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Snacking endures

While consumers continue to hold their wallets tight when it comes to eating out, the popularity of snacking is holding steady. Snack sales have dipped only 1 percent this year, compared to losses of 5 percent and 3 percent in supper and lunch, respectively, according to data from Port Washington, New York-based market research firm NPD.

The reason: Snacking is all things to all people.

When Jim Cohen launched the Empire Lounge and Restaurant in January 2008, he hoped to get back to his roots. “I wanted to recreate the neighborhood restaurant bars I was familiar with back when I was growing up in Buffalo, New York,” he says. “I don’t want to tell my customers what to do, I just want to make things available so they can make their own decisions.”

As a result, his Louisville, Colorado, restaurant’s menu includes a section labeled “Snacks,” with such casual offerings as guacamole and chips, deviled eggs and beef skewers, among others. Cohen, the executive chef, says he opens at 4 p.m. to take advantage of the happy hour crowd. “About 30 to 35 percent of people are here to snack and to drink,” he says. “Snacking is an important part of our role as a social gathering place.”

Snacking happens throughout the time that The Empire is open, according to Cohen. And while he admits that snacking tends to create smaller check sizes than sit-down meals, he’s confident that, when paired with drinks at the bar, snacking provides an overall boost to the bottom line.

While consumers continue to hold their wallets tight when it comes to eating out, the popularity of snacking is holding steady. Snack sales have dipped only 1 percent this year, compared to losses of 5 percent and 3 percent in supper and lunch, respectively, according to data from Port Washington, New York-based market research firm NPD. (Snacking was strong even before the recession set in—annual growth in snacking sales averaged between 4 and 5 percent from 2005 through 2007.)

The reason: Snacking is all things to all people.

“People are snacking to satisfy a variety of needs,” says Bonnie Riggs, an analyst with NPD. “They’re replacing a full meal with snacking to save time, to save money, to control calories and portion size or to satisfy a craving.”

According to data from Chicago market research firm Technomic, 55 percent of consumers define snacking based on the type of food or beverage, while 52 percent based the definition on when the food is eaten and 41 percent on the portion size (survey respondents could choose more than one response). The good news is that according to the same survey, a fifth of consumers have recently broadened their definition of snacking.

“As the recession hit, snacking options became the way for consumers to get their restaurant fix at a lower price point,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Chicago-based market research firm Mintel. “And in many cases, consumers aren’t waiting for a restaurant to define what’s snackable on the menu—they’re taking the initiative.”
However, restaurants are catching on quickly. A recent Mintel report on menu trends found that the number of items that include “snack,” “snackable” or “snacker” in the description has increased by 170 percent since 2007. Topping the list of snacks consumers are munching on: sandwiches, appetizers and bakery items.

Getting in on the action

Choose a focus: Are you near a pedestrian walking mall where portability and to-go menus are desirable? Are you in a shopping mall where patrons might be looking for a light, sit-down snack while they take a break? Are your customers looking for value or are they trying to count calories?

Think marketing first: Most restaurants already have snackable items on their menus—burgers, salads and sandwiches all rank very high on snackability. So instead of overhauling a menu, consider selling existing items on their snackable merits.

Stay true to your core: It’s critical to understand what your core customer wants. The goal is to gain new traffic, not lose long-time customers.

Snacking can lead to smaller checks: Snack items can lead customers to trade down to cheaper meals. Nevertheless, many analysts see trading down as less of a risk as the economy improves and value loses importance relative to other criteria.
 

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