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Earlier this year, research firm The NPD Group confirmed what many in the quick-service industry have known for years: The breakfast wars are real, and there’s more at stake then a Waffle Taco or a better cup of coffee. NPD’s “A Look into the Future of Foodservice” report found that the quick-service segment showed the strongest increase in breakfast visits of all restaurant segments, with a 4 percent increase in 2013 over 2012.
But NPD’s numbers tell a story that extends beyond breakfast. U.S. consumers cut back on their restaurant visits at lunch and dinner in 2013, while the afternoon snack period showed the only other uptick, a 1 percent increase in 2013. Snacks now make up 14 percent of total restaurant traffic.
That’s why brands that have long dominated the breakfast daypart—brands like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Tim Hortons—are looking more at the afternoon snack as an opportunity to make up for the newfound competition in the morning space.
“With Taco Bell and burger places going after breakfast, we need to look at the rest of the day,” says Brynn Burton, manager of U.S. public relations at Tim Hortons Café & Bake Shop. “We are at the cusp of looking into what lunch will be at Tim Hortons. We are famous for our mornings and we want to appeal to come-back customers for the afternoon.”
The “come-back” crowd is crucial for concepts built around business during a specific time of the day. A recent Associated Press article reported that Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Nigel Travis was encouraging cashiers to upsell food—a sweet or even a sandwich—when customers came in for an afternoon drink.
“Breakfast remains our core, but we are committed to menu innovation, particularly focused on afternoon hours, giving our guests even more options that they can enjoy any time of day,” writes Michelle King, spokeswoman for Dunkin' Brands, in an email.
Dunkin’ Donuts introduced Bakery Sandwiches in January 2012, marking the first time the brand offered guests protein options that were available all day. The line launched with deli-style varieties and quickly expanded to include breaded chicken sandwiches. A grilled chicken sandwich was the most recent addition.
Meanwhile, Caribou Coffee added pastries in February and toasted sandwiches in March, and is also rolling out salads, wraps, and hearty snack boxes. And Starbucks is tempting afternoon snackers by going heavy on social media messages promoting the brand’s “Treat Receipt” promotion, offering discounts for morning coffee buyers to come back after 2 p.m.
This evolution beyond breakfast follows what Starbucks has accomplished in the last few years. In some cities, Starbucks locations become wine bars in the afternoon and evening, and new beverages continue to be added chain-wide as Starbucks adds tools to the all-day toolbox.
“We’ve heard from our customers that they are looking for more options for cold beverages,” a Starbucks spokesperson says. “This summer, we introduced Fizzio Handcrafted Sodas in the Sunbelt and welcomed new Teavana Shaken Iced Teas to our stores.”
Recent menu tracking by Chicago-based Technomic shows that other coffee-centric brands are getting creative with cold specialty drinks. Panera Bread recently added Frozen Lemonade, Bruegger’s introduced Coconut Iced Coffee, and Manhattan Bagel rolled out Strawberries & Cream Manhattan Chillerz.
Starbucks is also tweaking its afternoon food options.
“We’re continuously looking at ways to exceed the expectations of our customers and partners by offering a diverse portfolio of food that’s complementary to our core coffee and espresso business,” the spokesperson says, “whether it’s the up-leveling of our bakery selection with La Boulange, the introduction of new breakfast sandwiches made with premium ingredients, or offering grab-and-go options that fit all dayparts, such as our protein bistro box, yogurt parfaits, and Evolution Fresh juices.”
Listening to all-day customer needs is also driving the conversation at Tim Hortons, where the first steps beyond breakfast have included made-to-order grilled panini sandwiches and soups. “Guests love our soup and sandwiches, so we are exploring ‘2.0’ versions of both, with new soup blends, add-ins, and extras,” Burton says. “Soup and sandwich combos are popular, and we are looking at what’s next in deli meats for paninis and more ways to customize the sandwiches.”
Just as better coffee has fueled the breakfast wars, better drinks and snackable items are fueling afternoon traffic in the quick-service arena. Coffee-centric concepts are becoming panini wizards and even tapas bars. And with Burger King recently announcing that it will bring back its snack-friendly chicken fries, an entire industry tries to figure out the next best artillery in the afternoon snack wars.