Have you ever noticed that waiters may ask if you are interested in dessert rather than placing the menu tantalizingly in front of you?
That's because they would really rather you didn’t get that brownie sundae. Restaurants operate on thin margins, and something as simple as a dessert can push them over the economic edge.
"It's hard to make money on desserts in the restaurant business today," said Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University who has written extensively about the economics of eating out, to the Washington Post. "I don't think many [restaurants] benefit when people order them anymore."
While it has always been difficult to turn a profit selling food, the restaurant industry survives by squeezing mark-ups onto as many items as possible, particularly drinks. But with desserts that is difficult to do. The ingredients are often not cheap because the finished product needs to taste good. However, customers are rarely willing to pay for expensive desserts after spending so much money on the rest of the meal, so desserts are often priced lower than they are worth.
But it isn’t just about the check. Many busy restaurants only profit by turning tables over as quickly as possible.
"The more people they serve the more revenue they get," Cowen said. "A lot of restaurant costs are fixed. Being able to serve more people, to sell them food, drinks, and especially expensive wine, is what varies."
Ordering dessert wastes time and doesn’t make all that much difference on the bill. Unless the customer orders higher-margin items after dinner, restaurants are losing money when customers stay the extra half hour for dessert.
Having a nice dessert menu also requires that a restaurant employ a pastry chef and designate a separate kitchen area. To avoid this extra cost, some owners outsource their desserts to outside bakeries that already have the necessary staff and space.
Some restaurants that can’t afford to outsource keep desserts simple so the line cooks can make them in the morning and store them in the refrigerator throughout the day. That's why frozen cheesecake, pudding, and glorified Jell-O have become staple desserts at many restaurants. With such uninspiring desserts, customers don’t necessarily even want to stay.
The dessert dilemma is mainly a problem for busy middle-of-the-road restaurants, since high-end restaurants have reputations that allow them to charge more per dish and slower restaurants do not need to turn tables over as quickly.
But the dessert industry as a whole is doing fine, according to restaurant critic Todd Kliman, just not in restaurants.