Snacking gets complicated

September 7 , 2017

As consumers increasingly snack through the day, they are seeking more rewarding food experiences.

The snack menus at noncommercial foodservice operations are being revitalized with convenient, multi-component items that function like mini-meals, providing a range of flavors and textures that can be consumed on the go whenever hunger strikes.

From charcuterie and cheese plates to grain bowls, crudités and smoothies, operators are providing an increasing array of snack offerings that consumers are using to replace meals, tide them over between meals or to help balance out their consumption of nutrients.

According to NPD Group, consumers make 12 billion snack visits to restaurants and other foodservice outlets each year. Nearly half of those visits — 48 percent — occur during the lunch time frame. Evening snack visits represent 30 percent of foodservice snack visits, followed by morning snacks at 23 percent.

“With this generation, you see a lot more snacking throughout the day,” says Shawn Hoch, Senior Associate Director, North Carolina State Dining. “How they define meals is definitely different from how older generations define meals.”

Portable and personalized

NC State Dining is seeking to accommodate these needs with several new snacking options when students return to campus this fall, including more charcuterie-style snack plates with salamis, cheeses, toasts and nuts.

“That’s a trend I really like,” says Hoch. “That’s something I’ve seen in the grocery store, and thought it would have wide appeal, because of the portability of it. You can eat a couple of slices, close it up and finish it later.”

Also, at Smoothie U, which is NC State’s own smoothie concept, the school is introducing acai bowls this fall after initial testing has proven successful. The bowls can be customized with a variety of mix-ins, such as raw cocoa nibs and chia seeds. Flavors include mango and toasted coconut and berry-banana, among others.

“We’ve seen that once people try them, they really fall in love with them,” says Hoch. “They are healthy, refreshing, customizable and portable — like a smoothie.”

Flavorful and fun

Multi-component snacks also lend themselves to flavor experimentation among consumers. For example:

• NC State has switched from offering a pre-packaged hummus snack to one made with three varieties of house-made hummus, served with pita chips, that allows customers to taste a range of flavors. “Instead of having 10 spoonfuls of the same hummus, they get to try the roasted pepper one, then they try the garlic one, then the cilantro-lime — it allows different flavor variation,” says Hoch.

• Another snack Hoch is exploring is Greek mezze, which are small plates that can include such items as taboule, hummus and olives. The items have been popular in the school’s global food concept, but Hoch is exploring the possibility of packaging them for retail grab-and-go snacking.

• Cheese plates are also a popular snack item for noncommercial snacking venues, says Tanja Yokum, director of public relations and marketing for Patina Restaurant Group, New York. The company offers cheese plates through several of its on-site venues, including Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center, The Grand Tier Restaurant at the Metropolitan Opera House and State Grill and Bar at the Empire State Building.The cheeses rotate and are served with honey, toasts, fruit compotes and pickles.

• At Patina’s Yellow Magnolia Café at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Market Table sharable items reflect the multiple-component snacking trend, says Yokum. These dishes include the Biscuit Box, with salted molasses butter and fruit preserves; Vegetable Crudités, with turmeric-coconut yogurt, and garden herb chermoula; Strawberry-Ricotta Crostini, with sorghum and pink peppercorns; and Heirloom Red Dent Corn Polenta Fries, with tomato chutney.

• Another popular item on the menu at Yellow Magnolia Café is the Fava Bean Falafel, with za’atar flatbread, lemon tahini and pickled fresno chiles. The café also offers an Ancient Grain Bowl, which includes spelt berries, wild rice, quinoa, spicy greens, avocado, marinated egg and mushroom broth.

Offering more complex, multi-component snacks “has become more of the norm than a trend,” says Dale Miller, president of Master Chef Consulting Group in Clifton Park, New York. “Consumers are demanding that snacks not only be healthier, but also give them variety and options.”

“The snack craze has exploded from an occasional treat or nighttime munchie to a way of life for many, especially the millennials and Gen Zs,” he says. “They are looking for natural, health-focused snacks that have good value, mega flavor and a variety of meat proteins or protein-rich plant products. The multi-component protein and vegetable snacks take the edge off their hunger and keep them fuller without making them feel sluggish. Snacks have truly become a meal replacement throughout the day.”

Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group in Port Washington, New York, says more complex snacks that serve as mini-meals could be poised for growth, if operators can create the kinds of satisfying, flavorful products their customers are seeking.

“If they can make it compelling enough, and unique enough --- a snack item that is not a full meal but can satisfy hunger and the need for variety --- I think we’ll see even more consumers ordering those types of menu items for a snack,” she says.