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Why Pastry Is The First Thing To Go In Hard Times For Restaurants

In a uncertain times for all chefs and cooks, pastry and dessert chefs are particularly vulnerable.

Jessica Craig is head pastry chef at High Street on Hudson (currently in process of changing its name to Sandbar on Hudson) in New York. Previously she was executive pastry chef at Almond and L’Artusi.

When things get tough for a restaurant, the first thing to go is pastry. People go to restaurants to eat food. Pastry is usually an additional bonus to that. It’s a tough moment for the pastry world.

Pastry is usually lumped into the general food cost, but it honestly depends on the establishment as far as how much food cost is allocated to that area. Higher-end restaurants are willing to spend more and invest in pastry, while a fast-casual spot will spend a lot less on desserts.

The portion of a restaurant’s revenue that comes from the pastry department can vary greatly too. It honestly depends on how much effort and dollars the owner and/or chef wants to invest into that portion of the menu. The pastry department usually accounts for anywhere between five to ten percent of overall sales. It can definitely be much lower than that, but in those cases a pastry department would be deemed unnecessary.

Most places I’ve worked for would have the goal of about 25 percent food cost or less. It’s very rare that a dessert item will touch that level of cost. If it does, then it should be re-evaluated. Maybe alternative ingredients could be used, or maybe the price on the menu isn’t high enough. It can be a slippery slope because while the value is there to charge, let’s say, $14 to $18 dollars for a dessert, most people will scoff at that. But they’ll happily spend $20 for a salad or appetizer.

With all due respect, in most cases, a lot more effort went into the dessert. Ingredients such as nuts, chocolate, vanilla, butter, and cream cost significantly more than lettuces, vegetables, and so on—especially if the best products possible are being used. There are certain ingredients that can be costly concerning pastry, like special butters, dairy, high-quality chocolate, and seasonal produce. But it’s all about perceived value, and most are willing to spend only so much on dessert.

Pastry absorbs waste from other parts of the kitchen, or sometimes even from the bar. If there’s too much of a certain produce, dairy, or special grain ordered for a dish, or too much of a flavored syrup made for a drink, those departments turn to pastry with the expectation that you can figure out a way to work it into your menu, or create a special so it doesn’t become waste.

There doesn’t even need to be a significant event concerning the economy for a restaurant to scale back a pastry department or deem it unnecessary. It could be as simple as a restaurant looking at the financial breakdown and perceiving that dessert sales aren’t worth the cost of maintaining a pastry team. Back in 2018, when I was hiring for a pastry sous chef, quite a few candidates were looking for employment because their employer decided to either scale down or get rid of the pastry department altogether. The truth of the matter is that it’s cheaper and more profitable to simply buy and serve premade desserts.

Some places will use an inexperienced cook in place of a pastry chef, or have a pastry sous chef run the pastry department and tell them that they don’t have the experience to be the pastry chef. But who is that pastry cook or pastry sous chef reporting to? If they are creating and running the pastry menu, then they’re the pastry chef, and they should be acknowledged and paid accordingly. I’ve been very lucky to not have to deal with that too much in my career, but I have definitely been told about others’ experiences.

The expectation during the pandemic has been for pastry chefs to handle the duties of the pastry department on their own without a staff in order to help with labor cost. It’s essentially what almost every industry is going through at this moment—pay has been cut, but the workload has increased. I’m also noticing some places looking to have a pastry sous chef, pastry chef de partie, and/or pastry cooks without having an actual pastry chef to save on labor. A salary for those titles would be significantly less than an experienced pastry chef’s.

A restaurant I worked for years ago had a hard time holding on to pastry cooks. There was a moment where the two pastry cooks that we had quit almost simultaneously. It left myself—just a pastry sous chef at the time—and the other pastry sous chef to handle all the duties for the department. It was decided by upper management not to hire anyone else. It was very stressful because we were just two people trying to cover lunch, dinner, parties, and production. It made taking time off difficult, the hours were really long, and it left little room for error. I’m not sure if the restaurant suffered, but I gave notice a few months after this decision, and the other pastry sous chef gave notice shortly after I did. The restaurant closed about a year after we left.

It’s usually up to pastry chefs to promote themselves. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had a few bosses that would push my desserts forward to market and get attention. But I found myself incorporating social media into my work, constantly looking for moments to share and stay relevant. As a result of COVID, many out-of-work pastry chefs have started “Instagram bakeries” in order to make ends meet. I have a friend that started an online food service where they make and deliver dinner packages. Some have turned to private cheffing. I’ve noticed a lot of pastry chefs trying to create a safety net for themselves as times have become so uncertain for our position in the kitchen.

Most people are pretty intentional when it comes to going out right now. With that said, if someone is out to splurge and treat themselves, I think there will be some disappointment if there is no dessert. I’ve gotten backlash from consumers when I tried to pull certain desserts off the menu at restaurants where I’ve worked in the past. Though I don’t think that would be enough to have an adverse effect on future sales overall unless that dessert was the draw that got the customer into the building.

I can see removing the dessert menu hurting the image of a restaurant if they are known for the quality of their desserts. It’s a point of service. The experience is incomplete without dessert. That’s also less money in the server’s pocket, as dessert is an upsell to increase the check average, which helps increase tips.

Dessert helps any situation. Pastry is too often an afterthought. The head chef of a restaurant thinks that they can just get one of the savory cooks to do it. But a pastry department and a trained pastry chef make a huge difference. As much as people want to think that pastry isn’t important, it’s the last impression you are leaving on someone at your restaurant. If something goes wrong in the rest of service—a long wait, messed-up order—you want to send them a dessert to sweeten the experience. So don’t you want this to be one of the best bites your customers have?