The foodservice arena certainly has benefited from appetizers on menus, as these small delights can bring delights of their own in the form of a high profit margin. As a whole, consumers have shifted to a grazing style of eating, reflecting a trend away from three square meals a day. Instead, consumers eat smaller portions four or even five times per day. Restaurants certainly have responded, with their appetizer menus offering items perfectly suited for snackers.

Experimenting with Appetizers

Appetizer items have had an additional impact on eating trends in the area of ethnic foods. Restaurant analyses show that the most popular appetizers for grazing include tortilla chips with a queso sauce, nachos, pizzas and quesadillas. Middle Eastern foods also are finding an unprecedented audience. One item that has proven quite popular as an appetizer at fusion restaurants is Lebanese pizza. Called mana'eesh in Lebanon, this dish is a mixture of dried thyme and sesame seeds mixed with olive oil to form a thin paste, brushed onto a thin pastry crust.

Such ethnic appetizers have found quite a following among consumers due, in great part, to restaurants which serve to familiarize consumers with a variety of concepts. Once familiar with such offerings, consumers are hard-pressed to match the flavor and taste of these genuinely ethnic foods. Therefore, the prepared appetizer segment has found a sizable market for ethnic food products.

Adventurous consumers find appetizer-sized offerings the perfect way to acquaint themselves with the foods.
A look at the appetizer shelves in the supermarket will find a number of products with an ethnic slant, including numerous items catering to the interest in Mexican foods, most of these boasting jalapenos. Simmons Foods', Siloam Springs, Ark., Jalapeno Seasoned Chicken Poppers are shaped like the well-known pepper, include a cheese and salsa dipping sauce, and are flavored with real jalapeno seasonings. Reser's Fine Foods, Beaverton, Ore., added artichoke to the seemingly ubiquitous jalapeno for their Artichoke Jalapeno Dip, while Fernando's Foods, Los Angeles, took a slightly different route with its latest appetizer. The company's Crispadoras feature chicken in barbecue chipotle sauce, rolled in a crispy flour tortilla.

The Far East has impacted the appetizer segment as well, with a notable offering from Ling Ling, Hayward, Calif. The company's Shu Mai are bite-sized appetizers available in chicken and vegetable or vegan varieties, and include sweet and sour sauce. Spring Rolls from the same company can be found in similar vegetable or chicken varieties.

Appetizing Acquisitions

While these and a range of similar introductions from smaller food companies can be found, larger companies are entering the appetizers-with-an-ethnic-flair arena also. Recently acquired by Nestle, Glendale, Calif., Chef America, Englewood, Colo., has added Jalapeno Cheese Stix—stuffed snacks filled with cheddar cheese and roasted jalapenos with a pizza dough-style crust—to its line of hand-held snacks.

Appetizers often find an audience in restaurants before hitting retail.
Growing annually at a rate of 19%, Chef America holds a strong 38% share of the frozen, hand-held and snacks category, with $505 million in sales. Nonetheless, the company's involvement in appetizers appeared to be on the downswing, considering an announcement of a 10% increase in the size of their Hot Pockets and Croissant Pockets to get more meal (as opposed to snack) usage. How this will play out under new ownership is unclear.

H.J. Heinz, Pittsburgh, is another major company making its presence known in the appetizer segment and also is doing so via acquisitions. Not new to the area, Heinz boasts Hot Bites among its famous brands and has heavily promoted Hot Bites Blasts, Deep-Dish Mini Hot Bites, Tater Dogs, Li'l Calzonis and Nacho Dippers. These new items are designed to go after the Tween market—a.k.a. children ages nine to 14.

Nonetheless, Heinz has made a couple of interesting acquisitions that impact the appetizer sector, including the purchase of Delimex, El Paso, Texas, the number-two processor of frozen Mexican foods. Heinz also purchased Anchor Foods', Appleton, Wisc., retail products, which include the popular T.G.I. Friday's and Poppers brands. The T.G.I. Friday's line features honey barbecue wings, broccoli & cheddar potato skins, and Southwestern egg rolls, while Anchor's popular Poppers line features a dozen different varieties. Both are staples on restaurant menus.

Luckily for these companies, the success of appetizers in foodservice translates fairly easily to the retail side, where their convenience and “shareability” make them ideal. In foodservice, chicken strips and onion rings continue to hold their popularity, but increasingly sophisticated and adventurous consumers will demand a more varied selection from manufacturers.

Gourmet Grazing

Those consumers seeking to provide a gourmet treat for luncheons or parties are finding more variety on store shelves. New York's David Burke's Gourmet Pops Appetizers combine the shape of a lollipop with the sophistication of an hors d'oeuvre. Created by renowned chef David Burke, varieties in the line include smoked salmon pops, Hudson Valley foie gras, and goat cheese.

Gourmet shoppers also can enjoy a new range of offerings from Delicaé Gourmet, Tarpon Springs, Fla. Found in gourmet stores, the company's new line of appetizers and relishes includes beet & fennel, artichoke & green olive, eggplant sun-dried tomato, key lime mango, roasted red pepper, and eggplant salad. Meanwhile, gourmet stores also feature a new shrimp dip blend from Blue Crab Bay, Melfa, Va. This packet of seasoning is claimed to make the perfect blend for a shrimp dip when cream cheese, mayonnaise and chopped shrimp are added.

Gourmet offerings notwithstanding, a huge market for appetizers is teens and Tweens. Heinz's Bagel Bites already has made strides to reach this important demographic with its marketing agreement with skateboarder Tony Hawk. Indeed, this market is a valuable one. In the U.S. alone, the 27 million Tweens are responsible for $5.2 billion in annual sales of after-school snacks, a huge opportunity considering appetizers are just the right size for snacking.

Those younger consumers are hardly the only snackers, however. A survey by Tupperware discovered that 73% of Americans snacked at least once a day, with 39% snacking more than twice daily. Only 4% said they never snack at all. Of those surveyed, 48% spend $5 a week or less on snacks, while 13% spend more than $11 on snacks weekly. Tupperware found that those snackers are looking for more health-conscious items, which could prove a hot area for snacks in the future.

In addition, time constraints are already a chief factor in choosing snacks in place of meals. As hot snacks continue to grow in awareness and usage, expect to see more breakfast items, hot snacks vending machines and more offerings for vegetarians.