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A nation of nibblers

Remember when dinner at a restaurant always meant sitting down to a multi-course meal of appetizer, entrée and dessert? Not any longer. More and more Americans are patronizing restaurants differently these days, opting to make a meal of shareable appetizers, small plates, inventive bar food or coffee and a snack. According to Chicago-based market research company Technomic, only 5 percent of consumers are now eating three square meals a day.

mixed berry chicken skewers

The shift can be attributed to several trends:

  • Four in 10 Millennials—those 18- to 34-year-olds who are avid restaurant customers—snack more than once daily, reports Technomic.
  • Small plates have been a big deal for a few years. Mintel Menu Insights found that people opt to order small plates to create a more varied meal or look to the appetizer list for snacking options throughout the day. 
  • The lackluster economy is boosting appetizer orders. Starters are priced lower than entrees and many menus offer shareable samplers for the table, both of which defray the cost of dining out.
  • A joint survey by Citysearch and Harris Interactive found that bar business and happy hours are on the rise—especially in the under-35 crowd. Bar food is becoming as important as bar drinks.

Restaurants are feeding this evolving eating style by broadening appetizer lists, adding more snack options and creating entire menus devoted to small plates and shareables. See how these operators are embracing the shift.

Black Angus
Los Altos, California

To capture the more casual sports bar crowd, this 46-unit steakhouse recently created a concept-within-a-concept, installing Bullseye Bars in 29 of its locations. “Small,” “shareable” and “finger food” are the emphasis on the Bullseye menu, points out Dudley McMahon, director of product innovation, although guests can also order from the main menu. Nachos, wings and quesadillas are among the top sellers, but McMahon has developed more adventurous items as well.

Several veggie-centric appetizers are gaining fans. Taking off from a longtime favorite, panko-crusted Crispy Fried Zucchini, McMahon introduced Crispy Baby Portabella Mushrooms as an LTO this month. “There were two reasons behind this dish—guests have told us they like portabellas and these mushrooms are a product we already have in house, offered as a side with our steaks,” he says. The fresh panko and choice of “fancier” mushrooms upgrades the item from standard breaded mushrooms. A grilled fresh artichoke with lemon aioli and basil pesto is another newer entry on the menu. “An appetizer list should have a nice balance that appeals to all tastes—a combination of fried and non-fried items; proteins and vegetables,” says McMahon.

In keeping with its “American West” theme, BBQ is a popular flavor profile at Black Angus. Cajun Cowboy Wings take the theme to the next level, by incorporating on-trend Cajun spices into BBQ roots.  The fillet sliders and steak quesadillas are hearty apps that also fit the western theme—plus they cross-utilize choice Angus beef from the steakhouse menu.  Cross-utilization is especially crucial in light of continuing high beef prices.

“Guests are very pleased to have a nice alternative to a big meal when they come to Black Angus,” reports McMahon. “Bullseye allows customers to dictate what they spend. And for under $10, they can have something special and come away plenty full.”

PS 7’s
Washington, D.C.

As soon as lunch service is over at 2:30 p.m., this trendsetting indy flips over to its lounge menu. Guests can order from a selection of beer, wine and hand-crafted and skinny cocktails, accompanied by modern takes on comfort food. “Happy hour is no longer just an hour,” says PS 7’s chef-owner Peter Smith. Since he opened the restaurant five years ago, the lounge menu has expanded to deal with more traffic and increased hours.

Crowd-pleasers such as tuna sliders—tuna tartare on house-made Parker House rolls with cucumber-sesame salad—have been on the menu all along, but new items have been added under several headings: Enticing Starters, Artisan Cheese, PS 7’s Burgers, Favorite Sandwiches and Untraditional Topped Flat Breads. Smith refers to the fare as “fat kid food”—“things we may have been forbidden to eat but are decadent, fun and served in small enough portions to not feel gluttonous.” A good example is the OMFG Dip ($12), a porchetta sandwich layered with roasted pork belly, caramelized onions, gruyere cheese and smoked jus on rustic artisan bread. It’s dripping with delicious ingredients and big enough for sharing. Chicken & Waffles are a buzzworthy version of Southern comfort—chicken liver mousse on black pepper waffles and plum jam ($8). There are also homemade half smoke mini hot dogs, salami jalapeno poppers and seasonally changing flatbreads.

“We use techniques from fine dining but adapt them to more casual food, playing with new items rather than just adding appetizers from our regular menu,” explains Smith. Sharing is encouraged, as items like the sliders and mini banh mi sandwiches can be ordered in increments of three, six or nine pieces ($12, $18 and $24 respectively). The lounge menu has been a boon for both food and cocktail sales. “We offer about 14 specialty cocktails that are wacky enough to go with the wacky menu items,” Smith reports.

Bahama Breeze Island Grille
Orlando, Florida

Last October, this 26-unit Caribbean-inspired casual dining chain introduced a “small plates” menu that’s available at lunch and dinner. In keeping with its tropical cuisine theme, the menu includes such items as Sweet Peruvian Corn Cakes with roasted pineapple salsa, Mojo-marinated Pork and Sweet Plantains served with smoky guava barbecue sauce and Truffled Yuca Fries. Also available are renditions of classic apps, including Buttermilk Fried Chicken sliders with citrus aioli and White Bean Hummus. “We’ve created a ‘small plates’ menu that offers our guests a variety of flavors starting at just $2.99, with no item over $7. So it’s easy to mix and match and try any combination of great tastes with your friends,” notes Peter Olsacher, executive chef and director of culinary and beverage development.

Also new is a selection of four “skinny” cocktails, patterned after Bahama Breeze’s extensive roster of hand-crafted tropical drinks. These include a Skinny Mojito, Five-citrus Margarita, Paloma and Citrus Cooler, with as few as 103 calories.

“Two of the things Bahama Breeze is best known for are our unique selection of delicious, shareable appetizers and our hand-crafted tropical drinks,” says president Laurie Burns. “The new ‘small plates’ menu and ‘skinny’ cocktails add a whole new dimension to that and our Caribbean escape experience.”

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