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Why Are People Paying $20 for Grill-Your-Own S’mores?

Unpacking the campfire treat’s irresistible allure in high-end restaurants

Evan Sung/courtesy Olmstead

It was the fall of 2016 and chef Greg Baxtrom was concerned. His Brooklyn restaurant Olmsted had just witnessed its first New York cold snap with three consecutive chilly days, and the restaurant’s once-busy garden seating area was deserted. “We had dropped like 30 covers each day and I really got nervous,” Baxtrom recalls. The dip set off alarm bells for Baxtrom, who immediately set about coming up with a plan to make the outdoor space more hospitable in cold weather.

By mid-October, Olmsted was ready to roll out its cozy answer to the temperature (or as Eater NY put it, “a shitload of autumnal flourishes”). The restaurant invested in new heaters and Pendleton blankets for its patio and unveiled a menu that embraced the autumn nip with warm cocktails, the restaurant’s homage to Swiss Miss hot cocoa — served in Stanley thermoses — and DIY s’mores roasted over a can of hot coals. The s’mores were a twist on Baxtrom’s childhood memories around the campfire with his father, and they caught on with customers, too.

S’mores evoke nostalgia for many Americans who’ve spent a night around the campfire roasting marshmallows until toasted and golden (or completely charred) and smashing them between crisp graham crackers and Hershey’s chocolate bars. As a result, s’mores have long been a favorite flavor profile explored by pastry chefs. In LA, they’ve popped up in a variety of contexts, including ice cream sandwiches with graham-cracker streusel, chocolate cake, and torched marshmallows at Hinoki & the Bird. At Green Dot Stables in Detroit, the treat is reimagined with cinnamon, Nutella, and marshmallow fluff sandwiched in a slider bun. A Rake’s Progress in Washington, D.C., recently featured a preciously plated version of the classic camping dessert.

But customers are also apparently more than willing to show up and pay a premium for the pleasure of compiling their own s’mores. Olmsted’s version is perhaps the most well-known iteration of the trend, though plenty notable examples are available at restaurants from coast to coast, often accompanied by tableside grills: at San Francisco’s Lazy Bear Den, ROKU Sunset in Los Angeles, Texas’s Halcyon, and international Japanese barbecue chain Gyu-Kaku.

At Olmsted, the pleasure of roasting marshmallows and building your own dessert costs $20. By comparison, the two most costly items on Olmsted’s menu are the grilled scallops and Long Island roasted and confit duck; they’re each $24. The second most expensive dessert, chocolate mousse, is $11. Given the fact that the individual components of traditional camping s’mores — the bag of marshmallows, a few Hershey’s chocolate bars, and a box of graham crackers — cost only a few bucks, what compels sensible diners to keep doling out their dollars to make their own restaurant s’mores?

“It’s not lost on me that there’s, you know, a couple of Yelp reviews that say, ‘How obnoxious is it to pay $20 for a s’more?’” Baxtrom says. “But I can assure you we’re not killing it on the back end.” For starters, he says, the dish is meant to be shared between four people, which brings its cost down to $5 per person.

Baxtrom’s team has also put its own spin on the individual components. The marshmallows are made in-house with a combination of real vanilla and McCormick’s vanilla extract, which imbues the sugary confections with a flavor that’s “just artificial enough” to be convincing, Baxtrom says. The kitchen doesn’t have room to make graham crackers on site, so the restaurant purchases them for a $1 per cracker from local bakery Runner & Stone. “They’re not cheap, but they’re by far the best graham cracker I have ever had,” he says. The chocolate component was a bit of an experiment. The restaurant started out creating its own chocolate bars complete with packaging, but then transitioned to classic Hershey’s at the request of customers. The sticks that people roast the Olmsted marshmallows on? Yes, those are gathered from fallen tree branches in a local park and whittled for roasting. The cans are purchased and filled with special-order charcoal.

S’mores toasting at Olmsted.
Milly McGuinness

Just as he enjoyed the dish as a child, kids that visit Olmsted with their parents seem to delight in them, too. “We’re in a family neighborhood,” Baxtrom says. In the early evenings, “especially on Sundays, families will come in with their kids just to do the s’mores.” At first, Olmsted intended to sell s’mores only in the winter and transition into a summer garden menu with soft serve ice cream — another trendy, nostalgia-inducing dessert — but the campfire treats proved too popular. “Seeing a family show up with their kids and not having them was kind of heartbreaking, so we stopped taking it off,” he says. The restaurant now sells between 15 and 20 orders of build-your-own s’mores a night.

Two Michelin-starred Lazy Bear in San Francisco has been experimenting with variations on s’mores — on its roughly $200 tasting menu — going on nine years now. The decadent campfire snack always felt like a good fit for the restaurant’s “Boy Scout-inspired decor,” chef-owner David Barzelay tells Eater by email. So with the addition of the ticketed new late-night, a la carte dining program the Lazy Bear Den, Barzelay decided to try something a little different. “Since we have a big grill going constantly, I had the idea a year or two ago to let guests at special events grill their own s’mores up at our kitchen,” he says. “I wanted to duplicate that experience upstairs, but more intimately, right at their tables.”

As of December 1, visitors to the Den can to order a variety of grill-your-own snacks including so-called Ember S’mores. Each order will cost around $16 with servings for three to four people (an individual option will also likely be available). The dessert features marshmallows made by Lazy Bear with custom flavors like redwood, preserved chile, and honey as well as dark chocolate and Lazy Bear graham crackers. Customers can then build their own s’mores by roasting marshmallows over designer grills created by Sven Ceramics. But why have patrons essentially make their own dessert? “It’s more fun that way!” Barzelay says. “We hope the experience brings out nostalgia for past camping trips and bonfires, and evokes those wild memories.”

“It’s a really rustic example,” says Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, of the luxurious s’mores dessert phenomenon. “The juxtaposition of that in a high-end restaurant, it almost makes it elicit or it just makes it more fun.” There are other draws beyond the thrill of eating a upscale version of an accessible item, Kahn says. Consumers, she says, also have a belief that it’s fair to pay a higher price in a nicer environment, and therefore might be more willing to invest in a $20 s’mores dessert at the end of their meal if the atmosphere calls for it.

The novelty of a seemingly spendy s’more combined with the tableside grilling action helps to make the experience more memorable, which naturally leads to an additional perk for the restaurant: free publicity, particularly on Instagram. An October 2017 tweet from Olmsted even playfully refers to the DIY s’mores with the hashtag #instagrahamming. “It helps with marketing of course,” Baxtrom says. “It helps get people’s attention.” However, the chef is careful to note that Olmsted’s s’mores aren’t designed in the way a gold-leaf-laden doughnut is, aka with the expressed intention of being ‘grammed: “It is first delicious and thoughtful and creative, and because of that people are coming to Instagram.”

More so than the desire for endless food photographing, the move toward DIY grilling in restaurants plays into an overall trend towards customization in the retail and food industries, Kahn says. “There’s been some studies that show if you customize something or create something yourself, you [place] value in that creation... and you ended up having higher utility for the good.” Likewise, having something memorable like a hot coal grilling event at the end of a meal can spur a more positive memory through something psychologists call the peak-end rule.

“The memory of an experience is not like a video. It’s more like a series of snapshots,” Kahn explains. “When you’re remembering an experience, people remember the very high point and they tend to remember the ending best. So if you make those two things really special and experiential, [customers] have an overall halo of the entire experience.”

Having that memorable, interactive experience is part of what Barzelay believes gives the Embers S’mores at the Lazy Bear Den added value. “Unlike many of the versions we’ve done before, it’s not really trying to re-invent s’mores, or present it as some kind of luxury version,” he says. “It’s just s’mores that you get to grill at your table: Higher-quality ingredients, sure, and made in house, but that’s not what justifies the value. It’s fun, and it’s part of an experience.”

Brenna Houck is the editor of Eater Detroit and an Eater.com reporter.