How snacks are reshaping menus

How the surge in anytime eating is reshaping the menu.

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America has long been a nation of nibblers, but in the last few years, snacks have evolved from a between-meal bag of chips or apple to more elaborate plates. Snacking occasions also have risen in numbers and importance as dayparts continue to blur. Half of adults now snack two or three times a day, with 70 percent agreeing that anything can be considered a snack, reports Chicago researcher Mintel in its 2015 snacking report.

Restaurants across segments are vying for these between-hours customers by offering everything from grab-and-go hummus to chef-inspired mini-meals. The nomenclature also has evolved, with menus now promoting snacks in special sections with catchy headings, such as Small Cravings, Munchies and Petit Plates.

Downsized with a healthy upside

Boston-based fast-casual Au Bon Pain considers its Petit Plates line, launched in late 2014, a big success, says Katherine See, executive chef. “We started with four items and now have extended to seven as traffic and demand has increased,” she says.

Health is a focus for its snack menu, which sees sales peak midafternoon. “We still have guests who come in for a cookie or brownie, but the percentage that wants more nutritious snacks is growing,” says See. All snack offerings are 6 ounces and grab-and-go, including a bean salad, sesame-noodle salad and a grilled chicken breast for a protein option. With a drink, midafternoon checks average $4 to $5, See says. 

To implement Petit Plates, Au Bon Pain had to expand units’ prep areas and refrigerated space and eliminate some items that stayed in the case after lunch, such as the half-sandwich option. “We also want to streamline our grab-and-go packaging, so we’re looking into items that are stackable to save space,” says See. Au Bon Pain plans to expand the snack menu this fall, adding more protein choices and whole-grain salads.

Happy snacking

After a 26-year ban, happy-hour drink specials became legal again in Chicago in mid-July. That change prompted Rachel Dow, executive chef of The Betty, a polished-casual restaurant and cocktail lounge, to launch a SNAX menu to accompany happy-hour drinks.

Dow offers five snacks, including fried cauliflower with bean puree, almond and pineapple sofrito (the top seller) and baba ghaboush with tzatziki and pita. Chicago operators have to limit happy-hour deals to 16 hours per week, so The Betty’s snacks are offered weekdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

“The happy hour is a way to expose bar customers to our food,” says Dow, who admits that many don’t perceive The Betty as a full-fledged restaurant. “We want them to know we’re more than a cocktail lounge.”

So far, the happy hour menu is boosting late-afternoon traffic and checks, says Dow. Snacks sell for $7 to $8, while small plates on the dinner menu average $16. And since many ingredients are cross-utilized, the SNAX selections are easy on food and labor costs, she says. 

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