The evolution of snacking

February 23, 2017

Grazing millennials lead change in traditional mealtime routines — and seek to document their experiences on social media.

The Future of Snacking

A picture may after all really be worth a thousand words, or at least 140 characters.

Snacking is evolving to serve multiple purposes for young consumers who nosh between meals for fun, to satisfy hunger or to fill nutritional needs.

According to Sullivan Higdon & Sink’s FoodThink research, 81 percent of Americans are snacking at least once each day, while millennials are 40 percent more likely than other groups to snack multiple times each day.

Operators have an opportunity to capitalize on consumers’ evolving snacking tendencies by offering a variety of flavors, both new and familiar, to entice the adventurous taste buds of millennials, and by providing a selection of both freshly made snacks that can be consumed on premise and packaged items to be eaten later.

Research from NPD Group, Port Washington, New York, indicates that as consumers increasingly snack throughout the day, they appear to be— literally— taking a bite out of the traditional lunch daypart.

Lunchtime visits to foodservice establishments were down 2 percent in 2016, according to NPD, while snack-occasion visits were up 3 percent. Breakfast visits rose 1 percent and dinner visits were down 1 percent.

Although foodservice visits overall were weak in 2016, snacking could be viewed as a bright spot — and an opportunity — for the industry, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group.

“Lunch is perhaps the most vulnerable, with consumers trading down and having a snack,” she says.

The most common afternoon snacks are chips, pretzels and crackers, according to NPD research, but meal replacement snacks, including burgers and fries, are right behind. Doughnuts, sweet rolls and cookies are also popular afternoon snacks.1

Millennials are particularly fond of afternoon snacks, which comprise 46 percent of all of their foodservice snack occasions. Afternoon snacking occasions rose 4 percent among millennials in 2016, according to the NPD research. Morning snacking occasions, which account for 22 percent of millennial foodservice visits, rose 2 percent, while evening snacking occasions, which account for 32 percent of millennial foodservice visits, rose 1 percent.

“Those downtimes are when [millennials] are snacking most, so I would say there’s an opportunity to develop products to meet that need or offer products to meet that need,” says Riggs.

Foods at the top of the list for morning snackers include desserts and sweet rolls, breakfast sandwiches, energy bars, and chips, pretzels and crackers, according to NPD. In the evening, snackers prefer ice cream, burgers, and chips, pretzels and crackers.1

For contract foodservice operators, between-meal snacking represents an especially important opportunity, says John Metz Jr., chief executive and cofounder of Atlanta-based Sterling Spoon Co., which operates both B&I accounts and commercial restaurants.

“We’re seeing snack opportunities between 10 and 11 a.m. and then again between 2 and 3 p.m.,” he says in a recent interview with Food Management. 

“Those are the times to enhance sales. Maybe someone came in for lunch and then they’ll come back for a snack.”

A closer look at the foods millennials are snacking on reveals that they are using these off-meal occasions to nosh not only on traditional snack foods such as doughnuts, cookies, energy bars and fruit, but also on meal components, such as burgers, pizza and French fries, according to NPD research.

Offering both variety and value will be key to attracting these snackers going forward, says Riggs.

Something to photograph

Millennials are also increasingly seeking to share their foodservice experience with the world through social media, and snacks which lend themselves to that opportunity can be a draw for young consumers, says Andy Nguyen, co-owner of Afters Ice Cream and a partner in several other foodservice businesses.

“People are either looking for better ingredients or they are looking for something that's social media-worthy to photograph,” he says.

Afters, an 11-unit chain in Southern California, offers a menu of colorful and indulgent “Milky Buns,” which are essentially warm donuts filled with ice cream.

In addition to the photogenic treats, Afters also offers an ambience that attracts young fans to “hang out,” says Nguyen.

“Afters brings a unique experience to [young customers],” he says. “Our lifestyle is applied into the brand — the colors of the store and ice cream, the interestingness of the Milky Bun, how our modern music is pulsating through the speakers.”

That jibes with data from SHS’s FoodThink research report called “Snacker Nation,” which found that 67 percent of millennials say they like to snack “because it’s fun.”

In addition, 62 percent of millennials say they enjoy snacking because it allows them to add variety to their diet, the FoodThink research found.

“It’s no wonder almost half — 49 percent — say snacks are their favorite kind of food,” says Christy Niebaum, senior FoodThink researcher.

She also notes that although many consumers seek out healthful snacks, the number of overall consumers who say snacking can be part of a healthy diet has decreased in the last two years, down from 76 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2016.

Among the millennials the decline is not as sharp, but still significant — from 75 percent in 2014 to 58 percent in 2016.

“This decrease could indicate that consumers aren’t seeing enough snackable healthy options available,” says Niebaum. “It’s a gap food marketers should be poised to fill.”

1 Source: The NPD Group/CREST, YE Sept. 2016