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.
“My theory is that our willpower sort of breaks down as the day goes on,” Massa says. “We start the day with the best of intentions and healthier snacks, but as the day goes on, our willpower starts to break down. The apple at 9 a.m. becomes the cookie at 9 p.m.”
Several quick serves created snacking dayparts by establishing special mid-afternoon or late-night menus, including taking a page from full-service restaurants’ happy hours.
Sonic restaurants have offered a Happy Hour with half-price drinks from 2 to 5 p.m. weekdays for years, and last year added snacks like onion rings and tater tots for 99 cents each. These items are regularly part of the menu dubbed Snacks and Sides.
Steak ’n Shake offers half-price milkshakes from 2 to 4 (both a.m. and p.m.), and Taco Bell last year launched a Happier Hour from 2 to 5 p.m. daily as a limited-time offer with $1 medium drinks and small burrito-like loaded grillers.
“As lifestyles change, consumers have become clockless eaters and are looking for snacking occasions outside of the traditional morning, noon, and evening meal times,” says Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch.
Although many consumers say they want a snack that is healthy, there’s still been more innovation in indulgent snacks than in those that carry less than 200 calories.
“We asked consumers what is driving their decisions to these snacks, and the dietary focus or ethical and health claims were at the bottom of the list,” Mintel’s Pendola says. “Consumers aren’t that concerned with health factors when looking at indulgent snacks.”
Innovation is going on all the time in specialty ice cream and baking, going beyond the typical flavors and ingredients to include various vegetables, flowers, and spices. At times they can capture a large following.
One, the Cronut, a croissant and doughnut pastry created by Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York, created a sensation in the city with people lining up around the block for it. Quick-service player Jack in the Box has been testing its own version of the Cronut, called the Croissant Donut, at stores near its home base in San Diego. They are priced at 89 cents each or three for $1.99.
Some innovations are aided by technology, like the self-service smoothie at Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt, a company known for its self-serve, weight-priced frozen yogurt. The chain considers the afternoon and early evening its main dayparts, which is similar to many other frozen yogurt, ice cream, pretzel, and cookie shops known for snacking.
“A lot of people bring their kids after school for a treat or after practice or following a game,” says Carrie Pemberton, director of franchisee relations at the Oklahoma City–based company that has grown to 325 stores in 38 states in four years.
Orange Leaf initially created smoothies with a blender behind the counter, “but our customers are used to serving themselves,” she says. “So we took a look at how to make a smoothie self-service. We figured out how to do it.”
The self-serve smoothie was tested for six months before rolling into stores. There are three original flavors—pineapple strawberry banana, frozen lemonade, and peanut butter banana—and the smoothies are available in 16-ounce cups for $3.99–$5.99. “We’re getting great feedback,” Pemberton says.
Most Orange Leaf stores already have eight frozen yogurt machines with two flavors each and the ability to swirl those two flavors to make a third. There are also plenty of candies, cookies, nuts, and other toppings that guests can add to their yogurt.
Snack inspirations derive from various sources, including fair snacks, like the corn dogs at Sonic and Wienerschnitzel and funnel cakes at Rally’s and Checkers.
“These are real funnel cakes, like you would get at a carnival or fair,” Snyder says. The classic funnel cakes, which are rolled in sugar and sell for $1.99 each, “are doing very well.”
Additional ideas for snacks are coming from all over the globe, such as poutine from Canada and Belgian-style fries from Europe.
Having a tasty, indulgent snack is at the heart of French Fry Heaven, a Jacksonville, Florida–based company that has grown to 20 units in 13 states in less than four years.
“Snacking was the only category I wanted to be in,” says Scott Nelowet, chief executive and “fry guru.” The former university administrator said the idea for fries came to him when he was visiting Scandinavia and found “these french fry places are everywhere.”
There are three types of fries at French Fry Heaven: Angels, which are classic fries, start at $2.99 and come with seven dipping sauces ranging from ketchup to ranch dressing; Archangel specialty fries, which come in seven varieties; and Saints, which are sweet potato fries and have six variations.
Among the Archangels is the Canadian, a poutine-like mix with brown gravy and Mozzarella, and the French Quarter, Cajun-spiced fries with remoulade sauce. The Saints include Festival, which tastes like a funnel cake, and Kenberry, with a blueberry sauce.
Fries have an additional advantage: “They can be shared, and key to being a good snack is being a shareable snack,” Nelowet says.
There are five specialty salts available, including rich Black Truffle and spicy Ghost Pepper, allowing for additional customization for those sharing or eating alone.