Menu Innovations | August 2011 | By Barney Wolf

The State of Snacks

Quick serves are in position to satisfy nibbling consumers.

It’s 3 p.m., and there are still two hours left in the workday.

As the afternoon drags, a snack would be a great pick-me-up. There’s a vending machine in the break room and a convenience store down the street.

Better yet, how about something fresh from a restaurant?

Increasingly, consumers are looking at quick-service restaurants to grab a bite to eat during nontraditional dining hours, such as mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or late evening.

“We’re seeing greater consumer interest in snacking, and, not surprisingly, we’re seeing more restaurant interest in grabbing business and driving traffic during those nonpeak hours,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel Group.

Whether snacks are used for quick energy or as part of an effort to eat more meals with fewer calories, more people are nibbling.

A Mintel study last year found that menu items described as snacks had grown 170 percent from three years earlier. That growth is expected to continue.

This trend has been particularly good for quick serves, because full-service restaurants “aren’t really set up for this,” says Richard Miller, president of Richard K. Miller and Associates, an Atlanta-based company that publishes market research reports.

Quick-service snacking “grew even faster in the poor economy, as people looked for less-expensive options,” he says.

Chains ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to Sonic have created specific menus geared toward snacks. Restaurants not only added more snacking options, but they also positioned existing items as snacks, particularly small sides and beverages.

Consumers have always snacked, including employees suffering a mid-day lull and hungry kids after school. The most popular times are 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., Mintel found.

The vast majority of snacks are still bought from retailers such as grocers, according to a 2010 survey by research and consulting firm Technomic. About 70 percent of retail purchases are packaged snacks.

That indicates both an opportunity for restaurants to differentiate themselves, as well as an opportunity to feature their own packaged goodies, such as the deal Caribou Coffee has with Somersault Snacks to sell $2 sunflower seed–based snacks.

Restaurants can grow snacking traffic for several reasons, according to research firm NPD Group, including convenience and the ability to meet customer cravings.

Value is also important, and that’s why items on the dollar menus have become particularly attractive as snacks.

The most popular? Try fries.

“When we ask customers, fries are very high up there,” Giandelone says.

Their growth as a quick-service snack item is one reason fry sales are expected to bubble up this year, says Don Odiorne, vice president, foodservice, at the Idaho Potato Commission.

“With their popularity and economical price points, operators look at potatoes as having a real potential to build traffic in nontraditional times,” he says.

There are various ways to prepare fries, says Kelly Rische, food services oil segment leader for Cargill Inc.

“There are a lot of different drizzles, salts, and oils on fries and in cooking fries,” she says. “There’s a lot more attention on the flavors and [operators] seem to be doing a lot of experimenting. We’re even seeing an Asian flair” and spicing fries with chiles.

Fries, of course, come in different sizes, shapes, and varieties. They can be cooked in various oils, topped with all manner of seasonings, and dipped in all types of sauces, making the customization options almost limitless.

A restaurant like the Boise Fry Co. in Boise, Idaho, gives diners plenty of choices with seven types of potatoes and four shapes. True tater lovers sprinkle their fries with Cajun, horseradish, and other seasonings, then dip the spuds in one of several freshly made sauces, such as blue cheese, chipotle, or blueberry ketchup. Small servings are $2.39.

While it’s difficult for an operator to offer all those varieties, many have chosen to sell two or more types of potatoes for variety. Smashburger, for instance, has regular fries; Smashfries tossed with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil; and sweet potato Smashfries.

“Regular fries are still the workhorse of the industry, but operators can add a second type of fry and make it special, up-charging it,” Odiorne says.

Some consumers come up with their own ideas for snack fries. One favorite among Wendy’s customers is to dip their fries in the company’s Frosty frozen dairy dessert.

“It’s a very popular phenomenon,” says Denny Lynch, spokesman for the Dublin, Ohio–based company. Wendy’s actually did a study on this self-created snack a few years ago and found that more than a quarter of adults have dipped fries in Frostys.

Fries aren’t the only side also positioned as a snack.

At Sonic, fries are joined on the Sides and Snacks menu by onion rings, potato tots, mozzarella sticks, cheese tots and chili, and cheese tots and fries—and, in some locations, fried pickles. Apple slices with a nonfat caramel dip are also on that menu.

The signature tots and the onion rings are the most popular items on the snacks menu, which has been available for many years but got a big boost with the 2007 chain-wide addition of Happy Hour—when many beverages are half price from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

“We were looking at ways to grow the afternoon business, and [Happy Hour] was a local store option,” says Paul Macaluso, Sonic’s vice president of marketing. “We started digging, and there was definitely something there. People were looking for something light, something refreshing, and something as a pick-me-up in the afternoon.”

Since adding the Happy Hour, afternoon business has jumped. “There’s been tremendous growth not only in terms of the drinks sold, but also in people adding on our great snacks, from our snacks menu and our everyday value menu,” he says.

Several other chains have added their own snack menus in the past few years.

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