Customers are demanding more food items that can be eaten outside the traditional dayparts, and that’s good news for brands investing in snack options.
“As schedules change and lives get busier, consumers haven’t eaten three square meals a day for years, and all-day snacking is here to stay,” says Lori Abou Habib, chief marketing officer at Sonic Drive-In.
Auntie Anne’s vice president of marketing Marcel Nahm shares that sentiment. “People snack before meals, after meals, and instead of meals, which is why we love the place we’re in,” he says. “Now it seems like everybody wants to be in the snack business.”
But the snack business is not so easy to enter, as what drives customers to snack is a range of factors spanning from mood to hunger levels to cravings. “The fun thing with snacks is that they can fit any daypart or mood,” says Sarah Herringer, director of retail products and innovation at Philz Coffee. The 58-unit, California-based coffee concept tries to offer indulgent and healthy, light and filling, comforting and exciting, and sweet and savory options to capture as many customers in as many snack moods as possible.
Most snack leaders confirm that what makes a quick-service snack successful is portability. “They want a snack that is convenient, that you can eat with one hand,” says Auntie Anne’s Nahm. Customers also desire snacks that are shareable and not messy, he adds. Auntie Anne’s, as an example, sells more of its pretzel nuggets today than full pretzels, Nahm says. “That shows how this idea of biteable, shareable items is growing in importance,” he says. The brand is looking to build on that shareable platform with a dessert-forward chocolate nugget option coming soon.
Likewise, Sonic has many shareable options on the menu for guests to enjoy together. The brand has Jumbo Popcorn Chicken and handmade onion rings on the menu, and beginning this month it will add Totchos—tater tot nachos—to its shareable selection.
Some companies are swinging the other direction to more health-driven snacks. Even one of the most indulgent brands, Dunkin’, has its eyes on high-protein and plant-based snack options, says Mike Brazis, director of global culinary innovation.
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Herringer of Philz thinks customers want food that’s handmade with high-quality, real ingredients and that can be easily eaten on the go, as well—a sentiment that rings especially true as more guests turn to the snack menu to replace meals. Nahm at Auntie Anne’s likewise sees customers seeking more nutritional value from snacks; the brand’s Pretzel Dogs and Mini Pretzel Dogs both offer a hefty dose of protein. At Auntie Anne’s airport locations, pretzel breakfast sandwiches with ingredients like bacon and egg on a pretzel roll have become so successful that the brand is experimenting with more protein-packed menu options, like chicken sliders on a pretzel bun, for lunch-replacement seekers.
Traditionally, comfort foods have done best in the snacking space. Even more health-focused brands like Philz recognize that customer desire for comfort is still very much present. “We’re not focused on launching completely novel food items, because we don’t think that’s what customers want with their coffee. Instead, we offer tasty, straightforward food that customers will want to eat all day, every day,” Herringer says.
At Chicago locations, for example, guests can dig into a buttery biscuit from James Beard Award–winning baker Aya Fukai. “It sounds obvious, but I think customers are simply most interested in something that tastes delicious. Given snacks’ smaller size, they can be packed with flavor without being overwhelming,” Herringer says. She sees snack menus trending mostly toward reinvented classics upgraded with high-quality ingredients, expert artisanship, and “perhaps a small new twist,” she says.
Indulgent brands, however, fully lean into this comfort food mentality. “Overall, consumers will continue to treat themselves,” Cinnabon president Kristen Hartman says. Smaller portions in snacks provide permission to treat oneself, Hartman adds.
Auntie Anne’s has also been turning up the indulgence level on its beverage menu as of late with sweet, creamy treats. Last summer it featured frozen lemonade (with vanilla and whipped cream) and it offered frozen hot chocolate for the holidays.
In terms of flavor, however, most menu leaders believe snacks will follow the same flavor trends as the larger restaurant industry. In fact, it has been argued that snacks may be the most successful format for trends, as their smaller serving size offers guests a taste of interesting flavors—like Sonic’s Pickle Juice or Red Bull Slushes—without forcing them to commit to an entire meal experience.
“I think international menu items are already influencing menus and will become an even greater influence on upcoming seasons. ... European tapas, Middle Eastern finger foods, Asian and South American small bites are more commonplace on U.S. menus,” Dunkin’s Brazis says. He’s seen Brazilian Pão de Queijo—a popular cheese-bread snack—growing in popularity in the U.S.
Nahm of Auntie Anne’s also sees flavor exploration in snacks, specifically in the Korean, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. And Philz is riding high on the recent surge of interest in Mediterranean cuisine, as flavors from founder Phil Jaber’s childhood are what inspire a lot of snacks on the menu, like the Avocado & Egg Toast and the Labneh & Cucumber Toast covered in za’atar (read more on page 24).
“As the snacking segment continues to grow and the industry continues to evolve with offerings like third-party delivery, guests are craving unlimited options and are used to getting any snack they want, when they want,” Cinnabon’s Hartman says. Offering a variety of new tastes alongside comfort favorites is what has kept Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s successful over the years.
“With 1,300 locations all around the country, one of the things we’re very mindful of when we think about innovation is we really need items that resonate across the country,” Nahm of Auntie Anne’s says. “We have a big responsibility to our franchisees to provide things that they can succeed with. It all starts, continues, and ends with the consumer.”