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Restaurants Find Big Profits in Small Plates

Americans are grazing on the go, and that’s been good news for restaurants, according to market researcher Technomic.

McDonald's chicken snack wrap
Chip East | Bloomberg | Getty Images
McDonald's chicken snack wrap

“Recent consumer research indicates that snacking is becoming a larger part of consumers’ daily lives,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic.

The firm recently examined the snack preferences, attitudes and purchasing behavior of more than 1,500 consumers, and found consumers are snacking significantly more than they were just two years ago.

Almost half — some 48 percent — said they’re now snacking at least twice a day. In 2010, only 25 percent of consumers said they were snacking that frequently.

And a greater portion, about 22 percent of those snacks, is purchased in restaurants, up from 17 percent in 2010.

Certainly consumers have more snacking choices at restaurants than they used to have. Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Yum Brands’ KFC offer snack-sized sandwiches, and restaurants such as Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen are offering “small plates” and snacks on their menus.

At California Pizza Kitchen, for example, customers can order off the “Small Cravings” menu, which has items ranging from small servings of salad to more indulgent treats such as the 455-calorie Spicy Chicken Tinga Quesadilla.

Tristano attributed the trend to pressure from nutritional disclosure legislation, which has prompted the foodservice industry to reduce calorie counts in meals.

“As a result, Americans are more inclined to ‘graze’ throughout the day, seeking snacks that provide fuel between traditional meal parts,” he said.

More than a third of consumers have also broadened their definition of what a snack is to include more types of foods, beverages, and restaurant fare.

Restaurant chains also are trying harder to promote inexpensive snack items and bar plates to cater to younger customers, who tend to visit more often for late-night snacks.

This may be why at some restaurants, the snack menus are available only at specific times. Uno Chicago Grill, for example, offers a “Snack Hours Menu” from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and again after 10 p.m. This menu includes traditional bar food, such as buffalo chicken wings, as well as mini sandwiches such as hamburger and lobster sliders.

According to Technomic, small sandwiches are common on snack menus and have evolved from a simple snack to a downsized gourmet version of signature full-sized versions.

But convenience may be a key element of the snack craze. Sixty-two percent of consumers reported they purchased the snack at a restaurant on impulse.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Christina Cheddar Berk on Twitter @ccheddarberk.

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