For generations, Americans embraced the traditional dayparts of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and quick serves fell into line with menu offerings and hours that respected the standards of the day.

Gradually, however, those historic daypart designations faded in the face of a changing employment landscape, a 24-hour culture, altered eating habits, and, most notably, increased snack cravings. Not surprisingly, quick-service restaurants followed suit by extending hours, altering menus, inventing new products, and creating expansive marketing campaigns in an attempt to lure diners during nontraditional dayparts.

“Consumers are deciding when they want to eat and what they want to eat just as restaurants try to accommodate as many [customers] as they can,” says Denny Lynch, Wendy’s senior vice president of communications.

A study of America’s nutritional habits from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agriculture Department found that the percentage of Americans eating three or more snacks a day jumped from 11 to 42 percent between 1977 and 2002. More recently, foodservice industry consultant Technomic released data showing that 21 percent of consumers are snacking more frequently in 2010 than they did two years ago.

As consumer habits have evolved, the industry has responded with a mix of extended hours, smaller portions, lighter meals, dollar menus, and promotional ploys—all targeting the snacking crowd and its profit potential.

Before the millennium, Wendy’s launched a national advertising campaign championing its new late-night hours, taking direct aim at both America’s snacking habits and its competitors. While it was a big move for the Ohio–based chain, it was also a low-risk, high-reward proposition.

“It all started from a simple premise,” Lynch says. “We were already paying for the land, the building, and the equipment for 24 hours a day, so there was a great opportunity to gain a fair share of business without straining expenses.”

In test markets, Wendy’s officials discovered an unforeseen trend.

“People were using our late-night hours as their refrigerator, which proved to be encouraging and credible news,” Lynch says. “You go back 10 years and you see that restaurants established eating hours. Now, people are establishing the hours.”

As the first major chain to market the late-night daypart, Wendy’s post-10 p.m. sales accelerated, thereby bringing energy and revenue to a company vying for momentum in a crowded quick-service field. Others soon flooded the late-night game seeking their piece of the action.

Taco Bell unveiled its “Fourthmeal” campaign in April 2006, among the most spirited and successful campaigns focused on the nontraditional dayparts. Citing internal research that showed nearly half of all males age 18–29 eat after 7 p.m. along with 40 percent of employed Americans working a nontraditional schedule, Taco Bell pounced on the opportunity and, over time, adapted its operational structure. For instance, Taco Bell focused on drive-thru speed and service to accommodate late-night diners, while making continual changes to technology, equipment, staffing, and menu to woo customers.

“The 24-hour society trend is well established and … Fourthmeal supports our ‘outside the bun’ approach to burger-bored late-night offerings,” Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch says of the company’s late-night drive thru.

Courting the snacking crowd, however, spread beyond late-night hours. Recognizing the trend, product development and marketing teams turned attention to late-morning and mid-afternoon potential as well.

Steak n Shake establishments run a Happy Hour campaign to tempt the post-lunch, pre-dinner crowd with a sweet tooth. Between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., customers can purchase half-priced milkshakes and drinks.

On the product development side, some brands built snacks into combo meals, such as Long John Silver’s Popcorn Shrimp, while others introduced mini-meals, typified by McDonald’s Snack Wrap, KFC’s Snackers, and Burger King’s Burger Shots.

In 2008, Einstein Bros. Bagels tested its $3.99 Snack-Out Menu as an inexpensive alternative to the mid-afternoon snack. Between 2 p.m. and close, guests could select from one of three snack product lines “specifically to fulfill the cravings that a growing number of guests have after 2 p.m.,” the company’s news release said.

“Many operators realized they were missing an opportunity to serve customers outside of traditional dayparts,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group, a Chicago–based foodservice research firm. “But over time they’ve seen the opportunity to generate business during these down times and worked to take advantage of it from a number of different angles.”

NPD research found that snacking represents 19 percent of all quick-serve traffic and is holding its own as the traditional three dayparts falter, a sign that the snacking trend is here to stay and has room for growth.

“Operators are aware of these shifts and they see where the opportunity is, which is precisely why they’re putting their marketing dollars where the growth is,” Riggs says.

Still, it’s not all roses for the industry. Quick serves face a battle for snack-time market share with convenience stores, where customers continue to purchase the majority of their snacks (as much as 83 percent, by Technomic’s account).

“The c-store market is faring well and evolving itself, getting half of its traffic from customers seeking snacks,” Riggs says. “To seize the opportunity, quick serves are going to have to be innovative.”

Meanwhile, increasing snack consumption and a widening definition of what constitutes as a snack have operators scurrying for relevant options.

“There’s a challenge and an opportunity here,” Riggs says. “What are consumers getting at the c-stores that the quick serves can offer?”

While Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report identifies packaged snacks and prepared offerings as the greatest opportunity to win, it also notes another surging trend: 35 percent of consumers are choosing healthier snacking options than they were two years ago. Quick serves have already responded in earnest, evident in products such as Jamba Juice’s 3g Energizer and McDonald’s Parfait.

“Some real opportunity exists with healthier, lighter snacks,” Riggs says, adding that the race to serve the American public’s snacking habits continues to intensify.

Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Story, Burger King, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silver's, McDonald's, Steak 'n Shake, Taco Bell, Wendy's