When Lori Wirt Hilferty was furloughed during the pandemic, she put her time to good use. In April 2020, Hilferty and pal Tony Rizzo began selling cinnamon buns that customers could send to first responders. In short order, customers also decided to place orders for themselves, and the Cinnamon Bun Exchange was born.
Between the company’s start and Father’s Day 2020, the Cinnamon Bun Exchange delivered 12,000 orders — 144,000 hand-rolled buns. Today, drivers ferry the scrumptious cargo to West Chester, Philly and Middletown, and points in between. The product is also available in local stores — including Janssen’s Market, Bachetti Bros. and ShopRite — and nationwide via shipping.
Hilferty is not the only businessperson who’s found a sweet sales spot. At Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar, dessert sales have been “huge,” says Bill Irvin, the Brandywine Hundred restaurant’s co-owner. “I’ve never seen it like this before. I am like, ‘Holy smokes, we sell a lot of desserts.’”
Scott Stein, co-owner of Bardea Food & Drink, has also seen sales spike. “I’ve noticed that we’ve sold more desserts in the past six months than we’ve ever sold,” he says. “It’s a big focus of our menu now.”
A Tantalizing Stressbuster
Admittedly, baked goods and desserts have long had a place in the American diet. Seemingly every month, there’s a tasty excuse to indulge. “All holidays, big and small, give people a reason to eat dessert,” agrees Meg Hurst, owner of Sweet Lucy’s Ice Cream & Treats in North Wilmington and Cajun-Sno, a food truck.
After being starved for social interaction, Hurst’s customers want to make a family celebration more memorable, she adds. The proof is in the numbers. In December 2021, Sweet Lucy’s sold more than 420 ice cream cakes. For St. Patrick’s Day, she will offer leprechaun-themed ice cream cakes and orange- and green-colored cupcakes. Up next: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
The pandemic also has underscored employee frustrations. Food is an ideal way to show appreciation, says Angie O’Brien, owner of iSwich Gourmet, which makes and sells gourmet ice cream sandwiches. In 2014, O’Brien started the business by distributing the sandwiches to Whole Foods. More recently, iSwich’s specially outfitted van has been in demand for workplace visits; the employer picks up the tab.
The workers aren’t likely to turn down a free ice cream sandwich. “People always want a treat,” O’Brien says. “You try to be good, but you can’t be good all the time. If you’re going to have something sweet, you want it to be extraordinary.”
The retention tool is going over so well that she bought two more vans, which also travel to neighborhoods.
Cakes, cookies and muffins are equally soothing. According to a General Mills survey, 42% of the survey respondents associate baked goods with a sense of comfort. Hilferty’s cinnamon buns are “baked with love, and they’re like a warm hug,” she says. “They offered comfort at a time when, really, everybody was pretty scared.”
At Sweet Somethings Desserts, customers drop in for cupcakes, tarts, cakes, individual cheesecakes, mini pies, cannoli and cookies. “It’s been going gangbusters,” says owner Lee Slaninko. The Little Italy shop makes wedding cakes and supplies desserts to about 18 area restaurants, but the walk-in traffic accounts for a large portion of sales, he says.
Tried, True & New
Sneaking a slice of cake or pie into your diet is easy when you’re dining out. Irvin says nearly every table at Snuff Mill orders dessert, even if it’s to share. Sticky toffee pudding with “million-dollar bacon” and butterscotch sauce is the top seller, followed by the Valrhona chocolate ganache tart with local Henlopen Sea Salt-caramel sauce.
At Caffe Gelato in Newark, dessert has always been a star; the restaurant started as a gelato shop. The Main Street eatery’s servers deliver a small gelato sample to each table before asking if the guests need anything else. Many decide to order a full-sized serving.
In a fine-dining setting, guests want to sit back and enjoy themselves — and they like to see others doing the same. Dessert prolongs the experience.
“It’s as if people are going through so much in our everyday world, and when they finally get the chance to relax with a wonderful meal, they want to treat themselves,” says Betsy Leroy, owner of Pizza By Elizabeths in Greenville.
But that approach isn’t limited to full-service establishments. “I think our dessert sales are good because no one expects to have an amazing dessert from a quick-serve restaurant,” says Kate Applebaum, who with husband Don owns Cajun Kate’s, which has locations in North Wilmington and the Booth’s Corner Farmers Market.
Given that Cajun Kate’s is a New Orleans-themed restaurant, it’s not surprising that confections include beignets and bread pudding. The kitchen is experimenting with calas, also known as Creole rice fritters or rice donuts. Desserts such as these have a timeless appeal, as does the Kentucky butter cake, the bestseller at Pizza by Elizabeths.
“Homey comfort food-types are doing especially well,” Leroy says.
At Two Stones Pub locations, bourbon bread pudding is a staple, and the Peanut butter tasty cake is a riff on TastyKake’s Kandy Kake treat. The dessert, made by Sweet Somethings, is laced with nostalgia.
Bardea, which has a dedicated pastry chef, delivers innovative twists. Tiramisu is an Italian favorite, but Bardea combines it with a tart. There are deconstructed cheesecakes and laminated donuts. (Lamination is pastry speak for layers.) Bardea’s donuts may include caramelized pineapple and Amarena cherries. Meanwhile, the Brazil nut nougat is a play on a frozen candy bar.
As with most things these days, customers also long for the unexpected. Cajun Kate’s is gaining fame for cupcakes in such flavors as hummingbird and Boston cream. Sweet Lucy’s recently rolled out ice cream cupcakes, which customers can keep in the freezers.
“We have new menu items that we will continue to roll out one by one over the next year to keep the momentum going,” says Hurst. She likes the cookies at Burgers by Wildwich so much that she orders boxes of them to make ice cream sandwiches.
The unusual stimulates the appetite at Sonora in Newark. Top-selling selections include “piecaken,” so you can have your cake and eat pie, too, and Guinness chocolate cake with Irish cream frosting.
“Some of our other popular ones include warm strawberry-goat cheese cinnamon rolls a la mode and warm apricot baklava sundaes,” says owner Melissa Ferraro.
Whether diners opt for the traditional or the avant-garde, something sweet caps a dining experience, many chefs maintain.
“At Cajun Kate’s, we want everyone to have a well-rounded meal,” Applebaum says. “And finishing that meal — whether it’s a po’boy, a muffuletta or a good bowl of gumbo or jambalaya — with an amazing homemade dessert is what we aim for.”