By Ellen Koteff, editor-in-chief, FoodChannelPRO
Research and development chefs have been turning up the heat when it comes to the innovative menuing of mini or bite sized snacks.
The grazing trend at restaurants has been steadily gaining traction with consumers for the last two years and many industry observers think it’s only the beginning.
â€˜Over the last couple of years there has been an evolution of the small plates phenomenon. Sliders and burger bites have become all the rage,â€™ says Nancy Kruse, menu trends analyst and president of the Kruse Company.
In 2009, 37% of quick-serve operators planned to add new snack items to their menu, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Mintel International estimates that by 2014 quick service will account for 73% of on-premise snacking trends and looking back, menu items described as a â€˜snackâ€™ are up 168% over the past three years across all segments. â€˜Minisâ€™ on the menu saw a 400% bump over the same time period.
From fine dining to fast casual to college campuses, chefs nationwide have been rolling out smaller plate items in record numbers.
â€˜Minis and smaller snack items appeal on several levels,â€™ says Gail Bellamy, executive food editor, Restaurant Hospitality.
â€˜First, they’re fun â€” fun to look at, fun to eat and fun to share. Second, they appeal to us because they package smaller portion sizes in a way that offers a big experience,â€™ says Bellamy. She adds that minis also offer great value because of lower price points, are beverage-friendly and ideal for promoting everything from cocktails to coffee to beer and are versatile enough to serve all day long from mid-morning breaks to late-evening snacks.
Several chains have embraced this growing trend by rolling out bar menus. The Cheesecake Factory, Ruby Tuesday, PF Chang’s and Bennigans all have been reporting good results from new bar menus.
â€˜These are all really geared towards driving sales at the bar, and food and specially priced drinks are all part of the package,â€™ says Kruse. Higher margins on beverage items make this combo especially appealing, she says.
Several chains are devoting a large chunk of their menu’s real estate to small plates sections. BJ’s Snacks and Small Bites as well as California Pizza Kitchen’s Small Cravings are just a few. Other chains that have introduced small plate items include Mimi’s CafÃ©, Steak Ã¢â‚¬Ëœn Shake and Coco’s. Even quick serve operators such as Culver’s, Dairy Queen, KFC and McDonald’s have embraced small in a big way.
Perhaps the bite-size, mini-desserts trend was the first sign that consumers wanted indulgences but in smaller portions. In a recent survey of 1,800 chefs by the NRA â€˜miniâ€™ was cited as the number one trend in desserts.
Chief operating officer of la Madeleine, Phil Costner says that he is confident smaller desserts will stay in vogue for a long, long time.
â€˜I think there is a stigma when you have a big dessert in front of you,â€™ he says. â€˜But the stigma changes when you switch to smaller desserts. They are hip and they are sharable.â€™ Costner adds that la Madeleine’s newly remodeled locations are showing 6 to 13% sales hikes in the snack daypart, which is 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Mintel International reports that restaurants across all segments are placing a greater emphasis on driving guest traffic during these off-peak hours with smaller, non-meal offerings.
Susan Dederen, senior director of culinary operations and R&D for la Madeleine adds that fast casual operations are tailor made for snacking because consumers don’t have to worry about tipping. â€˜Sometimes if people think a waiter is involved they don’t want to just order smaller items because they don’t want to insult the waiter,â€™ she says.
Aside from smaller desserts, Dederen points to smaller versions of quiche, soups, salad, desserts and puff pastries at la Madeleine. â€˜The mini is so right priced. You have to look at that because people don’t want to break the bank to have a snack,â€™ she says.
Kruse maintains that the mini category is â€˜hotter than a pistolâ€™ and likely to remain so for quite some time.
â€˜I think this is going to be a major, major trend going forward. I think we are just at the early stages,â€™ Kruse says.
See the Consumer Top Ten Snack Trends by clicking here.