Starters Are Moving Beyond the First Course

While U.S. consumers most often order starters for consumption prior to a meal, a good portion of them are ordered as main dishes, sides or snacks.

It comes back to giving the customer what he wants, when he wants it. The customization trend has led to the demand for multiple portion sizes, breakfast served all day, and, increasingly, the ability to order appetizers as main dish, side or snack. Technomic’s Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report examined the dynamics of starter purchases. While the data comes from a survey of U.S. consumers, the opportunities for increasing starter sales are applicable to U.K. operators as well.

Starting Point

Appetizers or starters still are ordered far more frequently to be consumed before a meal than as an entrée, side or snack. On average, consumers say three out of five of all the appetizers they purchase (59%) are ordered as starters before a meal. But 17% of these appetizers are ordered as an entrée or main dish, and more than a tenth are ordered as a side (13%) or as a snack (12%).

Men are more likely than women to order appetizers as starters, while women opt for more nontraditional appetizer orders. For example, more women than men order appetizers as an entrée or main meal, likely because the smaller portion sizes appeal to women who tend to have smaller appetites or who want to control the portion size of their meal. Additionally, more women than men say they order appetizers as a snack.

When you order appetizers, what percent of the time is the appetizer ordered as…?
(by gender, means shown)

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+ Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+
Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Although the majority of appetizers are ordered as starters before a meal, operators should note that about two-fifths of appetizers are ordered as entrées, sides or snacks. Considerable opportunities likely exist to spur add-on sales and boost check averages through appetizers that are positioned as snacks for consumers looking for a light bite during off-peak meal times.

Appetizers tend to be shared among the dining party rather than eaten alone, highlighting the importance of appetizers that can be easily split among a group. Three-fifths of the appetizers (62%) ordered are shared among the dining party. This is especially true among female diners, as women report that a greater proportion of their appetizers are shared with others. This data points to the importance of shareable appetizers that can be easily split among a group of diners.

However, a significant proportion of appetizers is not shared. Two-fifths of the appetizers consumers order (39%) is eaten by just the consumer and not shared with others. Men report that a greater proportion of the appetizers they order is not shared with anyone else. While shareable items are certainly important on restaurant menus, individual items, such as single servings of soups, salads or other dishes, are also key.

Since starters are usually ordered to share, operators will want to make sure they offer a variety of shareable appetizers. Operators could also consider offering multi-item or platter-style appetizers, and give customers the opportunity to pick and choose among different foods in order to make the starter appealing to the entire dining party. On the other hand, many appetizers are not shared; therefore, room still exists to include nonshareable items on the appetizer menu.

Opportunities to Increase Sales

A strong value equation can help encourage consumers to order starters at restaurants. Nearly half of consumers polled (47%) report that happy hours (i.e., a short timeframe in the early evening, during which discounted prices or specials for appetizers would be featured) could spur their starter orders. Roughly two-fifths of consumers say better value for appetizers (43%) and entrée and appetizer deals (38%) could encourage them to purchase appetizers more frequently at restaurants.

The data indicates that craveability and menu variety are also factors that can motivate appetizer purchases. Two-fifths of consumers report that a better variety of options (42%) and new or unique appetizer offerings (40%) can encourage them to purchase appetizers more frequently. Further, signature appetizer offerings, seasonal dishes and craveable items can all help encourage them to purchase appetizers more often at restaurants. Operators can also consider pairing happy-hour appetizer deals with adult beverages selected to complement the offerings.

Which of the following would encourage you to order appetizers more frequently at restaurants?
Please select all that apply. (by gender)

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+ Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+
Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Why Consumers Buy

Consumers primarily purchase starters to satisfy their hunger while they wait for their meal. But there are other drivers as well.

Appetizers have strong “entertainment” value and give consumers an opportunity to explore the menu. Sixty percent of consumers order starters as something small to eat while waiting for their meal and 42% do so to share something before the meal with their dining party. Additionally, about a third of consumers order appetizers to try a particular item (37%) or satisfy a particular food or flavor craving (34%). Nearly as many consumers (38%) say appetizers add to the dining experience itself.

Finally, cost and value are other purchase drivers, though it should be noted that cost is not the primary purchase driver for appetizers, suggesting that many consumers are primarily looking for an appetizer that is flavorful and adds to the overall dining experience. Three out of 10 consumers (30%) report that they order these items because of a deal, special or promotion and 27% say they order appetizers because they are part of bundled meals.

Why do you order appetizers from restaurants?
Please select all that apply. (by gender)

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+ Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+
Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

As noted, value is an integral part of consumers’ appetizer purchasing decision. Fully 79% of consumers polled say this is important or extremely important when choosing an appetizer. Consumers also want an appetizer that won’t take too long to prepare, with 56% of consumers saying it is important that the appetizer they choose takes little time to prepare and can be delivered to their table quickly.

Considering that the majority of consumers’ appetizers are shared, shareability is important. More than three-fifths of students report that it is important that the appetizer they choose is something everyone can enjoy (64%) and share (62%). Additionally, 41% of consumers say a large portion size is important. Meanwhile, half of consumers (49%) say it is important that the appetizer is not too large to spoil their appetite—likely an important consideration for single-serve appetizers like soups, salads or more.

How important or unimportant are the following attributes when choosing an item you will eat as an appetizer?
(by age, top two box = important and extremely important)

Base: Approximately 800 consumers aged 18+ Respondents indicated their opinion on a scale of 1–6 where 1 = not important at all and 6 = extremely important Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Base: Approximately 800 consumers aged 18+
Respondents indicated their opinion on a scale of 1–6 where 1 = not important at all and 6 = extremely important
Source: 2013 The Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report

Starter purchases are also strongly driven by cravings and sensory cues. Three-quarters of consumers (76%) say that it is important that the starter they order looks or sounds appetizing. More than two-thirds of consumers (68%) say it is important that the appetizer satisfies a craving. Consumers also look for unique appetizer offerings. Half of consumers (48%) say it is important that the appetizer is unique to the establishment.

Interestingly, middle-aged consumers are more likely than younger and older consumers to say appearance, cravings and uniqueness are important to their appetizer ordering decision. Meanwhile, younger consumers are more likely than older consumers to say that it is important that the appetizer they choose is something new or unfamiliar.

Key Takeaway                                           

Consumers report that they are purchasing appetizers more frequently than they have in the past. As the economy improves, consumers are likely less hesitant to spend on options they deem to be extras at restaurants. Starter purchases may also be getting a boost from shifts in consumers’ dining behavior that may lead them to purchase more appetizers as snacks. Operators may be able to leverage the improving economy in their marketing message and should strive to offer a wide range of appetizer options, including options that can serve as light between-meal bites.

Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.

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