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Just Desserts

Dessert-only restaurants are the sweetest new culinary trend.

For me, the best part of any meal is always dessert.

I would rather have a quick meal at home and go out for dessert any day of the week than spend hours waiting in endless anticipation for the fulfillment of my sweet cravings. Apparently, others agree with me.

According to a story in

U.S. News & World Report

, dessert restaurants are a new niche, springing up across the country in locations such as Chicago, New York City and Atlantic City, N.J. And Boston hot spot

Finale is a leader in this sweet trend.

Paul Conforti, co-founder of Finale, came up with the idea to open a dessert restaurant in 1996 while eating with some friends.

The idea stuck the then Harvard Business School student for a few reasons. Making a dessert is more scientific than cooking a steak, says Conforti, 36, who is very comfortable in the technical realm.

He also recognized there was a void of dessert restaurants in the market. Often, people are just looking to eat dessert when they go out, but "most restaurants would make people feel like second-class citizens ... at 9 on a Friday night, telling them, 'You could go sit at the bar

if you only want dessert,'" says Conforti.

Finale opened in the summer of 1998, and business was initially a struggle. But "we focused on the guest experience and treating people to a sensational dessert, and slowly but surely built up positive word of mouth, which caused a snowball effect," Conforti recalls.

The name Finale was derived from "what we do for the customer, which is to provide a great end to the evening," says Conforti.

Opening up a second restaurant, four years later, was much easier. However, it still has its own set of challenges.

"One of the things I needed to work on was dividing my time," says Conforti, who also must juggle investor relations, real estate and finance issues for the restaurants. Finale is currently privately owned, but going public is "an option down the road," Conforti notes.

There are now three locations in the Boston metropolitan area with a fourth in the works; Conforti is also in process of negotiating additional branches. He's looking to tackle other markets near the East Coast such as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia within the next couple of years, and ultimately wants to make Finale a national chain.

To view Danielle Sonnenberg's video take of today's Small Business segment, click here.

Kim Moore, co-founder and director of Finale's marketing, says they decided not to hire a public marketing firm because it was more effective to focus on low-dollar, high-impact initiatives.

"This is the way to begin to market yourself," says Moore, who also attended Harvard Business School, where she met Conforti. It paid off for the company to rely on editorial rather than advertising to initially promote the restaurant.

Conforti mentions his competition is other fine-dining restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and espresso bars. "However, what's unique about us is the way we combine everything. We are sincerely trying to create a sensational dessert experience," Conforti says passionately.

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Conforti welcomes the attention new dessert restaurants are bringing to the category, as it helps bring awareness to his business. He's not overly concerned with keeping up with competitors' trends, though, and keeps in mind advice he heard given to baseball players: Don't look at other people's standings. You only have control of what you're doing every day.

Look East, Young Man

While on a vacation in Japan, Michael Berl decided he was sick of working in an office. "I was not thrilled about working at a big corporation and thought about doing something on my own which was entrepreneurial," says Berl, 24, who at the time worked as a financial analyst in fixed-income asset management at JPMorgan.

So Berl used inspiration from his trip to conceive

Kyotofu, a Japanese dessert restaurant. He opened it in New York City three months ago with business partner Nicole Bermensolo, 27, whom he met at Georgetown University. It was a natural step for both of them, as they were always the social planners of their group of friends, even though they didn't have any prior food industry experience.

The process did not occur overnight, though. It took a few months of talking about ideas before they put together a business plan in September 2005. Manhattan was selected as the location as that's where "customers are probably the most receptive to new ideas," Berl explains.

"As far as I know, we are the only Japanese dessert restaurant in the United States," says Berl. Kyotofu draws on the tofu-dessert cafes popular in Japan, but elevates the concept to a fine dining experience, Berl explains.

One of the most unusual but delicious offering is my favorite, a cherry-studded, ginger-infused

okayu

, which is a Japanese style of rice porridge, and "not usually in dessert form," Berl notes.

Other standouts include sansho-pepper tofu cheesecake and a sinful warm chestnut-mochi chocolate cake. The restaurant also serves a selection of savory appetizers that include rice balls, black edamame, homemade tofu and a selection of cheeses.

An extensive drink menu complements the desserts, whether you choose sake,

shochu

(a Japanese distilled liquor served on the rocks with soda, hot water or fruit juice) or one of the wines or champagnes offered. One pairing Berl recommends is the toasted walnut Tahitian vanilla parfait and a sweet sake with fruit undertones.

Berl also has suggestions for the restaurant business overall.

Don't overstaff initially: "If you hire too many people and don't have enough demand, that can really hurt you," Berl points out. He also advises to negotiate as much as possible. "Realize that capital is going to be short at the beginning and that you might have to pay

for things over time. It takes at least two months to start generating revenue," advises Berl.

And expect to wear a lot of hats: Berl still often takes the role of manager, host and busboy all in one night.

Finally, don't underestimate the benefits of patience and "talking about the best solution. Sometimes that means compromising and sometimes that means thinking through all the steps that can happen though your decision, like you would in a chess game," says Berl.

Customers are already asking about additional Kyotofu locations, but Berl feels that "we are in our infancy -- we've only been open three months." He tells people to ask him in six months to a year about another location.

Opening a dessert restaurant does has its fair share of challenges, but it certainly has its payoffs. And the best part is you'll never have to wait for your favorite part of the meal.