Once a guilty pleasure consumers indulged in largely late at night and in the privacy of their homes, snacking is now an acceptable—and even encouraged—eating behavior. Increasingly time-pressed and health-conscious, consumers are no longer eating three square meals, but instead are opting to eat multiple mini meals throughout the course of a day. And there are plenty of products to choose from as progressive restaurant operators continue to introduce a broad array of morning and afternoon pick-me-ups, ranging from indulgent sweets to miniaturized savory treats.
According to market research firm The NPD Group, snacks account for 20 percent of all meals consumed. While that number hasn’t changed since 1990, what has changed is the perception of snacking, the time of day snacks are most often consumed and where consumers get their snacks.
“We are not snacking more,” says Harry Balzer, vice president of Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD. “It’s just that restaurants are becoming a source for more snacks.”
Consumers may not be eating more snacks, but fewer seem to feel the need to sneak a snack. According to NPD, in 2007 50 percent of consumers said they tried to avoid snacking, down from 72 percent in 1986, and the number continues to move downward.
While the majority of snacks are still eaten in the home, in the past few years more consumers have turned to restaurants to get their in-between-meal fixes. According to NPD, 23 percent of all snacks came from a restaurant in 2007, up from 21 percent in 2002.
The shift in perception may be partly attributed to the medical community, say experts such as Molly Morgan, a registered dietician and owner of Vestal, N.Y.-based Creative Nutrition Solutions.
“There’s a lot of research [that shows] eating small meals throughout the day is the best way to get your metabolism burning brightly,” Morgan says. “Somewhere in the late 1980s or the early 1990s [there was a] shift in mentality.”
Better eating habits may also be the reason that consumers are less likely to snack in the evening and more likely to snack in the morning than they were in previous years. According to NPD, as recently as 20 years ago the majority of snacking occurred after dinner. Today, fewer snacks are consumed at night and significantly more snacks are consumed in the morning hours, when consumers have the whole day to burn off the calories.
“There’s a structural change in our behavior,” Balzer says of the shift. “More people are having a second [eating] event in the morning time…and restaurants are getting the benefit of this.”
Once largely defined by what a few quarters could buy from a vending machine, snacks today run the gamut from frozen-coffee drinks and fruit smoothies to downsized versions of classic sandwiches and salads. In short, just about anything consumed in between the core meal times of breakfast, lunch and dinner can be considered a snack—and more restaurants are making them available.
Quick-service chains have been offering snack items for some time. In August 2006 Oak Brook-Ill.-based McDonald’s  introduced its Snack Wrap, a tortilla-clad chicken snacker with ranch or honey mustard sauce, which has brought much attention to the brand.
Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Donuts  has had great success with its line of frozen smoothies, introduced in spring 2006, and has recently been testing savory snacks, such as hand-held hash browns and flat-bread sandwiches.
In the year ended November 2007, quick-service restaurants accounted for 94 percent of all snack traffic, while full-service restaurants accounted for just 6 percent, according to NPD. But many casual-dining players have picked up on the trend and have begun offering reduced-sized versions of classic burgers and sandwiches on their regular menus. Last September, Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday’s  added three-to-an-order hamburger sliders, cheeseburger sliders and chimichurri sliders to its menu. Similarly, casual-dining rival Bennigan’s  Grill & Tavern, based in Plano, Texas, recently added both Burger Bites and Chicken Minis to its menu and reportedly has plans to add additional mini items down the road.
Restaurant snack items tend to be both smaller and cheaper. In the year ended November 2007, the average check during a snack occasion at a quick-service restaurant was $3.36, compared with $3.68 for breakfast, $5.33 for lunch and $5.90 for supper, according to NPD. During the same period, the average check during a snack occasion at a full-service restaurant was $6.50, compared to $7.31 for breakfast, $10.07 for lunch and $13.64 for supper.
“It’s not a big check, but it’s ordering items that have high margins,” says former restaurant analyst Craig Weichmann, explaining why some restaurants are experiencing success with snack offerings. “Your flow-through margin on [a snack] item might be 50 percent, while your overall margin might be just 10 [percent] to 20 percent.” While the increase in snacking at restaurants may be attributed at least in part to more consumers hoping to reap the health benefits of the multiple-mini-meal ideology, some of the most popular items positioned as snacks are in fact high in fat and calories. Nonetheless, nutrition experts such as Creative Nutrition Solutions’ Morgan say the increase in snacks available from restaurants is largely a positive shift.
“Offering snack-sized options at restaurants is helping provide better snacking alternatives and new mini-meal options,” Morgan says. “It’s often a lower-calorie option compared to the other menu items.”
Consumers’ health concerns have prompted some operators to add more healthful versions of existing snack products to their menus.
“Consumers can consider replacing that sweet snack so many of them reach for in the afternoon with a Skinny Latte,” Katie Thomson, a registered dietitian at Starbucks, recently said in a press release. “Not only will they save on calories and fat, but they’ll be getting an extra shot of calcium and protein to get them through the day.”
Although restaurants have only increased their share of snacks in the past three or four years, industry observers predict that as more operators learn that the snack occasion does not cannibalize the larger checks for main meals and can actually boost traffic and sales during dead times, more downsized offerings will start appearing on menus.
“Other restaurants have to attract some of that traffic,” Weichmann says. “The progressive restaurant will see it as an opportunity to fill in those dead zones.”