The rise in snacking, shareables and plant-based plates is creating new entry points for appetizers to fill on the menu. Restaurant customers are increasingly making meals out of small plates, swapping in sides for starters, ordering starters as snacks and rounding out a side of vegetables with protein add-ons, according to Technomic’s 2017 Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report, released in August. This eating behavior presents opportunities for operators to amp up appetizer offerings and build incremental traffic during off times. Here are five ways to tap into the trend.
1. Build snack appeal
As dayparts continue to blur, snacks are becoming a more important and sought-after meal occasion. Foodservice operators can steal snack business from the retail side by expanding the selection of starters and small plates. Thirty percent of consumers are more likely to choose a small plate as a midafternoon snack (compared to 25% two years ago) and 35% would opt for one as a late-night snack (up from 25% in 2015). Casual-dining players jumped on the snacking trend early, with several transitioning appetizer lists into larger snack menus and others adding bar bites to accompany drinks. Houlihan’s, for example, recently renamed its appetizer section “Social Snacks,” adding such snackable items as avocado toast, chicken lettuce wraps and deviled eggs with bacon. The snack menu is offered from noon on, capturing both the early and late lunch crowd and happy hour customers.
2. Move meat to the side
The shift of plant-based dishes to the center of the plate is opening up opportunities for protein-based sides. Since the appeal of veg-centric entrees is not limited to vegans or vegetarians, seafood- and meat-based sides can add flavor and protein, but with smaller portions than a full-blown entree. Bad Hunter, a veggie-focused restaurant in Chicago, offers a creative way to menu this trend. A section of the menu is called Protein, with items such as Chicken Thigh Kebab and Grilled Tandoori Shrimp available as add-ons for $11 to $14.
3. Add more veggie-focused apps
Overall, 37% of both women and 18- to 34-year-olds strongly agree they’d like restaurants to offer more veggie-focused appetizers. Operators are responding, not only with the expected deep-fried zucchini and onion rings, but with a broader variety of vegetables prepared with healthier cooking techniques. Glory Days Grilldebuted a Brussels sprouts and bacon appetizer, while Houlihan’s created an LTO featuring spiralized beet chips accompanied by a tzatziki dip. Chefs also are treating vegetables to live-fire cooking, including grilling and roasting, to boost flavor without a lot of fat.
4. Dial up flavor and heat
Forty-two percent of consumers want restaurants to offer appetizers with more unique flavors and 30% are looking for spicier starters. With their generally lower price point, appetizers and small plates provide a less risky choice for experimentation on the part of the customer and a more flexible platform for innovation on the part of operators. Firebirds Wood Fired Grill sees the ROI on that strategy; Executive Chef Steve Sturm launched a Sriracha roasted cauliflower taco and spiced crispy chickpeas as two options on its Bar Bites menu.
5. Capitalize on sides in limited service
Since appetizers are less common at limited-service concepts, popular sides can be marketed as snacks and starters. Burger King recently relaunched Mac n’ Cheetos, and White Castle returned its popular Mac & Cheese Nibblers; both QSRs are reconfiguring macaroni and cheese into bite-size nuggets that can serve as a snack, starter or side. And Wendy’s has taken its fries into snack and appetizer territory by loading them up with toppings such as bacon, chili and cheese.