The sandwich wrap is a classic example of a smaller entrée. Many consumers prefer the convenience of a hand-held meal and the healthy benefits of a wrap containing vegetables and lean meats. PHOTO COURTESY OF

According to Technomic’s “Snack Category Report,” as time-stressed consumers look for ways to satisfy their appetites without sitting down to a full-sized meal, snacking has continued to grow. The meat and potatoes entrées of the 20th century have given way to a wide variety of miniaturized or “snackified” meals, and busy lifestyles have created a need for meals to “grab ’n go.”

Responding to this trend, some limited service restaurants (LSRs) such as McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and KFC have come up with hand-held sandwiches for virtually any daypart, designed to be consumed quickly while in transit.

Among the findings of Technomic’s research are that nearly all adults snack between meals from time to time; snacks are perceived less by their content than by price; supermarkets have become a preferred venue for snacks; and taste and convenience are the primary drivers in choosing a snack.

Fully 97% of adults surveyed for the study said they snack between meals at least occasionally. This should come as no surprise. Perhaps more interesting is how consumers define snacks, where they get snacks and what they eat as a snack. Consumers in the study defined snacks in various ways, but most were defined as convenient food items priced below $3 per portion.

Some limited-service chains have met this definition well. Among two successful rollouts over the past couple of years were KFC’s 99-cent Snacker sandwich and McDonald’s $1.29 Snack Wrap; both are designed to be eaten neatly with one hand, and both are offered in the under-$1.50 price range. This summer, Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out a Bacon Lover’s Supreme Omelet on a croissant, priced slightly above the $3 tipping point at $3.79.

However, LSRs are not “top of mind” when Americans think of snacks; instead, consumers surveyed for Technomic’s report picked supermarkets as their favored venue for snack food purchases. Although shelf-stable snack foods were included in the study, it is likely that growing supermarket-based foodservice programs, in-store delis and cafés also are contributing factors. Some LSRs, such as Jamba Juice, have recognized the primacy of supermarkets as snack sources and the benefits of partnering with them for foodservice offerings; they now operate branded kiosks in some Safeway stores.

When asked the most important factor they consider when choosing a snack, consumers overwhelmingly said taste. Although this may not be surprising, it is a very important point for foodservice operators to consider. As we have seen, most consumers do not automatically have restaurants in mind when they think about snacks, even though freshly prepared restaurant foods may, in fact, be tastier than off-the-shelf retail offerings. Is that just because restaurants are offering and marketing fewer snacks? If more operators packaged foods to be tasty, convenient and inexpensive and then marketed them aggressively, would consumers begin to adjust their mindset on where to buy snacks?

Consumers have very specific ideas of what they consider a snack. Each of these expectations—inexpensive, convenient and tasty—can be met by both limited-service and full-service restaurants. Lifestyle trends indicate that the snacking habit will only grow in the future, so it will be more important for restaurateurs to incorporate flavorful snack items on their menus, positioning them as convenient and below the $3 price ceiling. They would also do well to explore partnerships with supermarkets, gas stations and convenience stores so that consumers can begin to think first of restaurant-branded items when they are looking for something to enjoy as a snack.

Re-inventing Entrées to Go

The quality of the traveling entrée is most important. In this competitive environment, building takeout business requires careful attention to both food quality and cost control. The 1,500 consumers surveyed for Technomic’s new “Takeout Category Report” revealed that the taste and integrity of takeout fare are of the utmost importance.

While patrons appreciate convenient features like curbside pickup and dedicated parking, their top priorities center on being able to duplicate “at-the-restaurant” quality in the comfort of their homes. Meeting this demand may require re-thinking the menu and making adjustments to preparation and packaging methods. The growth in takeout business has forced many chefs, even those at upscale independent restaurants, to change preparation techniques to preserve food quality during transit.

Home cooking away from home is gaining steam. Meal assembly centers resurrect the dream of home-cooked dinners for busy families who lack the time, skill or desire to prepare meals from scratch and do not want to expend time and energy in grocery shopping, cooking and cleanup. (Super Suppers, a nationwide meal assembly center chain, says consumers using their services can save 20 to 30 hours a month.)

Other perceived benefits of meal assembly centers include:
  • A value-oriented alternative to dining out, with meals averaging $3-$3.50 per serving.
  • Homestyle comfort foods with broad appeal such as chicken bakes, lasagna, enchiladas, casseroles and soups.
  • Ever-changing menus (most change monthly) and theme menus (such as a Father’s Day celebration, a summer barbecue or a Mediterranean meal).
  • Meals that are perceived as better-tasting, fresher choices than traditional retail frozen foods (although freshness usually is not a core positioning—canned soups, sauces and vegetables are used by most centers).
  • Healthy, nutritious meals (with some centers offering a special menu of health-oriented dishes).
  • Kids have more meal options—dishes with broad family appeal or even a separate children’s menu.
  • Alternative party venues (some centers offer private sessions for occasions ranging from baby showers to corporate team-building exercises to singles’ nights).

    Meal assembly centers are evolving to offer even greater convenience and flexibility. Consumers can increasingly leave even the assembly of their meals to others; more and more centers now allow consumers to order pre-assembled meals for curbside pickup (or even delivery).

    Menu Inspiration from Retail

    Insights from the retail side also demonstrate the trend, as chains such as Whole Foods and others go head to head with the “Food Away From Home” category with prepared takeout foods of their own. Many Whole Foods stores have expanded their prepared food departments to incorporate stations such as a wood-burning pizza oven, a hot dog grill for “all-natural” franks or an exhibition stir-fry station at which customers first select ingredients. Prepared food sections include cheerful seating areas and are used by the surrounding community as a healthy, quick-service restaurant option.

    Whole Foods Markets’ products are sourced both locally and worldwide, often from small artisan companies. The goal is to obtain foods that are of the highest quality, minimally processed and naturally preserved. Some two-thirds of the space is devoted to perishables, including an extensive array of organic produce. In 2003, Whole Foods renounced factory farm meats and announced new “Animal Compassionate Standards.” Meats are now sourced through suppliers that provide “environments and conditions that best support each species' natural physical needs, behavior and well-being.”

    Shaw’s supermarket departments include seafood, wine, bakery, deli, an international food hall and a MarketFresh LaCarte section of chef-prepared appetizers, side dishes, salads, party platters and entrées (including fried chicken and fresh-dough pizza). Many items can be purchased hot or ready-to-eat.

    7-Eleven has expanded its foodservice offerings to include proprietary lines of Big Eats deli items and World Ovens baked goods, prepared and delivered to stores daily. The chain also sells close to 100 million fresh-grilled hot dogs a year—more than any other U.S. retailer.

    Popular items at Wawa are built-to-order hoagies in four sizes, freshly brewed coffee, Sizzli hot breakfast sandwiches and a complete line of Wawa brand dairy products, juices and iced teas. All Wawa stores feature a wide selection of wraps and ready-to-go salads, fresh fruits and produce. Customer self-service (CSS) kiosks installed at more than 500 Wawa stores throughout Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia process hundreds of customer orders a day for Wawa’s built-to-order hoagies, salads and other specialty food items.

    Publix Super Markets plans to test a bistro-style deli that will serve up freshly cooked meals ranging from Kung Pao Scallops to seared salmon at a new store expected to open in Lake Mary, Fla., next month. The test deli is designed to challenge the growing restaurant carryout business and rival grocers such as Whole Foods, which has had success selling gourmet prepared foods such as Asian steak and stuffed mushrooms. Publix said its new deli will feature eight cuisine-themed “serving stations” in an upscale food court setting with table seating. The stations will cook to order everything from Vietnamese lemongrass pork to oven-baked pizzas.

    The Challenge is Innovation

    Restaurant operators face an uphill battle when it comes to innovation—keeping the consumer engaged is key, and flavors play a central role. Consumers are looking for bolder flavors and unfamiliar foods. A recent Technomic consumer survey found that 64% of consumers would like to try unfamiliar flavors. Some 74% of those looking for unfamiliar foods also are looking for bold, unique flavors, and 72% are looking for new flavors within ethnic cuisines.

    The ethnic approach adds newness and provides an innovative experience for the customer. Many operators are meeting this demand by increasing ethnic offerings, as well as by injecting bolder flavors into dishes. Technomic’s MenuMonitor has tracked a 9% increase in the number of ethnic flavors on menus among the top 250 restaurants over the past year.

    Emerging operators bring new flavors and applications to the plate. Hamburg, Germany-based Vapiano recently opened its first U.S. location in Ballston, Va. Vapiano is a fast-casual outlet offering made-to-order Italian entrées in an upscale café and bar setting.

    Operator Profile: Martini Park

    The key consumer trend toward snacking is evidenced in diverse ways in different restaurant segments. Limited-service operators are adding more handheld snack items to the menu or exploring new dayparts. In the full-service sector, the snacking trend is expressed via the proliferation of “small plates.” These lend themselves to less traditional dining occasions, offer a variety of flavors at a reasonable price and encourage experimentation and sharing. More and more new concepts are built entirely around “small plate” presentations.

    One such concept is Martini Park, a Dallas-area cocktail lounge that opened in December in suburban Plano, Texas. As the name implies, Martini Park showcases its cocktails along with a whimsical, multi-ethnic small plate menu. The restaurant is expected to be the prototype of a chain; the second unit is scheduled to open this spring in Chicago. Target customers for the concept are adults in their late 20s through 50s. A closer look at the small plate menu reveals:
  • Tomatoes Capri—Baby mozzarella, sweet grape tomatoes and garden-fresh basil on rosemary skewers, drizzled with balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Smoked Salmon Poppers—Scottish cured salmon wrapped around dill-spiked crème fraîche and topped with Tobiko caviar.
  • Buffalo Chicken Lollipops—Crisp fried wings glazed with spicy Buffalo sauce and served with bleu cheese dressing and celery.
  • Crab Cake Corn Dog—With blue lump crab and Creole remoulade.
  • Surf or Turf Nachos—Individual hand-cut tortilla chips topped with melted pepper Jack cheese, pico de gallo and house-made guacamole topped with a choice of char-grilled filet mignon or grilled Maine lobster tail.
  • Mac & Cheese “Sticks”—Made with aged white cheddar, smoked Gouda, mozzarella, smoked ham and chives, lightly breaded, flash fried and served with a white truffle sauce ($6.95).
  • Summer Shack Lobster Roll—A generous portion of fresh lobster salad served in a classic hot dog bun.

    The concept offers char-grilled satays. Some highlights include: Filet Mignon Satay, a grilled USDA Choice filet mignon glazed with a chimichurri sauce; Thai-style Chicken Satay, a grilled chicken breast served with a spicy peanut sauce; and Spicy Jumbo Shrimp Satay, grilled shrimp with a red chili rub, basted with a BBQ glaze and served with chipotle sour cream.

    Some sandwiches, referred to as “The Park” sliders, include: Chicken Slider, a grilled chicken breast topped with crisp bacon, Jack cheese, lettuce and tomato, served with honey mustard on a toasted brioche bun; Pulled Barbeque Pork Slider, slow-cooked pork basted with a Southwestern-style chipotle-spiked BBQ sauce, served with bread and butter pickle on a toasted brioche bun; a Filet Mignon Slider that is grilled to customer specifications and served with caramelized onions and horseradish cream sauce on a toasted brioche bun; and the Kobe Beef Slider, which is Kobe beef char-grilled and topped with a slice of Roma tomato, crisp bread and butter pickle, and served with secret sauce on a toasted brioche bun.

    Martini Park’s large plates include the Sandwich: USDA Choice New York strip steak grilled and sliced, served with horseradish cream sauce and a side of cottage fries; and Australian Lamb Chops, which are grilled three to an order and basted with a mint pesto glaze and served with spicy red pepper coulis.

    Of course, to accompany these small plates, satays and sliders, Martini Park offers martinis—including pomegranate, chocolate, espresso, apple, cucumber, berry, mango and strawberry basil flavors. Mojitos include raspberry and coconut-lime versions; the caipirinha is grapefruit-flavored.

    For more information about foodservice entrée and sandwich trends and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.