Today's sweet businesses are on a serious sugar high.
The verdict is in: Americans are in the mood for dessert-only restaurants and chocolate cafes. According to Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association in Washington, DC, nearly 1 out of 3 fine-dining operators reported that consumers bought more desserts in 2005 than they did in 2003. Meanwhile, trend-watching firm Datamonitor named chocolate "the new coffee" in a list of the top 10 trends to watch. The bottom line? Opportunities abound for entrepreneurs who wish to feed off this nation's sweet spot.
In January 2006, Ste-phane Lemagnen and Laurent Lanneau, 31 and 34, respectively, catered to the craving by opening Room 4 Dessert, one of New York City's first dessert-only establishments. The restaurant offers a variety of dessert-tasting menus to be paired with wines and teas, and culinary masterpieces are created before customers' very eyes. No wonder curious pastry chefs come from the West Coast, visitors consider the dessert bar a must-hit spot in New York City and 2007 sales are expected to reach $600,000.
If a chocolate cafe is more your style, jump on the bandwagon with the likes of chocolate giant Mars and European-trained chocolatier Max Brenner, who are making it big with their sweet cafes. But make sure to cater to America's current taste buds and desires by going dark. Recent studies demonstrate the health benefits of flavonoids, which are often contained in dark chocolate, and sales are soaring as a result. Dark chocolate sales were up 40 percent in 2006, according to Mintel International. Other hot varieties, according to Joan Steuer, founder and president of Chocolate Marketing LLC, a Los Angeles consulting firm that specializes in strategic forecasting and tracking trends in the chocolate industry, are artisanal, organic, socially responsible and nutraceutically enhanced chocolate. Incorporate these items into your dessert menu, and neither your customers nor you will be disappointed.
Tempted to strike out on your own? Here are some tips for starting your own chocolate cafe or dessert-only restaurant.
Ask yourself three key questions. "Where am I now, where do I want to be and how do I get there?" advises Steuer. When answering, refrain from comparing yourself to competitors. Instead, focus on your strengths and your distinguishing qualities.
Pool your resources. Have enough money in the bank to last at least six months, recommends Steuer, and build a board of advisors who can offer unbiased advice and suggestions. When forming your board, don't limit yourself to experts within the chocolate industry--people from outside the industry can offer great insight, too.
Create an unforgettable experience. At Room 4 Dessert, des-serts are assembled in front of customers, high attention is paid to presentation, and menus are seasonal, changing every three months. Advises Lemagnen, "Make it exciting and fun because when people go out, they want to have fun [and] relax."
Keep your customers in the loop. Lemagnen and Lanneau make it a point to collect their customers' e-mail addresses. This way, they can keep customers updated with the newest menus and information--and keep them coming back for more.
Vintage opportunities are ripening on the vine.
As long as grapes bud from vines, the wine business will be bursting with flavorful opportunity. According to John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, a St. Helena, Califor-nia, nonprofit wine trade association, the wine industry has enjoyed significant growth for the past 12 years, with today's big wine drinkers being baby boomers as well as some in the Millennial generation (those ages 21 to 29). Estimated at $26 billion, with a 115 percent increase since 1995, the wine industry isn't likely to sober up anytime soon.
Wine has such an appeal that a variety of businesses can be seen cropping up--from wine bars and stores to educational in-home tastings and ancillary products that enhance the overall wine-drinking experience. And now that new laws legalizing online wine sales have un-corked the industry, entrepreneurs are finding a worldwide market to conquer.
Attracting the masses means keeping your wines inexpensive and drinker-friendly. "In a lot of retail environments and on some wine lists, there has been a movement toward categorizing wines by their flavor profile rather than strictly by their grape variety or by their country or region of origin," says Gillespie. Also growing in popularity are wines packaged in single-serving bottles and wines topped with a screw cap.
No matter how you twist it, package it or label it, if you specialize in wine, consumers will gladly toast your efforts. Even NASCAR drivers are producing their own vintages-a surefire indication that it's all systems go. If you're dreaming of opening your very own wine business, consider the following startup tips.
Establish strong relationships. Jeff Playter, 35, co-founder of RadCru.com, an online market-place that features one select wine offer each day direct from the winery, stresses the importance of personally meeting with winemakers and winery owners. The extra effort will help you establish better partnerships, giving you greater access to unique and hard-to-find wines. Your customers will reward you accordingly.
Use online tools. Word about RadCru.com is spreading fastest through the blogosphere. Bloggers are eager to cover the innovative company, which just launched last July, and Playter and his team are using the free coverage to their advantage. They expect 2007 sales to exceed $1 million.
Differentiate yourself. "You have to find an angle," says Playter. "There are tons of wine shops out there that have great wines. You have to find something that stands above the crowd."
Read up on the law. New laws allowing online wine sales may have entrepreneurs giddy with excitement, but before you get carried away, Playter advises you to hire a good law-yer who knows about wine, and do extensive research to see how the new laws are affecting things. "The laws have changed much [more quickly] than the infrastructure to allow those sales to happen," he says. "There are costs involved from a legal perspective; there's licensing issues. You have these new markets, but it might not be worth it for some of these wineries to actually start selling in this market."
Know your stuff. Launching a wine business requires a solid knowledge of wines, so you better brush up on your vintages before attempting to become a key player in the marketplace.