Snacks, with a Surprise on the Side

Consumers are snacking more, but not where you might expect

Elliott Krause, Freelance writer

CHICAGO -- Angering their grandparents and ruining their appetites, people are snacking more and more. According to Technomic’s recent “Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report,” 48% of consumers are snacking at least twice a day, up from 25% in 2010. Although snack food is typically considered to be within the domain of retail foodservice, restaurants have capitalized the most on this change in consumers’ behavior. Their market share has increased from 17% in 2010 to 22% in 2012, changing their menus and hours as customers change what and when they eat.

But consumers’ behavior is not the only thing that has changed; their definition of snacking has shifted as well, opening up new opportunities for both restaurants and retail foodservice to meet rising demand. Although retail-foodservice operations such as c-stores and drug chains are still the No. 1 choice for snacks, restaurants are appealing to snackers by offering new food choices and smaller versions of their gourmet items, tinkering with what they do well to offer something smaller, quicker and cheaper.

Retail-foodservice operators have also adjusted to meet rising demand. While still offering traditional snacks, supermarkets, c-stores and drugs stores have started to offer small-portioned fare and more unique items. Like restaurants, these operators have crossed boundaries and cultures to find new, snack-friendly food. Next to snack packs with cheese, yogurt parfaits, hummus packs with pretzels or veggies and mini-sandwiches, you might find traditional ethnic snacks such as empanadas, sushi, bao (steamed buns) and potstickers.

While tinkering with the old and bringing in the new, restaurants and retail-foodservice operators both have started to reposition appetizers and side dishes as snacks. “Restaurants have done a great job of repositioning their starters this way so that consumers think about them as a meal in their own right and not just part of a multi-course meal,” Jenny Anderson, director of Technomic’s RMS Monitor program (Retail Meal Solutions), told Fare Digest. This is especially important in this economic climate, as consumers continue cutting out extras such as appetizers and desserts.

Meanwhile, retail-foodservice operators are increasingly recognizing opportunities to reposition their wings or popcorn chicken as on-the-go snacks, such as offering them in cups for extra portability.

At the same time, retail-foodservice operators also need to accommodate their consumers’ changing schedules. Baked goods and beverages befit the morning, and between lunch and dinner, balance is key. Some consumers are looking for a treat or just a beverage, while others want healthy options. Given the equal demands for health and indulgence, this trend is not necessarily due to recent research that says eating five or six smaller meals is healthier than three bigger ones, belying years of grandmothers’ wisdom.

My grandmother never served snacks, both to keep herself thin and to keep her grandchildren from ruining their appetites. I am reminded of a Jerry Seinfeld bit in which he says that one of the pleasures of being an adult is being able to eat dessert whenever you want, without fear of losing your appetite: “Because as an adult we understand that if we ruin our appetite, there is another on the way. There is no danger of running out of appetites.”