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It's a Small World

It's a Small World

The Rise of the Bite-Sized Dessert

Call them tiny and adorable, label them a healthy ending or a supercharged snack, stuff them in a shot glass or a scaled down ramekin…the mini dessert is living larger than ever at today’s best restaurants.

The secret to the mini’s success lies in the happy convergence of three trends – the popularity of healthy foods, snacking and the sharing experience, all fulfilled in each delicately sized bite. While a slice of cheesecake may be passed over by more virtuous diners, its smaller, palm-sized cousin can be consumed guilt-free…no matter how calorie-laden, it’s just one bite. In addition to the health halo, adventurous palates, commitment-phobes and dedicated grazers are drawn to the mini, and they’re all showing up in the form of Millennials who are defining today’s dining scene.

A fully decked out piece of apple pie, complete with a creamy vanilla ice cream scoop on top might seem old school when you can try this on for small size – a mini caramel apple with brown butter ensconced in a three-inch pastry galette. It’s one of Executive Chef Elizabeth Goel’s miniature offerings at her Los Angeles-based Bite Catering. Since launching the couture catering business in 2007 with a line of small bite creations, Goel has expanded the mini’s profile enormously, including a star turn on Food Network Challenge with a ballet-themed spread that featured a whimsically named Nutcracker Sweet (a deliciously decadent combination of espresso chocolate bonbons and caramel nut pie).

“Our bites may be small but we expect each to wow a guest with both its look and its flavors,” says Goel.

High quality ingredients - Valrhona chocolate, European liquors, fruit purees – and a dizzying array of shapes, sizes and textures fuels the mini dessert’s popularity at Bites. Goel keeps it interesting by changing flavors with the seasons, using lemons, strawberries and other fresh fruits on summer tarts, gingersnap crusted pumpkin cheesecake bites in fall, gingerbread-glazed goodies for the holidays, and chocolate-centric desserts anytime. For wedding parties, the theme-driven variety is perfect, allowing brides to offer guests an evening of blissful sampling. The only drawback for operators: it can be labor intensive -- more time is needed to prepare 100 mini s’mores than one regular-sized dessert. On the plus side: service is easier and they can be priced for profit, at $2.50-3.50 per bite, says Goel.

At Fig & Olive, a Mediterranean concept that’s heating up in LA, NY and Chicago, the dessert menu features four bite-sized sweets for those seeking a taste, and only a taste, of indulgence. The restaurants’ most popular meal enders since they debuted several years ago, like Bite, the seasons are on full display with each dessert flight. This winter’s pear crostini and chocolate pot de crème, warmly embraced by the winter-weary, may become next spring’s lavender crème brulee. Chef Wilfrid agrees that special techniques and skills are required, but are well worth the effort.

“A diverse dessert menu, offering a selection of varied flavors and textures in a small bite tasting, catches the attention of more adventurous eaters,” he says.

And while minis continue their years-long popularity streak, they’re not getting too big for their tiny britches. There’s still plenty of room to grow, according to Technomic’s Kelly Weikel.

“Mini desserts are strongly appealing to diners with health concerns, but they’re also a lot of fun!” she says.

But it’s not all sugar and chocolate in mini land, as savory and herbal flavors are playing well with the sweet, according to Weikel, leading to unexpectedly wonderful pairings like strawberry and basil or vegetable beet mousse.

That kind of flavor and versatility explains why the mini is making some big moves. More than just a dessert, it works all day, as a breakfast pastry, a grab ‘n go snack and a portable appetizer. For the post- wedding meal which has become de rigeur at today’s nuptials, they also fit snugly into that second plating.

Finally, the most compelling reason to make room for the mini may be this: “Craveable and mini desserts may steal traffic from competitors,” states Weikel. Their research shows that consumers, particularly women and younger diners, are especially likely to switch locations for dessert because they have a specific treat in mind. So think big…and go small.