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.

A different take on the soup-salad-sandwich option is Qdoba Mexican Grill’s Craft 2 menu, which pairs two small-portioned entrées.

“When we developed Craft 2 [three years ago], it was about variety and being health conscious,” says Ted Stoner, chef and director of strategic product development at the fast-casual restaurant company. “But it became apparent that we were also opening up customers to more adventuresome eating. You can get one of your favorites and try something new.”

Craft 2 offers two half or small servings of tacos, burritos, Mexican-style gumbo, nachos, grilled quesadillas, tortilla soup, and nacho salad, for about $6.50. A small version of the Mango Salad is offered when the larger, limited-time offer is available.

Diners choose Craft 2 items for specific reasons in different regions, Stoner says. “Those selecting for nutritional concerns—you can have an indulgent item like nachos and pair that with a salad or soup that is lower in fat—are doing that more in markets like New York, where they eat out a lot,” he says. “The St. Louis market is more value driven, while markets like Seattle look for more different and new flavors.”

Pei Wei Asian Diner, P.F. Chang’s fast-casual sister brand, is another company that features little portions in a combo meal. The combos pair a small serving of one of six popular dishes with a spring roll, cup of soup, or Asian slaw. The entrée items range from Lo Mein and Teriyaki to Kung Pao and General Tso. The base price is $6.45.

“Doing a smaller portion does allow guests to try something different,” says Phil Butler, creative culinary chef for Pei Wei. “The one thing that amazes me is how much they love us and trust us to bring them great flavors.”

Pei Wei also has a Small Plates menu. It originally had items like Bangkok Noodles and Lemongrass Chicken Noodle Salad, but has evolved into appetizer-type items, including spring rolls and edamame, starting at $2.

The chain’s customers typically see the small plates as an add-on to their dish, “but we do hear customers use us to get a couple small plates and share them at a table, or they have a couple small plates for a meal,” Butler says. The chef indicated that the company this year might add more small-portion items to the menu at different price points.

Even Starbucks has dipped its toes into the small-plates sea, offering nine food items, along with beer and wine, on its Evenings menu, which is available at 18 locations in seven markets. The food items range from the Warm Rosemary Brown Sugar Cashews, for $3.45, to the Blue Brie Cheese Plate, for $6.95. Other offerings include Parmesan Crusted Chicken Skewers and Truffle Macaroni and Cheese.

“They are meant to be shared, but are not too much for one person,” writes Alisa Martinez, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Starbucks, in an e-mail. The items were created “to appeal to different taste preferences and to pair with our wine selection.” Starbucks will explore offering new selections seasonally, she adds.

Some operators have small portions as their major menu items. Wow Bao, under the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises umbrella, offers baos—small steamed pastries—as its primary entrée. There are six savory varieties, including Teriyaki Chicken and Spicy Mongolian Beef, at $1.69 each, or six for $9.19. There are also a couple of sweet baos.

The items are perfect for today’s consumer, says Geoff Alexander, vice president and managing partner of Wow Bao, which has four full-time Chicago locations, a food truck, and a stall at Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox.

“Everybody is on the go, and everybody is late, and everybody is on the phone, so having something to eat in one hand while moving is very important,” he says, adding that the steamed baos are a healthy option with an average 170 calories each.

Whether diners are choosing Wow Bao for a meal or snack depends on the time of day and particular location, Alexander says. On the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, for instance, hundreds of people in various-sized groups every hour visited the Wow Bao at the Water Tower Place upscale shopping center along Michigan Avenue.

“It shows that people choose us for snacks and meals, and to get together with others,” he says.