Old-school Cool: The Baked Goods Back in Business
How your cafe can cash in on old-school baked treats.
Hospitality operators are often punting on the next new craze but it can be just as valuable to look to the past. Jam donuts, carrot cakes and finger buns are among the old-school treats making a comeback.
“We’ve definitely noticed a resurgence for baked goods that have that nostalgic element,” says Josh O’Brien, co-owner of three cafes – Lorna, Nancy and Maria – in Melbourne’s south-east. “It’s that comfort people are looking for, especially in the past year. It reminds people of a simpler time.”
O’Brien believes sweet treats are an opportunity for cafes to find a point of difference and claim an advantage. “Often you go into a cafe and the cake cabinet looks a bit forgotten,” he says. “There will be one or two suppliers and everything looks the same. It can be an afterthought for a business owner: you get it, you put it in the cabinet. But we tried to set ourselves apart, and our cakes and cookies really took off.”
He advises going for a more homemade feel whether you’re baking in-house or using suppliers. “We want our cakes to look like Mum just made them,” he says. “Brownies and cakes don’t have to be cut perfectly – they can be a bit uneven.”
O’Brien’s cafes have some product crossover but there is also differentiation to make each one special. “We have a signature cookie for each cafe,” he explains, adding that tailoring the offering to the particular customers in a neighbourhood is important. “I grew up with carrot cake, but my grandmother isn’t everybody’s grandmother,” he says. “The offering has to resonate.”
Rod Shokuhi is a longtime baker and pastry chef who owns Sixtene Melbourne dining consultancy. “Any time we do something new, maybe a bi-coloured croissant, it goes well, but nothing walks out the door like a finger bun,” he says. “People are always looking for those nostalgic classics.”
He believes there are many opportunities to simultaneously cater to customer desires, satisfy a chef’s creative urges and find a profitable sweet spot. “Little tweaks are the way to go,” he says. “If it’s a carrot cake, add pineapple, quince or another seasonal fruit. With a custard tart, put nutmeg in the pastry rather than sprinkling it on top or add a sprinkle of wattleseed. Perhaps you play around with different sugars, like coconut sugar. You want to have a point of difference, but keep it within the range of what people are nostalgic about.”
He also advises talking to customers. “Do your research and have a simple conversation with your community to find out what is nostalgic for them,” he suggests. “A lot of the time business owners let pride get in the way, but your customers will tell you what they want.”
Jam Donut Winners
Nash Teelow runs Canvas House, an events business in Melbourne. She’s finding customers are so keen on nostalgic treats that they can be the clincher that secures a job. “I had a big bowl of jam donuts on a proposal for a Christmas party and that’s what got the client over the line,” she says. “It really excited them.”
She thinks people have moved beyond elaborate and complicated offerings. “If I put something on a menu and people don’t immediately understand what it is, they don’t want it,” she says. “They want simple. They want things that create memories and bring them back to childhood.”
Sometimes there are innovative ways to tap into these desires. For the 2020 Grand Final, Teelow had a brainwave of delivering jam donuts around Melbourne, allowing families watching the game in lockdown to still partake in a traditional half-time treat. “It went crazy,” she says. “Children burst out crying when the donuts arrived.” She sold $17,000 worth of donuts in $20 and $40 increments.
“It was about giving people a way to tap into the good old days with a small spend and they felt like they were part of something bigger,” Teelow adds. “It was a lovely way to put a smile on people’s faces.”
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