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Restaurants step up snacks Megan Swann
Acorn's hamachi crudo

Restaurants step up snacks

Smaller bites edge out traditional meals — and move beyond chips and salsa

Snacking may very well be the greatest Modern American pastime. Snacks accounted for 19 percent of all foodservice occasions in 2016, according to research and analysis by The Coca-Cola Co. That company’s senior manager for national foodservice strategy, Christine Kortschak, said snacking is “a $56 billion sales opportunity” in restaurants and retail foodservice combined.

And unlike breakfast, lunch and dinner dayparts, where traffic is fairly stagnant, snacking is growing by 7 percent, she said.

And that’s just between-meal and late-night snacks (about half of which occur between lunch and dinner, according to Coca-Cola).

Increasingly, traditional meals are really snacking occasions, too, said Nicky Kruse, strategist for San Francisco-based restaurant consulting firm The Culinary Edge.

“It’s interesting that the movement is away from three meals and toward food that can be enjoyed in good company,” she said, adding that that’s particularly true with Millennial diners.

“There’s not a set, ‘Oh, you’ve got to eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner at these times’,” she said. Instead, modern notions of health include listening to your body, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.

And even if you are eating during a traditional meal period, what you’re ordering might be different, with groups of friends ordering multiple items to share.

Justin Lee

Acorn's meatballs

That’s the service model at Acorn in Denver, where everything on the menu is intended to be shared.

“It seems like everyone wants to eat like that anymore,” said Bryan Dayton, Acorn’s beverage director and owner of Acorn.

He said Acorn’s older sister, Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, used to have a more traditional menu, but customers were more interested in shared appetizer plates, and they ended up splitting entrées to share, too.

Although at lunch, customers might have their own soup or sandwich, “at dinner it’s all shared, and it’s been like that since day one.”

Dayton and chef-partner Steve Redzikowski opened Acorn four years ago thinking it would be easier than traditional coursed-out service, but in fact they go through about 20 percent more plates than normal, meaning more work for the kitchen, “but those are good problems,” he said. 

Acorn's shrimp & grits

Popular items range from lighter dishes — such as kale & apple salad with candied almond, grana Padano, togarashi and lemon vinaigrette; and hamachi with carrot, radish, wakame, cilantro and orange ponzu — to heartier items such as Florida rock shrimp & grits with creole sofrito, white wine and Tabasco; and tomato braised meatballs with grits, stracciatella and basil.

Camperdown Elm, a new restaurant in Brooklyn with a more traditional menu, nonetheless has a four-item “snacks” section for food that’s quick to prepare and serve and that guests can order with a cocktail while deciding what to have for actual dinner — sort of like high-end chips and salsa.

“It’s something fast to get on the table, so when people are ordering they can say ‘send me some oysters and some cucumbers and some muffins,” chef Brad Willits said.

“Some tables order all the snacks and then they’ll go into their dinner.”

Those snacks currently include oysters on the half shell with a kiwi mignonette; grilled cucumbers topped salmon roe, dill, shiso, horseradish and smoked buttermilk; mackerel pâté with sesame seeds on squid ink colored rice crackers; and fried English muffin nuggets with house-made, cultured butter.

“They’re something small that has a ton of flavor that you don’t necessarily need a lot of,” Willits said. “It’s a perfect way to start a meal, almost like an amuse-bouche.”

Although snackable foods do well even during regular meals, Kortschak of Coke sees more opportunity in snacks between meals, especially since busy restaurants can reach peak capacity during lunch and dinner, unable to serve more customers than they already have.

Also, although sharing is all well and good, the single largest snacking occasion is adults eating alone in the afternoon, followed by adults eating alone in the evening, according to Coke. 

Camperdown Elm's grilled cucumber

John Mooney, chef of Bidwell in Washington, D.C., has done well attracting customers all day long, with plenty of items for customers to grab and go on their own.

It helps, of course, that Bidwell is attached to Union Market, which brings foot traffic all day long, but Mooney has worked with that situation by offering portable items, like thick-crust pizza cut into squares for easy portability, as well as quick-eating food like oysters on the half shell, fried oysters and fried deviled eggs coated in flour, egg wash and finely ground panko bread crumbs and served with buttermilk ranch dressing.

He also offers a sausage plate that changes every other day, with meats smoked onsite.

“You can see and smell the smoker. That helps stimulate things,” he said.

Fogo de Chão has gone directly after the between-meal crowd with its Bar Fogo menu. 

Kevin Marple

Fogo de Chão's garlic shrimp

First introduced in 2014, the menu is now available at all 38 United States locations of the churrascaria chain, whose newer locations have larger and more attractive bars intended to draw customers who don’t want to commit to the normal all-you-can-eat meat-fest that is the normal Fogo experience, and that starts at $48.

Between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, Fogo de Chão guests can get $4 snacks such as Parmesan polenta fries, hearts of palm and spinach dip, beef rib sliders or chicken sliders. Other items such as empanadas, garlic shrimp and grilled tenderloin skewers can be had for between $7 and $15, paired with $4 beers, $6 wines and $8 cocktails.

“We’ve had a very good response from our guests,” Fogo de Chão CEO Larry Johnson said, and although the chain doesn’t break out sales from the bar compared to sales in the dining room, he said beverage sales have gone up since the program was introduced.

Fogo de Chão is also attracting new customers as well as getting increased frequency from customers who would ordinarily only visit two or three times a year — who are willing to come in for 45 minutes to an hour and spend $20 even when they don’t want to commit to the full Fogo experience.

Ten-unit steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky has done well with a snack that highlights the brand’s beef expertise: a Cup O’ Beef Bacon.

“It’s like my little child, the beef bacon,” said national executive chef Matt King, who researched “beef bacon” products on the market that were either too much like jerky or brisket. “So then I thought, well, now I have to do it.”

He cures beef plates — essentially belly — for 10 days with a mixture of Turbinado sugar, pink curing salt, kosher salt, coriander and black pepper. Then he rinses it and smokes it over apple wood for about eight hours. He slices it, pan-fries the slices, pats them dry and serves about eight of them standing up in a Mason jar with buttermilk blue cheese dressing that plays the dual role of being a nice dip, and also reinforcing the fact that customers are eating beef by evoking the traditional combination of steak and blue cheese. 

“It’s a really unique flavor,” he said, noting that it starts smoky and salty like bacon, but finishes with the steak flavor that uniquely comes with beef fat.

He said the beef bacon is often offered at tables as a shared appetizer or side dish, “and we certainly sell quite a few as bar snacks.”

He said that, at $15, “it hits that sweet spot of a price point that a couple of people can get it and snack on.”

“Sometimes you have to come up with something that’s different, something that makes you unique. That’s the fun of being a chef.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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