley, which at first servers had difficulty wrapping their heads around. After refining items to make them more approachable, less fancy and easier to describe, the servers got on board. Today, the chocolate trolley leads the dessert sales nightly and is the number three seller overall three times a week, Galus said.

"Every table now requests to see it and people whip out their cameras to take pictures," she added. "We made sure the servers were excited about it, understood it and that it was easy to sell."

It comes down to this: If your staff gets excited about telling the dessert story, they'll sell more. At Willa Jean, Fields accomplishes this by letting her staff taste the new desserts daily. This allows them to see, smell and taste the sweet treats the kitchen is putting together.

"It boils down to staff enthusiasm and their ability to feel confident in selling something," Fields said. "Willa Jean is such a personal restaurant — it's named for my grandmother — and I tell [my staff] the story behind the dessert, whether that's family history, Southern history or just the general inspiration, people respond to that. And some of my staff then tell the story better than me!"

Beyond getting your staff on board, you need to entice diners. You can include desserts that cater to specialty diets, something that historically restaurants ignored, but have started paying more attention to.

"Being cognizant of gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan diners — they're very real demographics we need to address," Galus said. "If there's something gluten-free or vegan, you'll get a sale. I had a non-dairy item on the menu at Boka and people got really excited about it. And they come back."

And at the end of the meal, uh, day, isn't that what you want?

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