Pastry chef Ann Kirk offers incentives to customers who bring back the jeweled jam jars she uses for panna cotta and pudding at the Deli at Little Dom’s restaurant in Los Angeles, but guests like them so much they tend to keep them, passing on the promise of one dollar off their next purchase at the restaurant.
“People like those jars so much, because they’re really cute, that it doesn’t happen very often that they bring it back,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re doing with them. Maybe they put a plant in it, or something like that. But they like them, so they really tend to keep them.”
At the Deli, Kirk tends to keep three to four different flavors of panna cotta available at a time.
“My favorite is the classic vanilla panna cotta,” she says. “And then I expand to flavors like Meyer lemon when it’s in season. I do an espresso, too. Whatever looks good at the market I try to rotate in.”
The chocolate pudding, which she calls by its Italian name, budino, sells particularly well, Kirk says.
Kirk is among a handful of chefs serving desserts in unconventional containers to stand apart from the competition, delight guests and take an eco-friendly stance.
She chose jam jars for her panna cotta because she wanted customers to be able to take panna cottas or puddings to go, and she liked the glass jars as a more earth-friendly option than disposables because it is recyclable and reusable.
“The whole green movement has been really big in the last couple years,” she says. “And I thought we can do it in the jars. It’s glass, it’s recyclable, and if people bring the jar back they can get a dollar off. We have a little sticker on top that says if you bring it back you get a dollar, so they do come back on occasion.”
In addition to being a more eco-friendly option, the Deli’s jam jars’ faceted outsides catch the light and draw the eye toward the display case. They also take the guesswork out of panna cotta for guests who want to serve them at dinner parties, Kirk says.
“People either get one to go and eat it on the way out, or they take a variety of flavors home for dinner parties,” she says. “People have a fear of unmolding the panna cotta, but it’s so pretty in the jar that they just serve it as-is. So it’s kind of a win-win situation.”
At New York’s Max Brenner , Chocolate by the Bald Man, unusual containers are a perfect pair to the chain’s Chocolate Concoctions. That treat is served in a large apothecary jar, accompanied by a small graduated flask filled with chocolate-covered wafer balls.
For that dessert, milk chocolate cream is layered with cookies, peanut butter and white chocolate chunks topped with whipped cream. A version is also available that substitutes toffee and bananas for the cookies and peanut butter. Both are served with crunchy wafer balls and a biscotti for $9.75.
The apothecary jars add to the experience by letting guests dig through the layers and “experience the surprises,” says founder Max Brenner. He says the science-fair paraphernalia add to the playful feeling at his chocolate bars.
“I believe that chocolate is a secret, known as something made behind the bar in a laboratory,” Brenner says. “Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man, is my laboratory.”
Brenner uses science fair chic to create a laboratory-like atmosphere for his chocolate with graduated flasks accompanying many dishes on the menu. Sometimes they hold chocolate wafer balls, and sometimes they are used to pour various sauces on the desserts. The waffles, for example, are served with extra chocolate sauce in a graduated flask.
More traditional jarware can be used to create a homey, comfortable atmosphere, as at Mason Jar Restaurant  in Mahwah, N.J., where all the ice cream and cold beverages except beer and wine are served in the eponymous containers.
“We decided right from the beginning that we were going to use Mason jars for our beverages,” explains owner Tim Payne. “And from there we decided also to call the restaurant the Mason Jar.”
In addition to the martinis and other cocktails that are served in Mason jars, the restaurant’s Mason jar delight dessert is made with chocolate wafers, cappuccino ice cream, and chocolate syrup, served in a Mason jar and topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
“We’ve been serving that since the day we opened,” Payne says. “About 26 years.”
To make the pudding, chef-owner Amanda Cohen steeps popcorn in milk and lets that simmer for a while so the milk is flavored. Then she uses that to make a white pudding with cornstarch and butter. She pours the pudding into half-pint Mason jars and tops each with whipped cream and butterscotch sauce. She sprinkles the dish with crushed hazelnuts and serves it on a long white plate with a side of salted caramel popcorn, which can be dipped in the pudding. The pudding can also be made with soymilk for vegan guests.
For Cohen, the Mason jars were a last-minute idea that paid off.
“We were opening, and we realized we didn’t have a small enough container for the pudding,” Cohen says. “My pastry chef at the time, Debbie Lee, said ‘You should go get Mason jars, it would look really cute in there.’
So I went to the hardware store, and they were selling them in a half-pint size. And they were really cute.”
The Mason jars had a practical benefit for Dirt Candy as well, as Cohen reports that they are particularly hardy, compared with normal dishware. They resist breaks and chips, so they stand up well in a restaurant environment.