Menu Innovations | August 2011 | By Amelia Levin

Pub-Style Protein Snacks

Take a hint from across the pond and tap into America’s growing love for pub foods.

Pub, gastropub, street food. It’s all hot, literally. These foods are playing a role in the growing trend toward protein-heavy mini-meals and snacks among both full-service and quick-service chains.

With snack foods taking hold in the last couple of years, proteins in portable form have allowed quick serves to both capitalize on the afternoon, between-lunch-and-dinner daypart and on the convenience more consumers seek. In some cases they also offer a healthy component as a filling, slow-burning fuel source compared with sugary or starchy snacks.

More than half of consumers (55 percent) polled for a consumer snacking report said they snack at least once a day, and about a quarter of consumers (26 percent) said they typically consume more than one snack each day, according to Chicago-based research firm Technomic.

Pub-Time Poultry

Chicken in various boneless, bone-in, fried, grilled, and other combinations ranked among the top 10 snack items in terms of the number of quick serves carrying these items from July through December 2010, according to Technomic. Chicken value meals ranked first, followed by chicken strips or nuggets, mixed chicken pieces, buffalo wings, chicken sandwiches or wraps, and fried chicken. Catfish, pork ribs, build-your-own sandwich, and steak sandwiches or wraps ranked at the bottom.

Chicken wings, chicken fingers, and other forms of snacking chicken have long been equated with bar food or pub menus. “Chicken wraps are becoming more and more popular,” says Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst at Mintel. “Not only because they’re easy to eat, but I also think the combination of protein and a less starchy item like a wrap versus a bun is something consumers are looking for as a lighter afternoon bite.”

Zachary Otto, food scientist for Wixon, says, “It seems like people are focusing a lot more on poultry, such as chicken and turkey, when it comes to appetizers or snack foods.”

Wingstop, known primarily for its bone-in chicken wings and boneless chicken items, including a recently introduced boneless chicken sandwich, has given consumers a more portable, easier-to-eat option for lighter lunches or mid-afternoon refueling, says Mike Sutter, vice president of training.

“We’ve seen a popularity surge among boneless product because it hits more demographics, for one,” he says. “We’ve always had a lot of guys come in for wings, but not a lot of women. Now we have more men and women coming in for the boneless strips, at lunchtime especially. The strips are less messy than the wings, not as much like bar food, and they’re easy to eat and dipable with ranch or hot sauce.”

The Glider sandwich was a natural progression in the boneless arena, as both a light lunch and a snack with the portability and convenience for quick, in-store eating or munching on the go, Sutter says. At lunch, about 80 percent of orders are to go, he adds.

“Someone may not have as much time at lunch, or not want to eat as much so the sandwich doesn’t weigh you down like 15 wings might,” Sutter says. The 3-ounce chicken patty weighs in well under a 6-ounce traditional sandwich size, but serves as a more filling lunch or snack than a standard 1–2 ounce “slider.”

Mini-Wiches

Classic pub staples like burgers, but scaled down in the form of sliders or mini burgers, have taken hold.

“Sliders have definitely moved from the pub setting to quick serves,” says Hayden, noting Jack in the Box’s Mini Sirloin Burgers, for one. According to Technomic, more than half of respondents say that they sometimes purchase a single hamburger or a small sandwich as a snack away from home (54 percent). Wendy’s junior-sized burgers are a good example of that.

“I expect to see more chains doing sliders,” Hayden says. “A lot of places are presenting smaller sandwiches like these as snack items, and that includes egg-based breakfast sandwiches, too.”

Breakfast sandwiches and wraps at Dunkin’ Donuts, Cosi, and Tim Hortons in particular run smaller in size without as much fat and carbs in more snack-esque fashion, she says. In April 2011, Dunkin’ Donuts also launched a line of hearty snacks: breadsticks stuffed with protein-rich cheese and pepperoni, as well as beef for cheeseburger flavor. While not a sandwich, per se, in very “pub” fashion, Burgerville introduced a seasonal breakfast pastry with egg and spinach—the company’s take on the traditional Cornish meat pie.

According to Technomic’s 2010 Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, portability ranks as the No. 1 reason for the popularity of mini sandwiches and wraps. “Sandwiches are a portable and highly craveable meal option in their traditional size, but when the flavorful ingredients of a sandwich or wrap are condensed into a smaller size, the portability factor is highlighted even more, making the sandwich a viable snack,” the report says. These mini sandwiches also have a value-added component. Consumers spend less for less, but they’re full and fueled, and the size is just right.

“Snack wraps and sandwiches may be smaller than a regular-sized menu and take care of hunger or cravings between meals,” the Technomic report states.

Two notable examples of this trend are Quiznos’ mini-sandwich line, Sammies, and McDonald’s Snack Wrap lineup. Tim Hortons’ Wrap Snackers and Hardee’s Hand-Breaded Chicken Tender Wrappers also fall into this category, Hayden says.

Perhaps it’s the rise of the “gastropub” concept among full-service restaurants causing a trickle-down effect on quick serves, Hayden says. At Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, Chef Heather Terhune makes her own sweet and salty beef jerky, and she presents a host of other premeal snacks that are smaller than appetizers but help soak up a strong cocktail. Other chef-driven restaurants are hand-grinding their own sausages, and there’s also been a return to classic pâtés, mousses, and other in-house, protein-based comfort foods.

“We’re not seeing all this quite yet at the quick-service level,” Hayden says, “but it’s not totally far off. I keep waiting for the Paneras and bakeries of the world to do more protein-based snacky foods beyond pastries, but it hasn’t happened just yet. This range of portion sizes is the answer to customization, and people wanting what they want, when they want it.”

Street-Style Snacking

Slightly outshining the gastropub trend is the nationwide mobile food truck and street food movement that’s launched another form of comfort, and in some cases pubby, food, but in easy-to-eat, portable form. While mini-sandwiches, sliders, and strips are already popular at quick serves, the trucks have given rise to the taco filled with anything from traditional Mexican ingredients to Korean barbecue. Then there are the trucks doling out different types of meatballs, spiced-up fish and chips, pulled-pork sandwiches, Indian naan sandwich “wraps,” and Italian arancini, or fried rice or risotto balls.

“These trucks are taking dishes you would see in a traditional restaurant or mom and pop and making them more unique,” says Chef Shane Maack of Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings. “It’s about comfort, and easy, simple food someone can understand, but taking it to another level by adding more intense flavors. Instead of traditional meatballs, for example, you might see an Asian version made with turkey or fish or some kind of protein other than just beef or pork.” It’s precisely this blend of the pubby, the familiar, and the traditional with more bold, spicy, and citrus flavors from different ethnic cuisines that consumers are looking for these days, Maack says.

“Even when you see pub food, you can see ethnic influences, like Szechwan chicken skewers,” Otto says. “Then there are the egg roll–type appetizers, but filled with more recognizable ingredients.”

Technomic’s latest consumer snack report pointed out similar findings. The next ethnic-style snack varieties to watch carry Asian flavors and influences, the report says. For appetizers and starters, that means Asian-inspired finger foods like egg rolls or spring rolls, potstickers, bao, and dumplings.

Although Mexican food has become almost mainstream, consumers continue to gravitate toward the bolder, spicier flavor accents in Latin cuisine, but in miniature varieties or handheld foods.

This is precisely how the street food concept has begun to trickle into the quick-serve segment, Mintel’s Hayden says. Last year, Taco Bell added a new line of smaller, street-inspired tacos, including the Cantina Taco line featuring a choice of chicken, beef, or carnitas served on a corn tortilla and topped with chopped onions, cilantro, and a lime wedge for a simpler, authentic Mexican taco.

In addition, Hayden says, Qdoba Mexican Grill debuted its Mini Street Tacos: three tacos made with four-inch corn tortillas filled with Qdoba’s signature pulled pork or shredded beef, topped with red onion and cilantro, and served with a slice of lime and a side of Ancho Chile BBQ beans.

Regional Authenticity

Consumers are growing even more sophisticated in their taste preferences when it comes to protein-based foods, snacks, and more. Quick serves have responded to this by getting more specific in their offerings, focusing on more regional flavors within broader ethnic cuisines.

“Instead of focusing on Latin food in general, we’re seeing a lot more regionalized flavors, such as Northern Mexican cuisine or Southern Mexican cuisine,” Otto says. “It’s the same thing with Indian cuisine. They use different spices and heat levels from region to region. One group uses more tomato in their cooking, while the other has more creamy dishes. You may see the same spices like cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, red pepper, and black pepper in Indian cuisine, but they’re used at different ratios to get more floral notes or more heat from region to region.”

In terms of Asian cuisines, Maack says, “nothing is just Asian anymore. It’s Korean, or Vietnamese, or specific regions of China. Now you’ll see particular countries called out.”

Barbecue in snack and full meal form has, in particular, set the stage for these worldly, more regional and authentic flavors. “Global barbecue is huge right now,” Maack says.

When the Kogi BBQ food truck introduced the world to Korean barbecue, those tangy flavors blending toasted sesame, brown sugar, and soy with garlic and cilantro began to catch on throughout the country, Otto says. Then there are the South African grilling sauces spiked with hot red pepper, fruit, and citrus. Argentine barbecue, or asado, exudes smoky-sweet tastes with a blend of paprika, red wine, cumin, onion, garlic, and a touch of sugar. Russian all-meat shish kebabs typically found among street vendors come dressed with sauces that combine pomegranate juice, red wine, nutmeg, mace, and ginger.

“I think barbecue’s popularity is driven by the Millennials who like to try different things and have a more open palate,” Otto says.

And in the U.S., you won’t just see barbecue, but specific regional barbecues called out, Maack says. “Carolina is more vinegary, but also sweet. St. Louis is super sweet and thick. And Texas is more about the rub and the way the meat is cooked than the sauce.”

The Healthy Factor

When it comes to protein-based snack foods, healthfulness has become a draw among consumers, aside from the bold flavors of regional ethnic cuisines or the draw of pub food.

According to Technomic, more than one-third of consumers surveyed for its consumer snack report say they are choosing healthier snacks today compared to two years ago.

Starbucks has jumped on that notion with its protein snack plates packed with peanut butter and light cheeses paired alongside fruit and vegetables. And Au Bon Pain’s lineup of reduced-portion-size “snacks” or quick bites also focus on the filling nature of low-fat and vegetarian proteins, with hummus and cucumber, cheese and fruits, and turkey with asparagus and cranberry nut relish.

Consumers are also seeking out lower-sodium protein options, Maack says. “We use salt for several reasons, for preservation and processing such as with sausages, but also for flavor,” he says. When the salt comes out, other spices, heat, or citrus elements need to go in.

As far as lean protein goes, “Bison is becoming very popular, at least in the full-service segment,” Maack says. “It’s considered a healthier red meat used for steaks, burgers, sliders, and other beef dishes.” Sustainability proponents argue bison preserves land better than cattle by the way they graze.

Bison might be a ways away from the quick-service segment, but it’s the introduction of newer protein options like these and different protein combinations drawn from traditional comfort classics that have brought a renewed sense of creativity, simplicity, authenticity, healthfulness, and of course, portability to the limited-service scene.