Cupcakes, ice cream, ice cream sandwiches, shaved ice, cookies, brownies, pies, milkshakes, cakes, macarons — Columbia is a city that loves its desserts, as evidenced by the vast number of things available and places to get them. And the city keeps up with the times. When the cronut craze swept New York City in 2013, it wasn’t long before the croissant-doughnut fusion popped up in the Soda City.
How does Columbia collectively stack up in terms of keeping up with dessert trends, and what does their importance mean to customers, chefs, and dessert creators across the Midlands? We asked several of them how Columbia got so sugary-sweet, and what the future might hold.
“The dessert scene has definitely gotten better over the years,” says Jessica Kastner of Sweet Cream Co. “As the number of local restaurants continue to grow, so does the availability of unique and trendier dessert options.”
Her Main Street ice cream shop definitely fits into the unique category, with housemade ice cream flavors like honey sunflower with microgreens, and sea salt and black pepper with roasted strawberries. These interesting flavors frequently net them high rankings on national lists, such as their recent listing on Thrillist’s “18 Must-Try Restaurants in Columbia, SC”.
Charley Scruggs, the pastry chef at Terra, attributes the innovative local dessert options to the people making them.
“Right now it has to do with the talent and staff we have in the city; some restaurants are lucky enough to have someone that cares, which is hard to find even in Charleston,” Scruggs says. “We have a perfect mix of dedicated employees, and it has been changing for a good direction.”
Often, higher end chefs tend to focus on main courses and savory fare, leaving the dessert course to those with less ambition. But Scruggs has brought his creative desserts to several local fine-dining restaurants, from the bone marrow ice cream he served in a hollowed cow bone at Oak Table to the study in sugars that is his caramelized honey tart, a new addition to the Terra menu.
Besides the higher-end restaurants and well-known bakeries like Silver Spoon, Ally & Eloise, and franchised places like Duck Donuts or Baked Bear, desserts coming from Hispanic culture have their own place in Columbia’s vast array of dessert options. Panaderias (bakeries) and places dedicated to shaved ice and agua frescas provide delicious desserts traditionally crafted to combat the heat — and are proving just as necessary in the infamous summer weather of South Carolina.
Manuel Vargas, one of the owners of Manny’s, a shaved ice and dessert shop in West Columbia, sees the demand for desserts firsthand. He and his parents started their business eight years ago, beginning on their front porch. Their menu not only has shaved ice with fresh fruit toppings, but also includes spicy chili powder, chamoy sauce, and combines bananas with ice and sweetened condensed milk with strawberries for a specialty icy treat that can’t be found just anywhere. Vargas says he believes that Hispanic dessert shops need more advertising to thrive.
Trends, especially food trends, can move at a very fast pace, often becoming passé in larger cities before they’ve even trickled down properly to smaller cities and suburbs. But Erin Nobles of Silver Spoon Bake Shop doesn’t think that Columbia is ready for the super-trendy just yet.
“I think Columbia has a great variety of options currently and I am not sure a super-trendy business like an edible cookie dough bar would be able to last in this smaller market,” Nobles says.
Nobles says that at Silver Spoon, she tries to twist nostalgic or comforting flavors and present them in new ways, like banana pudding macarons or pepper jelly cream cheese croissants, and she reports a great response from those items.
And moving away from super sugary desserts is something that Scruggs hopes to see more of.
“I’m trying to focus a little bit more on is how the palate of the country is changing to want smaller items and more of a celebration of flavors,” says Scruggs, who points to newer bakery smallSUGAR as a place that already has that nice balance of “not a pound of sugar on a plate.”
So while you may not be ordering quivering raindrop cakes or Japanese cheesecakes, sweets dusted with edible flakes of gold, or even inky black activated charcoal ice cream in Columbia in 2019, the city’s boundary-pushing dessert creators may just surprise those with adventurous taste buds who seek these kinds of treats.