The problem with snacks nowadays is that they no longer know their proper place. 

Based on the results of a survey conducted by market research firm Technomic earlier this year, these uppity, stopgap appetite-tamers are muscling in on what used to be mealtime turf. Indeed, more than two out of five consumers told the company that they often either skip one meal each day or replace one meal per day with snacks. That, for those of you watching at home, is an awful lot of lost meal occasions.

Watching from home, incidentally, is precisely the problem: The same Technomic survey revealed that nearly 75 percent of all snacking takes place at home. Yes, friends, this means that crackers, chips, Pizza Pockets, granola bars, ice cream pops, yogurt cups, fruit chunks, pork rinds, Beer Nuts, and cheese-filled pretzels are quite literally eating our lunch.

So what’s an enterprising quick-serve menu-development professional to do? Well, for starters, chains might do themselves a favor by taking a cue from packaged-foods companies, but going one better. The edge quick serves enjoy over the clever companies that fill our grocery aisles with snack fare ultimately is the ability to customize at the point of purchase. And my suggestion is to capitalize on this operational advantage.

Sure, the chip and cracker heavyweights can devise line extension after line extension, new flavor idea after new flavor idea, and packaging innovation after packaging innovation. But can they fry up a fresh batch of potato chips that meet a guest’s flavor craving of the moment and seal those chips in a carryout bag to enjoy both now and later?

In past columns, I’ve argued that many quick serves don’t necessarily make the most of the space near the cash register. I’ve pointed out that many concepts could easily offer take-home branded drinks, snacks, or desserts in an area of the restaurant that doesn’t work as hard for the money as it might. 

Today, I’m proposing something a bit different: Create snacks that are prepared on the spot, customized to order, packaged for enjoyment both with the meal and later in the day, and every bit as delicious as the best supermarket snack foods.

Think about it. Which would you rather have: a bag of shelf-stable cheese puffs or a hot-off-the-clamshell batch of frico, a fried, crispy cheese chip consisting of your choice of real cheese (Parmesan is a common favorite), spices, and herbs, seasoned with just the right amount of salt or pepper, and packaged just for you? It’s certainly not difficult to imagine chains such as Pizza Hut offering just that kind of personalized snack, and it’s even easier to picture consumers choosing them over a garden-variety bag of chips between lunch and dinner.

At a chain noted for healthful offerings, such as Panera or Subway, isn’t it possible that consumers would love the opportunity to walk away with a bag of freshly baked fruit or veggie chips or a kind of customized trail mix made from a variety of nuts, granolas, and fruit? Those could easily stand in for plain old dried fruit or a nutrition bar when the munchies set in.

Think about it. Which would you rather have: a bag of shelf-stable cheese puffs or a hot-off-the-clamshell batch of frico?

And what about gourmet popcorn? Couldn’t giving guests the chance to augment their meal with several varieties of air-popped corn dusted with a dozen seasoning mixes prompt them to grab a batch for quiet grazing at the office later in the day?

The list goes on, and none of the options seem particularly out of reach for at least a handful of quick-serve chains: customizable pita or tortilla chips, mini cookies baked hot to order, Churro-style fried dough bites (or doughnut holes) in both sweet and savory flavor combinations, personalized snack crackers, French toast nibbles, and so on.

The idea, in each case, would be to use existing equipment and ingredients as the basis for a new product category. You’re aiming to create take-away snack items whose key points of difference are their freshness, quality, and made-to-order potential. 

Today, for the most part, consumers’ interaction with their favorite fast food or fast-casual restaurant ends when they take the last bite or sip. Extending that relationship to include more hours of the day, more snacking occasions, and more venues could deepen their affiliation with the brand and increase loyalty. It may seem like a stretch, but with so much at stake in the snacking world today, it’s an idea that might just be worth considering.

Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert, Menu Innovations, Story, Panera Bread, Pizza Hut, Subway