If you’re reading this column at work—in an office, cubicle, or break room—take a moment to survey the coworkers in your line of sight. If your workplace is anything like mine, you’re probably going to notice a lot of moving mouths, whether or not people are talking. Most office environments are Snack Central, which makes them excellent places to observe the All-American Grazer (Ravenous Maximus) in one of his or her natural habitats.
When, exactly, did the average eight-hour workday morph into a never-ending noshfest? Time was, most people subsisted on three daily meals, with only the occasional apple, candy bar, or toaster pastry to sustain them from one to the next. Now, according to a 2013 report from The Hartman Group, only an estimated 10 percent of us stick to the traditional meal sequence, while 6 percent of us forgo meals entirely in favor of all-day grazing. That means the snacking begins early and extends through the workday, into the evening hours.
Several culprits may be responsible for this tectonic shift in consumption patterns. Among them: workplaces that frown on employees taking long lunch breaks, a widespread perception that eating sporadically throughout the day is healthier than sitting down to a few big meals, and the reality that Americans are just too busy much of the time to relax into a more traditional breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Then there’s the fact that consumer packaged goods companies, coffee chains, and other prominent players in the modern first-world supply chain have provided us with more snack options than ever before: sippable yogurt, 100-calorie bags of Wheat Thins, oatmeal bars, pre-packaged trail mixes, cheese sticks, mini burritos, bite-sized burgers, and endless varieties of pretzels, chips, crackers, and rice cakes. With all of these options, and thousands of others, is it any wonder we’re noshing more and dining less?
I first wrote about trends in snacking for QSR back in 2007, and have covered the topic a few times since. What I find remarkable, as I pore over past columns, is just how consistent the trends have remained since they were first observed. (This, in the end, is why they’re considered trends, rather than short-lived fads.) The big drivers in snacking in recent years have been health and wellness, global flavors, energy, nutrition, heat, pleasure, refreshment, comfort, and, of course, taste. Of these, the ones that seem to consistently exert the most influence over Americans’ snacking preferences are health and wellness, heat, and global flavors.
Here are some suggestions for how quick serves might capitalize on all three:
Take some tips for new chips, dips, and sides. Consumers’ interest in healthier, more functional snacks has made the empty calorie something of a public enemy. So while traditional fried corn tortilla chips and salsa, french fries, or potato chips still have plenty of loyal fans, there are millions of snackers out there who want their treats to pack more of a nutritional punch. Consider once-humble hummus, which The Wall Street Journal indicated was “conquering America” in a breathless April 2013 headline. The publication noted that, according to the market research firm Information Resources Inc., sales of refrigerated flavored spreads, primarily hummus, had increased by $530 million at U.S. food retailers in 2012, up 11 percent year over year. Now, we at CCD Innovation are seeing dozens of permutations, ranging from sprouted garbanzo spreads to those made with white- and cannellini-beans, eggplant, unusual guacamole and fruit combinations, and so on. And it’s not just the spreads that are getting a makeover; the chips themselves are getting healthier, as well. Variants made from Brussels sprouts, peas, seaweed, lentil, black beans, quinoa, kale, edamame, rice, and other higher-fiber, vitamin-rich raw materials are becoming more commonplace, as are the less exotic pretzel chips. Kids’ meals with apple slices could represent just the beginning of a new wave of healthier sides, snacks, and desserts.
Meet the heat head-on. Millennials, that powerhouse consumer cohort that now exercises exceptional purchasing power, have long been known for their adventurous palates. And when it comes to heat, their preferences tend to run to the extreme, seared-tongue variety. So why not consider taking existing sides and snacks—bruschetta, french fries, jalapeño poppers, and so on—and applying flavors that exploit both consumers’ passion for torrid tastes and their interest in different, more exotic ethnic flavors? Vietnamese hot fries made with ginger and chile peppers would offer a completely different flavor profile than Chinese hot fries, which might include Sichuan peppers, garlic, and green onion. And both would be worlds away from Indian hot fries dusted with a mixture of cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin, and other signature spices of the subcontinent.
Go (more) global. While many quick-serve and fast-casual chains have done a solid job overall of incorporating elements of various global and U.S. regional cuisines into their menus, we’ve by no means covered the waterfront. Moroccan, Ethiopian, and various central and South American cuisines, for instance—each with its own unique palette of ingredients—haven’t yet been tapped for their snack-enlivening potential. And in a snacking world where novel flavors and flavor combinations are at a premium, these cuisines and others may offer significant opportunities for enterprising chains.