Menu Innovations | August 2011 | By Barney Wolf

The State of Snacks

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Taco John’s has two grab-and-go tortilla wraps, dubbed Snackaritos, but the Chips & Queso and Cini-Sopapilla Bites have gained the most acceptance. Items on the limited snack menu are priced under $2.

“All of our products, by nature, have been snacky items,” says Renee Middleton, vice president of marketing for the Mexican-style chain based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “This rounds out that snackability, with a savory and salty flavor and something that’s sweet.”

The sopapillas, which are one-inch puffed dough pillows rolled in cinnamon, are preferred as a mid-morning item with coffee and as a dessert-type sweet.

Taco John’s Potato Oles have long been eaten as snack items, too.

Starbucks has small-portion sweets as well as a quartet of items on its Fruit & Snack Plates menu, three of which don’t include meat.

The Snack Full is a 270-calorie plate with animal crackers, string cheese, raisins, and apple slices. The Fruit, Nut & Cheese Artisan Snack Plate also has sliced apples, plus dried cranberries, almonds, three cheeses, and a whole-wheat sesame cracker.

Cheese is “highly underutilized” for quick-service snacks, says Lynn Stachura, senior vice president of strategic insights at Dairy Management Inc., a dairy industry affiliate.

“At retail, we’re seeing more repackaging of higher-end cheese for snacks,” she says. “It used to be string cheese. Now, it’s more for the sophisticated palate.”

As with other menu items, this will move “into the foodservice world,” she says.

Cheddar cheese is part of the new line of Hearty Snacks at Dunkin’ Donuts, a company with numerous other snacking options among its beverages and baked goods.

The new menu includes the Cheddar Cheese Bagel Twist, a twisted bagel with a cheddar cheese flavor. For sweeter options, there is the Cinnamon Raisin Bagel Twist and Warm Apple Pie. All are less than $2.

Hearty Snacks compliments Dunkin’ Donuts’ existing menu and is “targeted at helping our guests satisfy their snack cravings and keep them running in between meals,” says Scott Hudler, vice president of brand marketing for the Massachusetts-based company.

“We know our guests are busier than ever, so all of the Hearty Snacks options can easily be enjoyed on the go.”

Culver’s created a mini meal called a Snack Pack, but that’s a misnomer when it comes to snacking, says Jim Doak, the Wisconsin-based company’s director of research and menu development. “It’s really right-sizing for a meal.”

The snacking items include sweet potato fries, cheese curds, and onion rings.

“Snacking has been huge for us,” Doak says. The 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. period has been one of the chain’s fastest-growing dayparts, because “it’s the right price point, and the convenience factor really works for us.”

Onion rings are a particular favorite, he says. Of course, they’ve long been a popular side at many quick-service and fast-casual locations.

Sweet onions from Walla Walla, Washington, are used in the seasonal onion rings at Burgerville, the Northwest fast-casual chain based in Vancouver, Washington. The items are on the menu only for July and August.

Giant onion rings at Farmer Boys have become a staple of that chain’s late afternoon and early evening snacking, says Tom Krutilek, marketing vice president for the Los Angeles–based chain. Four to seven of the monster rings are in a serving.

Other favored snacking items at Farmer Boys are chili cheese fries and fried zucchini, which is “very much a regional item and highly craveable,” Krutilek says. Like the onion rings, Farmer Boys’ zucchini slices are served with ranch dressing.

Healthy options are another reason for the growth of snacks.

Many quick serves feature fruit, low-fat milk, and yogurt. McDonald’s Fruit ‘N’ Yogurt Parfait has been a particularly popular snack, featuring vanilla yogurt, berries, and granola. Other operators have been adding frozen yogurt to their menus.

Meanwhile, some long-time dessert favorites, such as cones and milkshakes, are being downsized to attract more snackers. Culver’s did that with its new Mini Mixer, a six-ounce version of the company’s custard Concrete Mixers.

“We found that customers would rather customize their own mixer rather than having to share a larger one,” Doak says. “It’s all about delivering little bites of indulgence.”

The smaller mixers are priced at $2.29–$2.79.

Dairy is key to the cold and hot drinks that are increasingly being positioned as stand-alone snacks, including lattes, cappuccinos, and other espresso coffee-based drinks.

“There’s only so much you can do with traditional coffee, but you can do a lot with espresso drinks,” Giandelone says. “It can be for breakfast, the morning break, afternoon, or evening, depending on the flavor shot and how it’s positioned.”

They’re found in much of McDonald’s McCafé line, as well as in beverages from Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, and Starbucks, among many others.

Smoothies can also be made with dairy products, including yogurt, and they are a strong snack item, particularly in smaller sizes.

“We actually have a category called Snack Rights,” says Bobby Williams, vice president of marketing at Smoothie King. The smaller items include the chain’s second most popular drink, the Caribbean Way, a mix of papaya, bananas, and strawberries.

Williams says mid-morning and mid-afternoon are among the chain’s strongest times for customer traffic.

Smoothies are “perceived as being healthier, as well as easy to take and go,” analyst Miller says. “That’s important in snacks these days.”

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