There’s stiff competition for a place on the cake stand at any afternoon tea, but sweet pastry manufacturers think their products can shine on any occasion.

Scones with your afternoon tea? Check. Crustless cucumber sandwiches? Check. Sweet pastries? Perhaps not. Or at least not yet.

Pastries may not currently take centre stage in a typical afternoon tea, but suppliers are on a mission to get their products the attention they deserve.

“While traditional afternoon tea, such as a slice of Victoria sponge or homemade scones and jam, will always score highly, the growth in popularity of afternoon tea across all age groups means there’s new demand for innovative products,” says Jacqui Passmore, marketing manager at Dawn Foods. “A fruity sweet pastry adds variety and texture to the offering.”

Variety is important as demand increases. Reservations website OpenTable has noted a 54% rise in afternoon tea bookings over the past two years.

“The éclair gives the perfect opportunity to create some showstoppers,” believes Fabien Levet, national account manager for foodservice at Pidy UK. This, Levet notes, taps into the revival of French baked goods and, if done well, can add the wow factor and make for a great Instagram post.

London’s Maître Choux, for example, offers éclairs and choux buns in innovative, and premium, flavours such as the Persian Pistachio Éclair, filled with a pistachio mousseline cream and topped with sprinkled ground and candied pistachios.

Choux isn’t the only French pastry grabbing the limelight. “When it comes to sweet treats, French pâtisserie has become the go-to style of pastry for the sophisticated afternoon tea,” says Jon Turonnet, foodservice sales manager at Brioche Pasquier. In particular, he notes the use of petits fours for delivering elegant treats.

Other cuisines also offer opportunities. “A Portuguese custard tart in an afternoon tea can increase profit margins as consumers are willing to pay more for authenticity,” says Kate Sykes, marketing manager at Lantmännen Unibake UK.

London’s Il Pampero restaurant, for example, offers chocolate sfogliatelle as part of its Napolitea afternoon tea menu alongside ricotta & chocolate cannolo.

Global delicacies can also be extended to the occasion. “Baklawa is too often overlooked,” believes Suheil Haddad, MD of Mediterranean foods specialist Dina Foods. “These handmade authentic luxury Mediterranean pastries are particularly well-suited to afternoon tea.”

Themed afternoon teas allow pastry chefs to trial different concepts, whether that’s experimenting with pastries from around the world or to fit with the season.

“Citrus and botanical flavours have been big news over the summer and, as we move into winter, softer spices and dried fruit will be taking centre stage,” adds Passmore.

The London Hilton on Park Lane takes full advantage of the changing seasons. For Halloween it served a pumpkin and chocolate tart, while the festive menu (pictured aboved) includes a chocolate and mandarin tart.

Others create treats based on a movie, book, or art style – the opportunities are endless. For example, London’s Aqua Shard is offering an experience based on PL Travers’ Mary Poppins books, the Rosewood London drew inspiration for its art afternoon tea from cubism and pop art, and there is a family-friendly Beauty and the Beast feast at The Kensington Hotel.

There’s even an opportunity for sweet pastries to pave the way for new occasions, believes Lantmännen’s Sykes. “Why not try a breakfast-themed alternative? Serve a good-quality breakfast tea with miniature Viennoiserie items to give consumers a novel experience,” she suggests.

With a bit of imagination, sweet pastries could soon be stealing the show.

The healthier side of pastry 

Buttery, flaky pastry isn’t exactly synonymous with health but pastry suppliers are increasingly focusing on the nutritional benefits their products can offer.

“Overall, we are seeing more healthy alternatives in the sweet pastry category,” notes Dawn Foods marketing manager Jacqui Passmore.

This can take many forms, such as substituting refined sugar in fillings with natural sugars such as honey, or using maple syrup for a vegan-friendly treat. Avocado can be added to chocolate fillings for creaminess, adds Passmore, while beetroot can bring richness. Fruit peel can add natural sweetness and can be grated into pastry mixes for flavour.

“Many bakers are adding inclusions into mixes, such as seeds and nuts, to cater for consumers who are after products they perceive to be better for them,” she notes.

Pidy is also tapping the trend for healthier pastry, with a focus on the provenance of ingredients – something it says customers are increasingly demanding.

“We have a specifically developed organic range from a pure butter and red cane sugar recipe (pictured), along with a wholemeal pastry case and gluten-free alternatives to ensure bakers can keep up with demand for such ingredients and create tea-time offers that suit all styles,” explains Fabien Levet, national account manager for foodservice at Pidy UK.

Earlier this year, the pastry supplier also made improvements to its veggie cups mini canapé case range, which comprises beetroot, grilled onion, carrot and spinach flavoured pastry.

Others are focusing on calorie reduction. Ulrick & Short, for example, has developed a fat alternative for bakers looking to reduce the calorie content of shortcrust pastry. Delyte 10 is designed to mimic the functional properties of butter or fat – up to 25% of which can be removed and replaced without affecting the colour, texture, bite or flavour, the company says.

Do you want fries with that?

More than three-quarters of consumers would change the components of an afternoon tea, according to a survey by travel and booking platform Klook.

Just over a third (34%) would like to see crumpets or biscuits added to the menu, while others would like burritos, mini doughnuts and even fried chicken or fish and chips served as part of the occasion.

The liquid accompaniments could also change, with only 61% of respondents saying they would include tea itself as part of afternoon tea. Others preferred boozier sides, with a small minority even requesting a pint of lager next to their cucumber sandwiches.