Small is big when it comes to dessert trends.
From Mini-Blizzards at Dairy Queen to the new line of Petites launched by Starbucks last week, sweets are shrinking to fit a craving for snack-sized portions.
"There's a huge trend of mini desserts," says Annie Young-Scrivner, global chief marketing officer for Starbucks. "Our research shows that customers are looking for that little something in the afternoon. They don't want it to be very big. They just want a couple of bites of something to complement their tea or espresso or other beverage."
And so Starbucks Petites were launched. The line features eight items -- all of which pack fewer than 200 calories each and cost $1.50 -- including cake pops (cake-on-a-stick), whoopee pies and lemon squares.
The move toward smaller desserts started some years ago, says Kathy Hayden, a food service analyst for Chicago-based Mintel research company. Eating healthier was one factor. Another was having more choices; now you could have a bite of apple pie and a spoonful of pudding. And when the economy went sour, the smaller price tag of tiny treats became all the sweeter.
Bite-sized desserts have made the top five restaurant trends for the past four years, according to surveys by the National Restaurant Association, though that seems to have settled down. The mini treats came in as the 35th trend out of 226 in a "What's Hot in 2011" survey of more than 1,500 chefs.
A pioneer in petite patisserie was Seasons 52, an Orlando, Fla.-based chain that specializes in fresh, healthy options and has nothing on the menu over 475 calories.
Coming up with a dessert was a challenge, says Cliff Pleau, senior director of culinary and beverages. But then someone suggested, "Why don't you get the real thing and stuff it in a little cup?"
He went out and bought dessert ingredients, got some shot glasses and within a few hours the concept of Mini Indulgences was born.
The desserts, which include Key lime pie and chocolate and peanut butter mousse, cost about $2.50. Most have between 200 and 300 calories.
The key, says Pleau, is to make sure the flavors are intense. "We've got three ounces to really get our point across."
Mini desserts also have been popping up at quick-serve restaurants, like Dairy Queen, which last summer introduced Mini-Blizzards, 6-ounce versions of their trademark Blizzard soft-serve frozen dessert. The mini, about half the size of the smallest Blizzard, was a response to customer feedback, says Michael Keller, chief brand officer.
"There was a very large trend afoot in general with how consumers were eating and, specifically, Blizzard customers were looking for something a little smaller and therefore easier on their wallet and easier for some of them on their calorie counts," he says.
In addition to lower prices and fewer calories, downsized desserts fit into another big trend -- snacking. People who once packed a bag of trail mix or brought a banana to tide them over the 3 o'clock blahs, now may pop into a quick-serve restaurant for a snack wrap or other small menu item.
Mini desserts "really fit well with the snacking phenomenon that has not by any means peaked," says Hayden. "I think there's some traction there."
Can smaller desserts result in smaller Americans?
"I don't think anyone's losing weight from them," says Hayden. "I think that they're a nice little extra."