Life is sweet for dessert bars in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 09:41 27 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:32 27 May 2018
Archant Norfolk 2017
A flurry of new dessert bars opening over the past year is offering hope on the High Street. Bethany Whymark finds out what makes them so popular.
The nation’s love of sweet treats is driving a new phenomenon in the hospitality trade - and providing a boon to the high street along the way.
Adopted from the US, the trend for ‘dessert bars’ plays into the British tradition of afternoon tea and cake and is taking hold in cities like Norwich.
Their more informal atmosphere and Instagram-friendly concoctions attract a wide variety of age groups, driving a popularity which is breathing new life into the retail scene.
In a survey of town centres published in April, business advisers PwC highlighted ice-cream bars as one of the growing sectors on the UK high street, along with coffee shops and nail bars, growing by 20% last year.
And while health professionals raise concerns over too many refined sugary snacks, the owners of Norwich dessert bars and cafés say their products – framed as a luxury, not a necessity – could help to reform the way people think about their sweet treats.
Stephanie Garbutt and husband Jaime have run Figbar on St John Maddermarket for almost two years.
Mr Garbutt, a classically trained pastry chef, churns out delectable-looking pastries for their small café and their wholesale business, which has seen a boom in the past six months.
Mrs Garbutt said the café is especially popular with families, and has been commended by the Norwich Mumbler online forum.
“What we do is quite unique, but you can classify anyone as competition because everyone does desserts. It is a matter of doing what we love and demonstrating that through the products,” she said.
The rise of dessert bars has been in marked contrast to the casual dining crunch which has hit mid-market chain restaurants such as Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo and Byron, all of which have closed restaurants since the turn of the year.
Mr Garbutt, who has worked with chefs including Yotam Ottolenghi and Marcus Wareing, said Figbar’s success had been “10 times what we expected”.
He added: “Our demographic is very wide. We get a lot of students, but in the evenings we see people are going out to what you would call the better restaurants in the city, who then come here afterwards.
“One of the reasons people come here is that you can get a good-quality pudding but not in a restaurant environment. It is far more relaxed.”
He said places like Figbar encouraged people to see such decadent desserts as an luxurious treat, rather than an everyday product.
“Many customers say to me that they don’t give the children sweets at home, they bring them here once a week and give them something good,” he said.
Tracey Watt is co-owner of Cupcakes and Bubbles in Norwich – as she describes it, a 1940s French-meets-English afternoon tea venue.
Since opening in November 2016 it has become a firm member of the independent trader family on Timberhill, serving up sweet treats supplied by city bakers.
She also feels the luxury of the experience – it is one of the only places in the city branded champagne is served by the glass – discourages people from over-indulging.
“It’s about responsible eating of sugar,” Mrs Watt said. “It’s like when you drink alcohol, you have to be sensible.
“It is all about moderation. If you have it as a treat, it is more fun.”
To supplement its traditional afternoon tea trade, Cupcakes and Bubbles has hosted charity events and live music shows and also has a function room which is popular for hen parties and baby showers.
Mrs Watt said: “We’re bringing a new experience to afternoon tea.
“People tend to think of us as more of a celebration venue. People say it has a relaxed atmosphere, they don’t feel pressured to be quick.”
Mindoro is one of the newest additions to the Norwich dessert bar scene, having opened in Westlegate in February.
Its homemade cakes and Norfolk ice cream attract a range of ages, including a younger crowd in the evenings (the cafe is open until 8pm).
Kitchen manager Zoe Basted, who makes all the café’s cakes on site, claims there is nowhere else in the city which makes both gluten-free and vegan options daily.
Barista Poppy Jones said: “We are going across all ages. Especially in the evenings there are more teenagers and at lunchtime we get the older generation who were going to Marks and Spencer.”
Miss Jones said the trend for customers dining out on sweet treats was on the rise.
“A few years ago dessert was one of the things where you needed to have a full meal to get it but a lot of people just want to come and have cake,” she said.