Our mothers have been telling us for years that we shouldn’t eat between meals. Today, however, snacking has emerged as its own daypart, and experts forecast it will continue to grow steadily.
Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef and director of culinary development for Dunkin’ Brands  in Canton, Mass., observes: “Customers don’t want to be pigeon-holed into eating breakfast foods in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon. At Dunkin’ Donuts, we lead a ‘clockless’ day.”
The snacking phenomenon presents an opportunity for quick-service and fast-casual operators who are adapting to changing lifestyles with healthier snacks and more portable options. Time-stressed consumers seek to grab a quick bite or a small midday indulgence when the desire arises, and snacking now accounts for 21 percent of all meals, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm that expects it to increase 14 percent by 2017.
All age groups snack, but NPD saw the greatest growth among children aged 6 to 12 years old and adults aged 60 and older. However, Gen Y, between ages 16 and 28, also enjoys “fun” foods, bold flavors and innovative shapes as midday munchies.
“Snacks are hot,” says consultant Dennis Lombardi at WD Partners. “People are eating them in cars, traveling, on the road. They leave their offices for cappuccinos, which are snacks themselves. This allows QSR and fast-casual operators to expand their reach and frequency and offer another low-cost alternative.”
Joe Pawlak at Technomic Inc. agrees, pointing to data showing people are eating smaller meals and seeking grab-and-go options between traditional dayparts.
Dunkin’ Brands’ Frankenthaler says customers “lead busy lives and want what they want when they want it.” Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees, in fact, report that the chain’s new oven-toasted menu “has helped to bring additional traffic into their stores during afternoon and evening hours,” he says.
The challenge for Dunkin’ Donuts operators was getting acclimated to the new, integrated cooking technologies. Previously, they had used microwave ovens for the flatbread sandwiches and pizzas, both of which are designed to be eaten throughout the day.
Last fall, Jack in the Box , based in San Diego, introduced Pita Snacks priced around $1.99. The grilled or crispy chicken strips, marinated steak, and fish fillet wraps with shredded lettuce, cheddar and chipotle sauce on whole-grain pita bread struck a chord with customers, says Teka O’Rourke, director of menu marketing and promotions.
“They’re popular at both lunch and dinner, and people are buying multiple snacks to create a meal,” O’Rourke says. “People are snacking more and grazing, and we don’t see it slowing. They’re time-starved and want something quick and easy on the go as well as better-for-you choices and smaller portions.”
At Au Bon Pain  in Boston, a nearly year-old product line, “Portions,” developed for people who “eat smaller portions multiple times a day,” tends to “skew very heavily to women,” says Ed Frechette, senior vice president of marketing. Frechette adds that Portions have been “very popular as a midmorning or afternoon snack.”
Portions allow calorie control, as items have only 200 calories or fewer.
“We are also seeing growth in both our bakery and fruit/yogurt/muesli categories,” Frechette says. “This suggests that people are snacking more. We believe that more and more customers are changing their food habits to live healthy and customize their meal experience.”
The perception of “better-for-me” items is driving chains such as Atlanta-based Planet Smoothie, which is responding with healthy choices such as its açai smoothies. Director of marketing Becky Shell sees customers coming in midmorning and midafternoon for “quick meetings” and a smoothie.
“It’s a great grab-and-go meal replacement that our customers view as a meal in a cup,” she says.