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.

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.”