CHICAGO -- Snacking is increasingly ingrained in consumers’ everyday eating behaviors, with consumption on the rise since 2012, according to Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report.
This intensified consumer demand is putting pressure on restaurant operators to respond—and they have. Convenience stores looking for inspiration can take note when considering snack menus of their own, since snacking represents the top eating occasion at c-stores, with 76% of c-stores' most frequent foodservice consumers now saying they visit for snack purchases.
With some help from our colleagues at Restaurant Business, here are three snack trends we’re tracking now at top chains ...
1. Mac and cheese makeovers
Restaurant operators are transforming mac and cheese, the nostalgic comfort-food classic, into fried, bite-size applications for diners to take on the go. Portability is a necessity to consumers—57% say portability is an important factor when choosing a snack, according to Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report.
Burger King recently brought back Mac n’ Cheetos after selling out just a few weeks after the original release in June 2016. The burger chain specifically picked Frito-Lay's cheese-flavored, puffed treat because the brand “understands the snack business on the deepest level,” according to Alex Macedo, president, North America, for Burger King, Miami. An order of five pieces is $2.69. Also, White Castle returned its Mac & Cheese Nibblers for its third year running.
The “convenient, poppable, shareable and craveable options” are available for a limited run, said vice president Jamie Richardson.
2. Beyond potato chips
When Technomic asked consumers how their snacking behavior has changed in the last two years, the top response was that they’re snacking more on healthier foods (40% of consumers, according to the Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report). Further, when asked if their snacking habits will change in the next year, the top consumer response is that they will seek out healthier snacks (28%).
Because potato chips are a top snack option among consumers, some restaurant operators are taking a healthier approach by offering veggie chips, said the report. Pret A Manger recently unveiled Kale Chips, while Glory Days Grill launched flash-fried Brussels Sprouts Chips. The latter’s topping of bacon, signature seasoning and balsamic syrup may—read, will very likely—cancel out the Brussels sprouts’ health factor.
Taco Bell is offering nontraditional chips, too, but not in the same healthy vein. The chain’s recently debuted Naked Chicken Chips are wedge-shaped, breaded and deep-fried all-white chicken tenders served with warm nacho-cheese sauce. The chip-shaped chicken costs $1.99 for six pieces, $2.99 for 12 pieces or can be ordered as part of the $5 Big Box combo meal.
3. Downsized portions
Almost two-fifths of consumers would like more restaurants to offer mini sandwiches that they can eat as a snack or light meal, according to Technomic’s Sandwich Consumer Trend Report. Firehouse Subs complied, launching a small sub size in April. The small subs—half the portion size of the medium—range from $3.99 to $4.50 and come in at under 500 calories. CEO Don Fox hopes the downsized sandwiches will help build snack traffic in the 2-5 p.m. time period, “not traditionally a strong daypart for us,” he said.
The idea follows on a similar tactic by Au Bon Pain. In 2014, the chain launched Petit Plates snacks. But this past fall, the chain’s R&D strategy was to snackify one of its top-selling lunch items, the Chicken Margherita Sandwich. The revamped Balsamic Chicken Petit Plate trims 400 calories off the sandwich by eliminating bread and decreasing the ingredient portions.