Today’s consumers increasingly emphasize diversity in their restaurant meal experiences. Over half of consumers (52%) say that a wide variety of options to choose from is an important menu attribute at full-service restaurants, and 43% say the same for limited-service restaurants, according to Technomic’s “2016 Generational Consumer Trend Report.” Similarly, Technomic data also shows nearly half of consumers (48%) think variety of foods and beverages is important for creating good value at foodservice establishments.

One outcome of this push for more menu assortment is that operators are experimenting with mix-and-match bundles of smaller items—such as offering a sampling of appetizers and small plates as alternatives to traditional entrées. Nearly a third of consumers (32%) prefer to order small plates to make up a meal, up from 29% in 2015, according to Technomic’s “2017 Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report.” Similarly, 17% of consumers agree that they order appetizers as a main meal when dining out. 

In some cases, operators even encourage sides to be bundled into meal packages, as is the case at Alabama chain Full Moon Bar-B-Que. Its restaurants offer three vegetables for $7.99 and four for $9.99 as alternatives to meats entrées. Rotating selections may include sweet potatoes, collard greens, broccoli and fried okra.

Beyond diversity and value, bundled appetizers, small plates and sides offer many other positive menu attributes for guests. When asked why they would purchase small plates as an entrée, consumers rank value as the biggest driver, but “shareability” and uniqueness of these menu types also make the list. 

Further, health perceptions of some of these bundle options, such as dishes that tout high protein or veggie bases, can also enhance appeal. For instance, Little Eater, a favorite among Columbus, Ohio, residents, serves seasonal vegetables by the scoop, which can be built into an entrée. Its offerings include $4 for one, $7.50 for two, $10 for three or $12 for four. The eatery’s current “summer into fall” vegetable menu features shredded beets and cabbage, lacinato and red kale, and zucchini and scallions with organic quinoa, among others. 

Small plates, sides and appetizers are no longer relegated to a fixed place on menus and will continue to thrive during culinary development, as operators further explore new meal applications of these items. Offering an array of these options that appeal to guests’ bundling tastes—ranging from familiar to ethnic and from healthy to indulgent—remains key for operators pursuing this menu path.   

Originally appeared in the October, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Mix-and-Match Bundles on The Rise.