Evolving eating habits and generational dynamics are changing the way we look at snacking. There’s no traditional time when Americans are looking for snacks—say, the middle of the afternoon. It’s the late morning, early evening, and late night, too. It’s as if there are as many dayparts for snacking as there are for full meals, if not more.
Millennials, ranging in age from late teens to mid-30s, often perceive dining as eating small portions and sharing food throughout the day. And restaurants are striving to be the go-to spot for Millennials and other folks seeking to satisfy their in-between-meal munchies with a wide range of items, including indulgent options that remove the guilt factor because they are smaller portions.
“Snacks have become a much bigger part of the restaurant mix,” says Paul Pendola, senior foodservice analyst for market research firm Mintel. “So much of the restaurant experience is about a treat, rewards, and celebrations.”
Restaurants feature more creative baked goods and ice cream products, snack-sized savory sandwiches and sides, and a variety of hot and iced drinks, from flavored lattes and green tea coolers to smoothies and milkshakes.
Part of the growth may be due to the way consumers now view snacks.
“How you define a snack these days gets fuzzy,” says Justin Massa, founder and chief executive of Food Genius, which provides market intelligence. “You can look at so many things on the menu as a snack, because of the way the consumer sees it.”
He points to Taco Bell’s success with its line of Doritos Locos Tacos that use various types of Doritos chips as the shells. “They are small, snacky, and indulgent, but what’s just as important is they are marketed as a food experience” that can be shared on social media, he says.
This appeals to Millennials who are seeking more food adventures “and want to extend that by having smaller bites of more things,” Massa says. “Think of an indulgent snack as a unique and different food experience.”
The Doritos Locos Tacos are also part of a trend of using brand-name snacks in a new item. This includes Taco Bell’s Cinnabon Delights—bite-sized Cinnabon pastries filled with frosting—and Burger King’s Cinnabon Minibon Roll and Oreo milkshake.
Despite the growing snack availability at restaurants, there are plenty of opportunities for operators to garner even more of the snacking market. According to a recent survey from Technomic Inc., only a fifth of consumers say they snack at restaurants.
“It’s not that the restaurants aren’t doing well with consumers looking for snacks, but there’s still room for more expansion,” says Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager at the market research firm. The survey reports that more than half of snacking diners do so at a quick-service burger place. Coffee cafés and other fast-food eateries drew a third each, while bakery cafés and mall-based snack sites were both around 20 percent.
Increasingly, limited-service operators promote snacks either by using that word or by positioning some menu items, including value meals, as a between-meal treat. “Many consumers are looking for something filling between meals,” Weikel says. “They may not order chicken tenders as a meal, but they may as a small indulgence.”
Snacking makes up some 40 percent of sales at Checkers and Rally’s, says Terri Snyder, chief marketing officer for the sister double-drive-thru chains.
“I define snacking more broadly [than just a light bite],” she says. “Millennials aren’t eating three [meals], and over 20 percent of our sales are late night. It’s those mini-meal occasions that we’ve done so much with snacking, both sweet and savory.”
The Tampa, Florida–based chains’ value menus are driving much of these snacking occasions, and there are other innovations, such as loaded potato skins and the $2 boxes with fries and a protein.
Checkers and Rally’s are also testing churros, which Mintel’s Pendola says are gaining steam nationally. “They’ve become familiar enough that there is no problem with their approachability,” he says, adding that they can be offered with various seasonings, sugars, and dips.
McDonald’s counts numerous items as snacks, including several varieties of Snack Wraps. Arby’s Snack ’n Save value menu includes small sandwiches, fries, shakes, Mozzarella sticks, turnovers, and the chocolate molten lava cake.
White Castle has long been a site for snackers, in part because its menu items are small and in part because the chain’s restaurants are open all day.
“We live in the greatest age ever in terms of choices available,” says Jamie Richardson, vice president at the Columbus, Ohio–based company. “In terms of snacking, it’s easy for consumers to experience a whole range of tastes without over-committing or feeling full.”
In addition to its well-known Sliders, the company has chicken and fish versions of the small sandwiches, Chicken Rings, and Fish Nibblers, which are like bite-sized fish sticks.
“Snacks can mean a lot of different things for different people, and there’s something fun about them,” Richardson says. “A snack denotes taking a break, and we all need a little emotional respite to get us through the day.”
There are four major times of the day for snacking, according to Technomic. As expected, most consumers (71 percent) get a bite mid-afternoon, while 37 percent do so mid-morning, 39 percent mid-evening, and 40 percent late at night.
Snacking periods have specific profiles, Pendola says. “We need to think about the a.m. snack, the p.m. snack, and the night snack, and we need to think of them as different dayparts, just like breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Morning is about energy, fueling up, and on some occasions is a lunch replacement, he says. The afternoon snack is about taking a break and treating oneself, while the evening “is when you see more sharing, more social occasions when people get together.”
A Food Genius survey indicates that people tend to eat healthier in the morning and less so as the day progresses, becoming most indulgent after 9 p.m.