What’s a meal without a cracking dessert to finish it off? Not much, according to our dessert aficionados. It also makes business sense, discovers Natasha Phillimore
There have been many queens of desserts—take a bow Martha Stewart, Delia Smith—but perhaps the woman who made it her own is Nigella Lawson. Yes, Lawson’s ‘Rapid Ragu’ and her mother’s ‘Praised Chicken’ will win you fans at the dinner table, but it’s the English domestic goddess’s unabashedly rich, indulgent, sensual desserts that has her fans clamouring for more. And while perhaps your head chef doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi licking the spoon, they know something Lawson clocked onto a long time ago: desserts are big business.
The chocolate market alone is worth $2.5 billion, and that’s just Australia—which isn’t news to Max Brenner general manager Yael Kaminski. “Australians understand that the sentiment of chocolate goes far beyond consumption or mere taste; it’s about sharing the experience with loved ones and enjoying all the emotions that accompany every mouthful,” she says. “There is something so very basic about the sensation of sweetness. For most of us, it is associated with early, pleasant memories. We associate desserts and chocolate with spoiling ourselves and others.”
There are now over 50 Max Brenner locations around the world serving purely sweet things. That’s the clever strategy at the heart of the company’s success. Meanwhile, Natalie Thoo at The Aviary Dessert Kitchen in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs has a similar take. “Desserts bring out a lot of joy; it feels a bit naughty,” says Thoo. “Everybody likes to eat the things that aren’t necessarily good for them.”
That might not necessarily be true—a recent study by Tel Aviv University’s Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, found that adding a small dessert—say, a choc-chip cookie—to your breakfast meant less hunger and cravings throughout the day, meaning less binging later. Luckily for chocolate cafe proprietors, few customers have discovered these statistics.
Thoo and husband David opened The Aviary in 2011. Neither had any hospitality experience or training, but a love of that final course—wanting a little bit more of an option after dinner; three or four desserts on a typical restaurant menu versus 12 to 15 on theirs—kept them going. Ultimately, the pair wanted to be able to experiment, and this has led to an inventive, completely dessert-focused menu. Think macaron flower pots with edible ‘soil’ and pretzel mousse-filled profiteroles. “With desserts, you can have a lot of fun,” Thoo enthuses. “Our main focus is to enjoy it, and hopefully that is reflected on the plate.”
The differences don’t end there. While many chocolate or sweet-focused cafes channel the winter-warmth dark-wood-and-neutrals style of interiors—a logical move since the cooler months are busiest for the dessert market—the Thoos steered away from the masses. The Aviary is light and bright, like an indoor garden, and quite feminine.
“We’re also constantly trying to change the menu, to ensure it appeals to everyone: coeliacs, vegans, the lactose intolerant. Changing it up not only keeps the customers interested, it keeps us interested too. As owners, we’re really hands-on in every aspect, so we can change things if they aren’t quite working out. That’s part of the appeal; that it’s a small, one-off thing. We probably wouldn’t even open elsewhere in Adelaide. Our plan is stick to what we’re doing, not to spread ourselves too thin.”
“When we started, it was difficult to decide on what we would base our business model. Now there are quite a number of dessert bars in Adelaide.” Natalie Thoo, The Aviary Dessert Kitchen, Adelaide
The result? South Australia’s collective sweet tooth has spoken. “It’s something that’s really taken off in Adelaide—the after-dinner dessert scene,” says Thoo. “When we started, it was difficult to decide on what we would base our business model. Now there are quite a number of dessert bars in Adelaide.”
Having fun is a running theme, and perhaps key to the business strategy of everyone from Max Brenner to sweet-thing start-up, The Serial Baker. Founder Lupe Prada started the business through a simple love of baking, and a realisation that running your own business brings a flexibility that day jobs often don’t allow. It does involve a lot of work but that hasn’t intimidated Prada. Her bakery is “quirky, bespoke and every item is handmade. My focus is to create something that’s delicious and emotive. If the reaction when they open the box is, ‘Wow!’ then I’m doing my job right,” she says.
“The business is literally running on word of mouth and social media. It’s early days yet. I want to get the word out there before going full throttle. I have a future Sydney-centric plan to cater and deliver to private clients as well as cafes. Down the track, I hope to open up my own Serial Baker cafe, specialising in mini-cakes and desserts, and even design some quirky collectible items like branded tea-towels and aprons.”
Today, social media is key to the success of any business, particularly a new one. The Aviary’s marketing strategy is “100 per cent on word of mouth”, says Thoo, although even those well established in the market rely heavily on customer experience.
“We are very much a PR-driven brand,” says Kaminski of Max Brenner, “committed to creating and evolving our unique chocolate culture. We encourage choc-lovers to open their minds about how they connect with chocolate. As such, we’re always looking to evolve our menus, stay across choc trends across the globe and bring new experiences to our customers.”
It is only a matter of time before the rest of Australia cottons on to what The Aviary’s regulars have embraced. After all, satiety signals and the brain’s pleasure centres have coexisted throughout evolution, ensuring we get the kilojoules we need to sprint away from, or after, prehistoric creatures. However, the parts of our brains that light up when we enjoy something are stronger, and immediate, compared to how long it takes our stomachs to tell us we’re full. What does this final science lesson really mean? Well, there’s always room for dessert.