When Beaker & Gray opened four years ago in the Wynwood section of Miami, it was a dinner-only restaurant. Then more and more businesses moved into the neighborhood, and the former warehouse district became a hip destination for dining and the arts. Chef-owner Brian Nasajon added a lunch menu and a simple happy hour. But the demand and traffic for happy hours kept going up, he says, and irregular work schedules meant that lunch hour extended into late afternoon. The result: Beaker & Gray now operates on more flexible hours and has expanded its snack options.
Beaker & Gray’s customers are part of a nationwide trend: Americans are snacking more often and seeking more exciting snacks. In fact, Technomic Ignite consumer data reveals that almost 14% of restaurant visits are for a snack, especially as the definition of a snack continues to change and expand.
This trend may be on the ascent in the U.S., but the eating style is already deeply ingrained in many global cuisines. Now chefs are tapping into that street food culture for snack ideas that can work on their menus.
Transitioning from lunch to dinner
“In Miami, Cuban croquettas are sold on the street,” says Nasajon, who was raised in that city. Childhood memories inspired him to create cheeseburger croquettas ($13), a blend of ground beef, bacon jam, potato puree and aji-infused Peruvian cheese sauce. They join tamarind-spiced Asian chicken wings ($14) in the Bites section of the Midday Menu, which is served from 4-6 p.m. The goal is to offer an abbreviated menu of hearty, flavorful snacks and smaller meals at affordable prices without overtaxing the kitchen, says Nasajon. His lunch and/or dinner labor force can easily cover this transition time, he says, and many ingredients are cross-utilized from other menus.
Beaker & Gray also offers a Happy Hour menu for early-evening (4-7 p.m.) and late-night (11 p.m-2 a.m.) customers. Promotionally priced snacks ($5-$7), including yucca fries with chimichurri aioli and the signature adzuki falafel, take cues from street foods. “We elevate falafel by making it with adzuki beans, which are lighter and airier than chickpeas. And we serve it with housemade sauces: curry barbecue and jalapeno ranch,” says Nasajon. The falafel—which can be ordered as a shareable—is a customer favorite, he adds.
Photograph courtesy of Beaker & Gray
Ethnic-influenced shareables and snacks also are a happy hour staple at Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, says Gabe Caliendo, VP of food and beverage for the 33-unit chain. “We try to make something unique and globally flavored that guests can only get during this small window of time. That’s how we create demand.”
Caliendo refers to Lazy Dog’s two happy hours—3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m.-close—as “shoulder periods” geared to snacks and drinks. But instead of offering deep discounts, he and his team come up with fun and interesting bites in the $5-$8 range. New for fall are pork belly pancakes inspired by street cart food in China and lamb barbacoa tacos, a twist on Mexican street tacos. Also on offer are jackfruit falafel tacos, a Middle Eastern-Mexican hybrid served in lettuce cups instead of tortillas. “Not all of these are authentic street snacks, but the flavors are on target,” says Caliendo.
Value is a selling point, too. Most snacks come three or four to an order for ease of sharing and give guests a chance to “experience fun flavors with less risk,” he adds. If customers come in for a taco entree, it will set them back $14—double the price of bites. And because guests can’t get these items any other time of day, the happy hour menu doesn’t take business away from lunch or dinner, Caliendo says.
Photograph courtesy of Lazy Dog Cafe
All-day snacking in the burbs
Dim sum are a draw at Chicago’s polished-casual Imperial Lamian, especially during the 3-5 p.m. time slot on weekdays. So when managing partner Vincent Lawrence opened the more casual Phat Phat in suburban Schaumburg, Ill., this fall, he decided on an all-day menu featuring several versions of the snackable Chinese dumplings.
“Phat Phat is in a residential area, so we don’t yet know what the midafternoon crowd will be like,” says Lawrence. But with operating hours from brunch to closing, dim sum fits today’s eating styles.
A Phat Phat specialty is sheng jian bao, steamed and pan-fried pork dumplings originating in Shanghai, where they are typically cooked in cast-iron pans on the side of the road. Phat Phat prepares them authentically—crispy on the outside and soupy inside—but makes the bao bite-size for sharing and snacking. Also on offer is a lamb dumpling flavored with Szechuan peppercorns. It’s pleated differently, in the style of Northern China, Lawrence explains. The dim sum are priced at $6-$7 for six pieces.
Hand-pulled noodles, served in large portions at Imperial Lamian, are downsized at Phat Phat. Street food-inspired wonton mee come in two varieties—braised and tossed with roast duck or wok-fried and mixed with oxtail, peppers and bean sprouts.
Lawrence wants to replicate Phat Phat, planning a second location to open in 2020 in Irvine, Calif. It will also feature an all-day menu filled with snackable dim sum.
Used to be that happy hours ran in early evening as a way to get customers in the door during the predinner lull. Now some restaurants and bars are starting these promotions before 3 p.m. and running them as late as 11 p.m. And the food and drink menus have expanded in size and scope along with the hours.
But what motivates consumers to visit a place during happy hour, and what are they looking for? Technomic Ignite consumer brand metrics data reveals that it’s not always discount margaritas or the biggest spread of free snacks that drives traffic and sales. Take a look at what makes today’s happy hour customer happiest.
Socialization trumps promotions and discounts as the No. 1 reason people attend happy hours. According to Technomic, 49% of consumers are most interested in meeting with a group of friends, and 45% find these visits an easy way to relax.
Takeaway: Operators should consider marketing a happy hour as a highly social and relaxing occasion rather than a cheap night out. Board games, trivia nights and other interactive events spur socialization.
Tracking weekday visits, more consumers attend happy hours toward the end of the week, with 67% choosing Friday as the ideal day, followed by Thursday at 29%. Preferred starting times get later as the week progresses, too. On Monday, 26% choose 4 p.m. as the best time to begin happy hour, but by Thursday and Friday, the vote goes to 5 and 6 p.m.
Takeaway: Gear promotions toward preferred times, offering specials earlier in the evening on Mondays and Tuesdays and later toward week’s end.
Males and females are ordering different drinks during happy hour, finds Technomic. Beer is the beverage of choice for men, with 63% ordering up a brew. Women prefer cocktails to the tune of 39% and are also more likely to order a nonalcoholic drink (35%, vs. 25% for men). Interestingly, only 3% of consumers go for whatever alcohol is least expensive, indicating that price is not a prime motivation behind a happy hour visit.
Takeaway: With a significant number of customers seeking alcohol-free options, an inventive mocktail list can be a happy hour draw.
Happy hour customers want to eat while they’re drinking, and they appreciate promotions that involve food. Sixty-six percent of consumers say that discounted appetizers would encourage them to attend happy hours more frequently, and 47% like the idea of food and beverage pairings. But beer and wine flights are not a selling point.
Takeaway: Offering a variety of bar snacks and appetizers can drive repeat visits and acquaint customers with the kitchen’s talents.
Although many fast-casual restaurants don’t have a bar, younger guests prefer to patronize those that do. Of those consumers in the 21-34 age group, 49% prefer fast-casual happy hours, compared to 35% for those 35 and over. Older customers tend to gravitate more toward casual-dining restaurants.
Takeaway: There is opportunity for fast-casual operators to offer happy hour promotions, even if an alcohol license is limited to beer and wine. And innovative mocktails can be a differentiator for this segment.