Walking up the steps of a concrete patio in the rear parking lot of a mechanic shop hardly sounds like a mystical adventure, yet the first sign guests of The Penguin Brothers ice cream sandwich shop see is, “Welcome to the Narnia of Provo.”
Bright Christmas lights strewn around the doorframe illuminate iconic paintings and movie posters photoshopped with ice cream sandwiches in them. A portrait of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” showing God and Adam both reaching for an ice cream sandwich sits right above Darth Vader holding an ice cream sandwich in his robotic hand.
Guests funnel in the bright pink building nightly, eagerly anticipating their next sugar fix of pizookies and ice cream sandwiches.
Across town, other dessert companies, including Crumbl, Chip, Insomnia Cookies, Taste and Last Course, offer everything from late-night cookie delivery to highly stylized desserts, like upside-down apple pie.
What Utah County lacks in bars and pubs, it more than makes up for in its true vice: sugar. Growing trends in dessert companies have created an overwhelming amount of choices for sweets enthusiasts. While some of these businesses succeed in this sugar-saturated market, others don’t.
“The ones that succeed are those that stay close to and are most in touch with their customer’s needs,” Jeff Brown, the associate director of the BYU Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, said.
Speaking of the need for dessert companies to be flexible in a changing market, Brown said they need to “make changes to their product, service or business model based on the needs they uncover during customer interactions.”
The Provo-Orem area is heavily populated with students, where dating and marriage are heavily imbued within the culture. Companies like Penguin Brothers have succeeded in tapping into the dating and wedding market.
Penguin Brothers Manager Drew Marcucci, who is also a BYU student, said the main success of the company doesn’t come from its two Utah storefronts in Provo and Sugarhouse but from capitalizing on the Utah Valley wedding market.
“Catering, especially wedding catering, is our major hit,” Marcucci said. “Utah Valley weddings run on the cheaper end of the spectrum, and we have a product that fits most people’s budgets”
Employees of the dessert company readily agreed with their manager’s comment, retelling stories of their summer catering experiences.
Penguin Brothers employee Hannah Gladwell, an English student at BYU, said around 70% of the dessert shop’s revenue comes from catering weddings.
“Catering is why we do so well. Plus, Provo people love to date,” she said.
Gladwell’s co-worker, Alle Baker, a pre-accounting student at BYU, added that their success comes from how employees are selected.
“We hire people who are trendy, quirky, fun and sociable,” Baker said.
Baker added that branding plays a large role in Penguin Brothers. “My grandma once told me how she saw the Penguin Brothers pink truck on the freeway and recognized it immediately,” she said.
Other dessert companies assert their superiority in the market by providing not only good sweets and friendly service but a unique experience.
Culinary specialist MJ Jorgensen who works at Taste, a chocolate shop in Provo, said their strategy focuses on appealing to foodies.
According to Jorgensen, Taste sets itself apart in the sweet market by doing more than just having its customers come in, get their treats and leave.
“We really try to make the experience of eating dessert as meaningful for the customer as possible,” she said.
Last Course, a dessert studio with locations across Utah, classifies itself in an entirely different league.
Last Course vice president of marketing Aleesha Lough said the company uses unique dessert creations to stand out.
“While other dessert companies have the standard cookies, cakes and ice cream, Last Course sets itself in the market by providing desserts our customers have never seen,” Lough said. “Our dessert of the month — such as german chocolate cake, brownie bombs and lavender blueberry ice cream — keeps us moving with the trends in culinary tastes.”
Companies delivering virtually the same product and capturing the same ambiance don’t always do as well, however. Dough Nation, a dessert shop specializing in cookie dough, attracted lovers of the unbaked confection for months but closed down recently. Employees and managers of the company were unavailable for comment.
Speaking of the evident successes and failures in dessert companies, BYU entrepreneurship graduate Matt Kastner advised companies not to sell themselves short.
“The reason why many dessert companies don’t do well is because the owners don’t factor in themselves as a brand or the experience they are selling their customers.”
Though some will fail while others succeed, it seems as though dessert companies will remain a sweet staple in Utah Valley’s restaurant market.