Menu Innovations | April 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Small Portions a Big Idea

Little servings give diners an opportunity to control health, value, and variety.

Small portions are very big these days.

Many 2013 trend predictions determined that small plates and snacking are expected to be popular among chefs and restaurant operators this year. While diners are still eating during the traditional meal times—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—they are eating less at those times, opting instead to have five or more smaller meals a day.

“Quick service is naturally conducive to consumers who are saying to themselves, ‘This is how hungry I am now, and I want to eat something good right away,’” says Julia Gallo-Torres, foodservice category manager for global marketing firm Mintel. Many fast feeders are offering a growing variety of entrées and other menu items at different portion sizes and price points, she says.

Eating outside the three regular meals a day is often dubbed snacking, but that term can mean much more than potato chips, popcorn, and candy, Gallo-Torres says. “Snacking is really a variety of food options,” she says. “It can be smaller portions as a meal, or it can be small plates to share with friends.” Money is typically a huge driver of snacking, “and the food should be fast and not fill them up.”

According to a study by market research company The NPD Group, more American consumers are eating during the three normal meal times than five years earlier, but these dining occasions are increasingly composed of more mini meals. The “Snacking in America 2012” report found that the average diner consumes fewer food and beverage items at traditional meals than in the past, while more than half of Americans are snacking two or three times a day.

A quick serve with a diverse menu gives customers a better opportunity to plan their meals, says Kazia Jankowski, associate culinary director at Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder, Colorado, branding agency.

“If you build a menu that has different flavors and portions, it gives the consumer the ability to not only shape a particular meal, but also to shape how they will be eating during their entire day,” she says.

Research from the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Washington–based research and market strategist, determined that Americans’ eating habits have significantly shifted, perhaps explaining why smaller meals have become more popular. Only 28 percent of family meal occasions involve children, according to the Hartman Group’s 2011 study, “How We Eat,” while 76 percent of adult eating does not happen during family eating occasions. Meanwhile, 44 percent of adult eating happens when no one else, including family and friends, is present. The study adds that quick-service restaurants are best positioned to take advantage of this trend.

Dining alone in today’s world doesn’t necessarily mean eating in isolation, says Blaine Becker, the Hartman Group’s senior director of marketing and business relations. “Even when people are eating out, at home, or on the go, they are texting or otherwise connected with others, whether it’s family, friends, or coworkers,” he says.

Small plates have become an easy access point for Americans as they turn to snacking and dining during non-meal times of the day.

“A snack can be a slider, a small bite—something to bridge one eating occasion to the next,” Becker says. “Consumers say they would like to eat the three [meals] a day, but they aren’t. They are eating five times a day. Small plates fit right into this.”

Quick serves have offered small portions since fast food got its start in the early 1920s, when the first White Castle restaurant opened in Wichita, Kansas, offering small burgers for 5 cents each. The weight of the beef patty in this small burger, now known as a slider, has been virtually unchanged, even though the company added five holes to the patties in 1954 for faster cooking and improved speed of service.

Small White Castle burgers, cheeseburgers, and other sandwiches easily allow customers to choose how much they want to eat. Diners on average order four sliders at once.

“Customers also share [that] they love the smaller size because it’s easier to manage for on-the-go lifestyles and allows for variety,” says Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle, in
an e-mail.

Other entrée items from limited-service restaurants have been resized and repriced to accommodate customers’ changing lifestyles. That includes McDonald’s burgers and cheeseburgers and some Taco Bell tacos and burritos. Smaller items often appear on chains’ value menus.

Over the years, Wendy’s value menu has featured various small entrée items, including the Junior Cheeseburger Deluxe, Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, Crispy Chicken Sandwich, five-piece Chicken Nuggets, and Small Chili. The company recently launched a new iteration of the menu, with prices ranging from 99 cents (including the Junior Cheeseburger, Crispy Chicken Sandwich, and four-piece nuggets) to $1.99 (including the Double Stack, a double cheeseburger).

The new, 18-item “Right Size Right Price” menu has two other burgers, a small chili, six-piece nuggets, and two chicken wraps, along with sides and drinks.

“You can get one or two items for a small meal, or a side with a premium sandwich,” says Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications at Wendy’s. “We learned in our test markets that people shop around the entire menu.”

Lynch says the lines between the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner dayparts have been blurred. Diners are also more demanding because they have more food options. “The consumer has always been in the driver’s seat and can demand quality and taste at 99 cents,” he says. “A company might have gotten away 10 years ago with just filling food. Customers now demand it must taste good, too.”

Various other fast feeders have recently tweaked their value menus. Taco Bell, which already had a number of entrée items under $1, has been trying out a Cravings menu in test markets. The menu features some new items, including a Spicy Chicken Mini Quesadilla and Beefy Cheesy Burrito.

KFC added small chicken sandwiches, Chicken Littles, for $1.29. Other operators added limited-time offers to their value menus, as McDonald’s did with the Dollar Menu Onion Cheddar Burger, a smaller version of its LTO premium burger.

While value menus are a traditional limited-service method for offering smaller entrées, many bakery-cafés, including Panera Bread and Corner Bakery, have mirrored a deli favorite: half or small portions of soup, salad, and sandwiches in a combination meal.