The rise of the snack as meal replacement

September 7 , 2017

Operators are responding to consumer demands for more well-rounded snacking options.

The definition of snacking is evolving. For many consumers, a snack still includes the traditional sweet or salty between-meal treat, such as a cookie, bag of chips or piece of fruit. However, for others, it now also includes just about anything less than a full meal.

“Consumers snack for many different reasons,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group in Port Washington, New York. “They may be satisfying a craving; they may be trying to reduce portion size, or control calories, or spend less money.”

Snacking all day

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.

These snackers are often noshing on meal components, such as a small sandwich or an order of fries, rather than ordering a full meal, says Riggs.

Restaurant operators have been stepping up to create offerings that meet the needs of today’s snackers — items that fall somewhere between a full meal and light snack to capture that opportunity for meal occasions. These items often tap into many of the trends that are driving modern dining, such as convenience/portability, customization, wellness and bold flavor combinations.

Convenient and portable

Boston-based café-bakery chain Au Bon Pain, for example, is seeking to meet consumers’ demands for more fulfilling snacks with a new line of grab-and-go snack items that can also stand alone as mini-meals.

“Our newly branded Bon To Go boxes in our grab-and-go case really meet the snacking and small meals trends that we’re seeing in the marketplace,” says Ray Blanchette, president and chief executive of Au Bon Pain. “These small-portion boxes are convenient, better-for-you options.”

Most of the Bon To Go boxes have 12 grams of protein or more, and 390 calories or less. Among the new Bon To Go boxes that rolled out in May are a Cheese & Fruit variety, which includes brie, cheddar, apple, grapes and crackers, and a Hummus, Veggie & Taboule box, which includes hummus, cucumber, tomatoes and taboule.

The Bon To Go boxes, designed for eating on the run, are “the ultimate fusion of taste, quality and convenience,” the company says.

Similarly, Pret A Manger, the London-based chain of grab-and-go cafes that has been expanding rapidly in the U.S., attributed its sales growth in the past year at least in part to the success of new items in its Pret Pot line of snack-sized mini-meals.

Recent additions to the line include a vegetarian Harissa Chickpea Mezze Pot, which includes harissa-coated chickpeas with dukkah spice and fresh mint drizzled with olive oil over Greek yogurt, and a vegan Falafel & Beet Hummus Pot, which includes falafel, sliced cucumber, mint and pomegranate seeds over beet hummus.

Complex, customized, wellness-focused

Offering more complex, multi-component snacks “has become more of the norm than a trend,” says Dale Miller, president of Master Chef Consulting Group, Clifton Park, New York. “Consumers are demanding that snacks not only be focused on wellness, 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 well-being 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.”

Miller says he expects the snacking craze to continue to expand in the near term as an increasing number of snack manufacturers remove artificial ingredients and introduce lines of multi-ingredient snacks.

“This trend will also drive independent and QSRs to re-evaluate their menu landscape and make the necessary changes to stay competitive,” he says.

Bold and adventurous

The trend toward offering more complex snack foods is also evident at the recently opened Yellow Magnolia Café at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which offers shareable Market Table items. 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.

Consumers are looking for sweet snack rewards as a well as savory meal replacements. The popularity of ice cream sandwiches reflects the trend toward combining multiple flavors and textures as a sweet snack or dessert.

At the State Grill and Bar in the Empire State Building, for example, Andrea Jarosh, pastry chef, makes ice cream sandwiches that match up to the lighting of the building, which changes based on the season, specific holidays or other events. One version is called The Kong, which includes banana ice cream and peanut brittle on a brownie cookie.