CDA's Julie Babcock on Dessert Concepts

Jun 9, 2023

CDA works on some of the best (and sweetest) restaurant concepts in the industry so it was no surprise that Foodservice Equipment and Supplies magazine wanted to interview Design Manager Julie Babcock. Their article “Dessert Concepts Find Their Sweet Spot” documents the growth of dessert-specific restaurants and locations, as well as how designers like Julie utilize the built environment to create spaces that are highly shareable on social media - promoting grassroots marketing that goes well beyond “word of mouth.” A condensed version is available below. The full article can be enjoyed at Foodservice Equipment & Supplies.


Dessert Concepts Find Their Sweet Spot

by Amanda Baltazar

Dessert-only restaurant concepts continue to grow — and grow quickly. They’re growing both in the number of brands on the market and the number of units in individual chains. In 2021, among the top 500 chains in the U.S., dessert concepts grew their total sales by 12.3% according to Datassential. Several chains like Crumbl Cookies and Salt & Straw were among the fastest-growing concepts across all restaurant segments.

Dessert brands meet many needs. “Dessert concepts are an affordable indulgence,” says Julie Babcock, design manager, Chipman Design Architecture, Des Plaines, Ill. “We did a lot at home for so long, but now, dessert is an affordable indulgence.”

These concepts also satisfy Americans’ desire for variety by offering just about any kind of dessert or sweet treat you can think of, from customizable cookies to vegan ice cream to macaroons to waffles and shakes. And today’s dessert concepts offer possibly the most Instagrammable food on the market today, with concoctions ever more outlandish in an aim to win the battle of the social media feeds.

For operators, too, dessert concepts offer plenty of appeal. Dessert-only concepts are often deemed easier to open, manage and staff. “Depending on the product offering and equipment needed, dessert-only concepts can be faster to get up and running,” says Babcock. “Also, in-store services often require a more focused skill set versus a full-service restaurant, so onboarding and training the team can be quicker, in addition to having shorter open store hours in general.”

Jeni's Ice Creams, Chicago West Loop | One of Several Locations Designed by CDA

While all eyes might be on the sugary, creamy creations in dessert-only concepts, each store must look the part too. Babcock, who has worked with brands such as Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream and Milk Bar, says dessert concepts are all about the experience, which is usually fun and lighthearted. “Most dessert spaces are playful, upbeat, youthful and lend themselves to social media,” she says.

Part of the fun of these locations is making them extremely conducive to social media posts. Jeni’s likes to incorporate Instagrammable spots into its locations and often includes stadium-style seating. “Incorporating a variety of seating encourages people to linger, potentially buy more, and also capture and post their experiences on social media — essentially acting as brand ambassadors,” Babcock explains.

The food largely sells itself in dessert concepts as one customer sees the extravagant creation that another customer orders. But the more you can display your offerings, the better, says Babcock, and using display cabinets for customers to see during the queuing — and decision-making — process is vital, even with something as pedestrian as ice cream.

When designing a dessert concept, Babcock likes to engage customers on both sides of the queue: before ordering, they can see the food; and after the cash register, she likes to display merchandise.

Dessert concepts can be successful in big cities or in suburban areas, and Webster believes that if anything, there are more opportunities in the suburbs following the post-pandemic migration from cities. People living there, she says, “are looking for the quality, variety and interest they had available to them in the city.”

In contrast, Babcock believes dessert concepts tend to fit best into urban markets. “They’re quite spontaneous,” and customers tend to find them when they’re strolling, she says. They can work in more suburban locations, but usually are best in lifestyle centers, which “are more like an urban environment,” she says.

Nutella Cafe | Architecture by Chipman Design

Dessert-only concepts can be less expensive to open than a traditional restaurant because the operations focus on a particular portion of the menu. They often require less equipment, especially if product isn’t made on-site. But it takes about the same amount of time to get these concepts open, Babcock says, due to the permitting processes.

Dessert concepts also tend to cost less because the usual ratio of back of house to front of house is usually reversed, with more space being given to the former, says Weems. This also means fewer upscale finishes are required in the front of house, again cutting costs.

The narrower the focus of a dessert concept, the easier and less expensive it is to open, so operators can get into this format faster and easier. They also typically require less equipment.

With Americans’ continued desire to eat out and engage in unique experiences, dessert concepts are likely to have some staying power, especially if they offer consistent quality that can be customized and have social media appeal.

And if you don’t believe us, check TikTok.

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, Connor's Park | Design & Architecture by Chipman Design Architecture


When it comes to designing dessert concepts, there’s no one more qualified to talk about it than Julie. For more about Julie you can check out her profile here on our teams page.