What’s the Future of Dessert in Philly Restaurants?

Amidst pandemic-era staffing cuts and rising costs of food and labor, Philly businesses are adapting their pastry programs to keep sweets on the menu.

The gooey, syrup-soaked kanafeh is a staple of Suraya’s Lebanese dessert menu. / Photograph by Casey Robinson

The best moment of dinner out, for me, is when the dessert menu lands on the table. I pore over each description, sometimes even delegating who should order what. (It’s called strategy.) And if I’m at a restaurant that I know has a dedicated pastry chef or especially thoughtful desserts, I order the whole menu.

I’d skip an appetizer or even an entrée for the unmitigated pleasure I get from telling the server, “We’ll take it all,” like a euphoric Harry Potter buying out the chocolate frogs on the Hogwarts Express. The taiyaki sundae and a cloud of matcha tiramisu at Royal Izakaya; the spiced pumpkin tart and chocolate espresso cake and orange Basque cheesecake at Vernick Fish; the condensed-milk soft serve and the pandan and coconut parfait at Càphê Roasters. I can bring myself back to all of these meals, back to the precise moment each dessert landed on my table.

After all, dessert is the last thing a diner remembers, says Massimo Conocchioli, the consulting chef at Le Virtù in South Philly: “You can ruin the whole experience with bad dessert.” Conocchioli hails from Italy’s Abruzzo region. At Le Virtù, he created a menu of classic Abruzzese desserts that could be replicated by the restaurant’s veteran kitchen staff. On a recent visit there, my husband Eric and I ordered enough dessert to feed a group of four. And while they were all excellent, the stand-out dish was house-made pistachio gelato. Our server told me the kitchen tinkered with the recipe for months before they landed on the winner, which calls for pistachios grown in Sicily that lend a deep green color and rich, layered flavor. The memory of that flavor lingered long after I practically arm-wrestled Eric for the last bite.

Even still, the dessert menu feels rarer these days. On the heels of a global pandemic that shuttered restaurants and sparked historic staffing shortages and soaring food costs, it’s easy to understand why some businesses have cut back on their sweets programs. When resources are scarce, pastry chefs are usually the first to get cut. That puts dessert programs in a precarious place in 2023.

“It’s not that they cost too much money,” says Justine MacNeil when talking about desserts. “It’s that they don’t bring in enough money.” MacNeil co-owns Fiore Fine Foods in Queen Village and previously headed the pastry program at Del Posto, a fine dining Italian restaurant in New York City that closed in 2021.

At the typical fine-dining restaurant, says MacNeil, only about 30 percent of diners order dessert. And when they do order sweets, a restaurant can only charge so much per plate — that number usually maxes out at around $12. For many diners, it might feel easy to justify the cost of ordering a $39 steak, but a slice of chocolate cake made with flour, butter and sugar doesn’t add up to a higher price tag — despite the fact that eggs cost 60 percent more now than they did in 2021, thanks to an outbreak of avian flu.

“People might look at that dessert and think, ‘I know how much butter costs,’ they’re not factoring in the amount of time it takes to bake a cake,” says MacNeil. “Labor is invisible to most people who aren’t in the industry, and there’s no way to justify it.”

MacNeil understands the financial implications of hiring and supporting a pastry program at the restaurant. Nevertheless, in 2018, when she started planning to open Fiore with her husband, chef Ed Crochet, she made it a priority to keep a pastry team on staff — even if it was more economically viable to build the business without one.

“I told Ed, no matter what happens we need to have a pastry team because we need to create jobs for people like me,” she says. Fiore trains their pastry staff to tackle savory recipes and kitchen tasks as well as focusing on sweets — they make pasta and savory batters, and sometimes work the line at night. “We do anything we can to keep [our pastry chefs] true to what they were trained to create,” she says, while tapping them for other cooking tasks. This versatility makes each chef more indispensable to the kitchen’s operations.

Second Daughter Baking Co.’s famous brownies / Photograph by Ted Nghiem

The Defined Hospitality restaurant group streamlined their businesses’ pastry programs by hiring chef James Matty to create recipes for multiple restaurants and then train other kitchen staff how to execute each dessert during service. Matty developed a Thai shaved ice flavored with banana and guava at the new outpost of Kalaya in Fishtown, for example. He’s also responsible for the rose-blossom-syrup-soaked kanafeh at Suraya, as well as the sugar-dusted corn fritters with sweet-corn ice cream at Condesa. Defined Hospitality can split the cost of Matty’s salary between restaurants, so even if the group doesn’t invest in full pastry programs at each spot, diners still get the full dessert experience.

One challenge Matty faces is ensuring the desserts arrive at tables in the way he envisioned them. “Creating a menu is one thing, but actually implementing it on something that you know your team can produce on a daily basis consistently, done really well” is more difficult. But the team does it, he says, with hard work and organization.

Another option for restaurants that want to offer a dessert menu without being able to staff a full pastry team is to outsource. Instead of buying sweets from a commissary that specializes in frozen cakes, say, there’s another way — one that boosts local bakers.

“A lot of restaurants have reached out to us to do wholesale because they don’t have a pastry program,” says Rhonda Saltzman, co-owner of Second Daughter Baking Co., which makes some of the city’s best brownies and birthday cakes. Saltzman is among the chefs who were let go during the onset of the pandemic and opted to leave the industry in favor of starting her own business.

“Once we lost our jobs I thought, I can’t really depend on anyone else for job security — it’s now or never,” she says, noting it gave her the push she needed to start the bakery along with her sister, Mercedes Brooks. As the business recently celebrated its third birthday, Saltzman says they’ve taken their time gearing up to do wholesale. “We want to keep that product integrity. We want people to know that when you’re getting Second Daughter, we bake it that day. It’s always fresh.”

Fresh desserts have been a central part of a cohesive meal for centuries — since the Middle Ages, at least. That’s a long legacy, and one that deserves to be upheld. And not just because I personally love to channel Marie Antoinette presiding over a dinner table stacked with plates of sugary confections.

Despite the challenges of putting out an excellent pastry program in 2023, some Philly kitchens are figuring out how to do just that. But if we want dessert (and those who make it) to really thrive, diners have to prioritize sweets at restaurants. And why shouldn’t we? A $12 chocolate hazelnut tart is much more memorable than that crudo appetizer you’ve eaten 50 times before.