Snack consumption has been increasing in the U.S., leading to new definitions of snacks and new opportunities for foodservice operators.
Snack consumption is high and has been increasing. Just over half of U.S. consumers say they snack at least twice a day, up slightly from 48% in 2012. And, according to Technomic’s 2014 Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, about one in five consumers say they snack at least three times daily. Over the past two years, consumers have broadened their definition of “snack” to include more foodservice items. Therefore, it is vital for to stay on top of snack trends.
What Makes a Snack?
Firstly, what differentiates a “snack” from other types of food? According to consumers, a snack is defined primarily by the type of food or beverage and by time of day it is eaten. Portion size also plays a large role, as more than two-fifths of consumers polled report that they define a snack by the size of the item. The ideal snack size differs by occasion, because some consumers snack as a meal replacement while others may snack on something small to hold them over between meals.
Fewer consumers polled today than in 2012 (58%) define a snack by the time of day it is eaten. This aligns with the general trend of consumers eating at more frequent intervals throughout the day rather than eating three meals per day.
The majority of consumers report that their definition of a snack has not changed in the past two years, but about one-third say their definition has changed. A quarter of consumers say they now include more types of food in their “snack” mindset. About a tenth of consumers say their definition of “snack” has changed to include other parameters such as more types of beverages, more foodservice items and more overlap with meals.
Slightly more men than women say their definition of “snack” hasn’t changed, while more women than men now include more types of food within the scope of what they consider to be a snack.
Because a substantial proportion of consumers have broadened their idea of what constitutes a snack, and fewer consumers today than in 2012 consider time of day as a factor in the definition of “snack,” customers may be open to restaurants’ suggestions to add a certain food to their “snack” mindset, even food that is not traditionally served as a snack or food that is typically eaten at another time of day. For instance, operators could list sides, appetizers or small plates on a special “snack” menu, rather than just listing them on the main menu.
Based on their own personal perception of what a snack is, consumers were asked how often they snack. Overall, consumers snack about as often today as they did two years ago, with just a slight increase in snacking frequency. Half of today’s consumers (51%) report consuming multiple snacks on a typical day, and 21% do so at least three times per day. In comparison, just 48% of consumers polled in 2012 say they snack at least twice a day.
Increased snacking is strongly driven by younger consumers, so operators and manufacturers may want to focus on these consumers when developing and marketing snacks. Online and social-media marketing efforts, for instance, may pay off far better than traditional television advertising. In particular, younger consumers will respond to marketing that conveys the importance of snacks as part of social occasions with their friends. And images of younger consumers snacking at work or en route to a destination may convey the convenience of snacking and its role as an intrinsic part of today’s busy lifestyle.
Many restaurant operators are recognizing that snacks can be a traffic driver, appealing on a number of levels—from low price to craveability to on-the-go lifestyle integration.
Value menus are reflecting trends toward a proliferation of snacks and catering to off-peak dining occasions. The new Snack ’n Save Menu at Arby’s exemplifies this trend. Currently being tested in 13 markets, the Snack ’n Save Menu is designed to boost customer traffic and fuel multi-item purchases at each visit. Each of the 15 items on the menu is well suited for takeout and is sized for snacking. Ranging in prices from $1 to $2.99, the menu selection hits the main points relating to how consumers would define a snack. Some highlights are as follows:
- Junior-size roast-beef sandwich
- A two-sandwich pack of roast-turkey or roast-beef Mighty Minis
- Mozzarella sticks
- Jalapeño bites
Look for a value message to be increasingly delivered with snacks as the cornerstone of the menu lineup. This approach will likely lead to more value-oriented menus being dubbed simply as “snack” menus—with consumers picking up on the cue that snacks provide the overall value they seek.
Chains are also developing innovative portable packaging for their snack items. McDonald’s lists Chicken McBites, featuring bite-sized breaded and fried chicken breast pieces available in three sizes—including Snack, Regular and Shareable size varieties. The “deliciously poppable” McBites are served with the customer’s choice of Honey Mustard, Hot Mustard, Barbecue, Chipotle BBQ, Sweet n’ Sour, Buffalo, Ranch or Sweet Chili dipping sauce. The sauce can be inserted into a space in the lid when the lid is opened, which allows for easy on-the-go consumption.
The popularity of Chicken McBites has led to the introduction of Fish McBites, which are positioned in the same way. These items also reflect a burgeoning trend that centers on snacks as the core of the value menu.
This fall, KFC rolled out the limited-time KFC Go Cups in five varieties for $2.49 each. The selection includes a Chicken Little sandwich, four Original Recipe Bites, three Hot Wings, one piece of Original Recipe Boneless or two Extra Crispy Tenders, along with crispy seasoned potato wedges. The patented KFC Go Cup container was designed specifically to fit in a vehicle cup holder and is marketed as an on-the-go snack.
Understanding how snacking fits in with consumers’ typical dining behavior has implications for menu and product development. For instance, since younger consumers typically snack in addition to eating three meals per day, they may prefer a small portion or light snack. On the other hand, older consumers who are more likely than younger consumers to replace meals with snacks may be in need of a more substantial snack. Operators and suppliers should consider how snacking fits into the lives of their customer base when developing and marketing items to sell as snacks.
Clearly there is still ample room for restaurants to boost snack sales. However, restaurant operators should examine the feasibility of expanding into the snack category, keeping their customer base, and concept and menu positioning in mind.