Since the country's obesity epidemic became top-of-mind for restaurants, the industry has found many ways to respond to consumers' concerns. While restaurants across the board have been quick to offer more low-fat options, quick-service and quick-casual restaurants also have hit a particular sweet spot in recent years by adding the option of smaller portion sizes. Not only does portion control strike a chord with calorie-conscious consumers, but it also has operational value for restaurants.
"Cost control is a huge part of [portion control], and [restaurateurs] can address nutritional guidelines," noted Joe Dunbar, president of Dunbar Associates, a restaurant consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va.
Consumers increasingly are looking for alternatives to large portions when dining out, according to a new report from The Hartman Group, a full-service consulting and market research firm. A total of 84 percent of consumers agree that restaurants should offer a variety of portion sizes for each entrée. In addition, 34 percent of consumers think fast-food portion sizes have increased over the past two years, according to "Portion Control from a Consumer Perspective," a report from earlier this year that was based on feedback from some 1,043 consumers.
The move to smaller sizes in the fast-food and quick-casual segments has gained momentum over the last five years, experts said. Ironically, it came on the heels of a trend emphasizing larger portions.
"You can see the industry shifting away from, 'How big can you make it? How many slices of cheese?' etc.," Dunbar said.
Baker Bros. American Deli, a quick-casual chain based in Dallas, began offering a half-salad just two years ago. The salad, which costs $5.99, is about two-thirds the size of the restaurant's regular salad, which costs $7.29. While the smaller version contains the same amount of proteins as the regular salad, it contains fewer mixed greens.
The move was a response to consumer demand for a smaller specialty salad, said Ralph Kinder, director of franchise development for the 16-unit chain.
"A lot of people were asking for a smaller portion," he said. "It has turned out to be a terrific boon for us."
Since Baker Bros. started offering the half-size salad, the chain's salad sales have caught up with sandwich sales, Kinder said. The new product also has had an impact on overall revenue, he added, pointing out that same-store sales over the last three years have risen 35 percent.
Quick-casual restaurants have fared well in the latest wave of health consciousness to sweep the industry because of the category's emphasis on healthful offerings, Kinder said, noting that his restaurant competes with quick-casual industry leaders such as Chipotle, Panera Bread and Potbelly Sandwich Works.
"That's why fast-casual has done so well — higher-quality products and ingredients," Kinder said. "For our niche, people gravitate toward that."
Restaurants have found that they can charge a premium for smaller-sized items — if the smaller version is perceived as more healthful, in the same way that dressing up a burger with more lettuce and tomatoes can entice a customer to pay more.
"I think the percentage profit on higher-quality items is higher and the dollar profit is higher," Dunbar said. "As the portion size goes down, the client sees it as [having] less fat and a lower percentage of calories from fat. All the time this happens, I don't see them dropping the price," Dunbar said of restaurants.
Beyond the impact on customer satisfaction, smaller portions have proven beneficial for business in other ways as well, such as helping to regulate food costs.
Another benefit, according to a spokeswoman for Salsarita's Fresh Cantina, a quick-casual Tex-Mex restaurant based in Charlotte, N.C., is that the variety of offering sizes, such as small and large burritos and quesadillas, can help set a restaurant apart from its competitors.
Ann Sheahan, director of training for the 77-unit company, also noted that giving customers choices among various ingredients also has been a trademark of the company since it opened in 2000.
"Since our system started, one of the things we do is we give flexibility to our customers," she said. "We don't nickel and dime them. If they order their entrée, they choose ingredients on the entrée."
Salsarita's can afford to give consumers such choices because the chain bases prices on the most expensive ingredient of the meal: meat. Salad ingredients are less expensive.
"Everything is priced according to the meat," Sheahan explained. "The control of the meat or protein is the most important aspect. [Customers] will add as many vegetables as they want and we don't charge them extra."
This business model works because the company pays attention to food costs and then projects costs based on the base amount of food in an order.
"You've got to stay on top of it," Sheahan said. "Our operators are on the line. They are next to the employees, so they don't give too much or too little."
Salsarita's also keeps costs down by shopping carefully for purveyors and vendors that offer the best product at the best price.
Offering consumers a variety of ingredients from which to choose is a great way to set Salsarita's apart from other Tex-Mex restaurants, Sheahan said, stressing that the beauty of the choice is that it doesn't necessarily cost more.
"[The founders] felt they needed to have more variety, and it's not difficult to do," she said. "There's no difference."
Reducing portion sizes and offering consumers more choice with their foods is a trend that experts expect to grow, particularly as the government continues to press for the elimination of trans fats and the expansion of nutritional disclosure, experts said.
"I think people are more and more concerned with their health," Kinder of Baker Bros. said. "They may not always eat healthy, but they want the option for themselves."