About a year ago, the team at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill noticed lunch guests were coming in later and morphing into the dinner crowd at many of its 43 locations, says Vice President of Marketing Stephen Loftis. Afternoon bar sales were rising, and customers were looking for more options to have with drinks. To meet demand, the casual chain created a seasonal Bar Bites menu of eight to 10 items, offered from noon through late night at its bar and on the patio. “We wanted to offer more opportunities ... for our snacking clientele to come into the restaurant,” he says.
Across all age groups, 29% of consumers are snacking more often than they were two years ago, according to Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report; but few purchase snacks from full-service spots. To appeal to that customer, FSRs are relabeling apps and small plates as bites, snacks and noshes—or creating new snack menus—and seeing a payoff.
What’s in a name
Houlihan’s noticed an uptick in traffic this year during what used to be the chain’s downtime from 2-5 p.m. To capitalize on the shift, the chain recast its appetizers as Social Snacks. The “social” part is key, says Michael Slavin, Houlihan’s VP of culinary and menu innovation, who designed the snack menu to promote interaction and experimentation.
Adventures in snacking
Top sellers with midday snackers at Firebirds include bar favorites like tacos, beer-cheese pretzels and beef sliders. But the chain’s Executive Chef Steve Sturm is testing the boundaries, rolling out veggie items such as a Sriracha roasted cauliflower taco and spiced crispy chickpeas. “Customers are more willing to take a risk at a smaller price point,” says Sturm.
Popular appetizers at Houlihan’s remain on the snack menu, but it has added new dips and other sharables, which have become sales leaders.
Value spurs volume
Check averages for snacking occasions tend to be lower, but full-service operators are touting an upside. At Firebirds, the bar bites go for $8-$10 with $3 off during happy hour. “We’re gaining more guests and increasing traffic,” says Loftis. “And customers are increasingly coming in for snacks and staying for dinner.”
Houlihan’s Social Snacks go for $8.50-$11.50, the same range as the app menu. “These are incremental sales and don’t erode check averages,” says Slavin, noting that they spur sales during an off time. And during happy hour, when Houlihan’s offers the snacks in smaller portions for half-price, they’re a sales boon. “Instead of ordering one $8 appetizer with a drink, guests will get two snacks for a total of $9 or $10,” Slavin says.
Staffing for off-hours
Adding a snack menu has necessitated a shift in labor. “We’re now bringing in several cooks a little later, so enough staff is in the kitchen during the late afternoon,” Slavin says. Firebirds schedules an extra cook at 4 p.m. and brings in bar staff earlier. “Sales demanded it,” says Sturm. “But we’re just touching the surface of this daypart. We’re proving there’s business to be had.”