The Small Meal Is A Big Deal

The course formerly known as appetizers and sides are now bona fide meals
bruschetta appetizer

CHICAGO-- The expression “take two, they’re small” might be the convenience-store foodservice operator’s new mantra for establishing a winning menu, all in consideration of customers who increasingly go for appetizers, small plates and side dishes—so-called “left-of-menu” fare.

This way of eating is now typical consumer M.O., as they embrace the daily mini-meal consumption regimen. In some cases, dishes formerly known as appetizers, such as sliders, are being repositioned as small plates.

In today’s climate of customization, “a meal is what the diner says it is,” wrote Jackie Dulen Rodriguez, a senior manager at Technomic, in a September blog. “Small plates and appetizers can appeal to those driven by a smaller appetite or a limited budget, or at off-peak times to create a dining opportunity that otherwise would be missed. When ordered in multiples, they can answer a desire for more variety or to share with companions.”

These insights came via Chicago-based Technomic Inc.’s new “Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend” report that explains the expanding role of small plates, which have increased 80% on FSR menus since 2013 (although only 18% of operators offer them).

Dishing It Out Small

Rodriguez said a good place for operators to start is imparting to customers how their appetizer, small plate and side dish menus deliver on key consumer touch-points, starting with:

  • Value. Millennials continue to cite deals and discounts—even freebies—as top ways to entice them to order more appetizers, small plates and sides, wrote Rodriguez. “That does not necessarily mean profit-busting price points, however. The average price for a small plate among Top 500 FSRs is $8.50, up 14% since 2013. Consumers under age 35 also reported much higher price thresholds than older diners, in some cases a difference of $2 or more depending on the segment.”
  • Shareability. Appetizers are already more commonly shared than eaten alone, even more so than small plates, said Rodriguez. “And sharing is more popular among women and families, presenting a potential target audience. Sides may be an untapped avenue for promoting shareability, since 43% of consumers are interested in larger-sized sides suitable for sharing, but most are still portioned for single diners.”

Rodriguez added that “bumping up portion sizes slightly may justify a higher price point, and just as importantly, address consumers’ reluctance to order an item because they don’t have the appetite for an entire side in addition to an entree.”

Two tips Rodriguez offered to make small plates a more compelling offer include:

  • Bolder flavors. A majority of diners are looking for more appetizers with new or unique flavors, spicy ingredients and ethnic flair. In response, Asian flavors in small plates grew 650% in the past two years, and Mexican flavors grew 320% on leading full-service restaurant menus.
  • Premium ingredients. More than simply arriving before or with an entree, these “left-side” menu items are increasingly showcasing high-quality ingredients and preparation methods, such as tableside mixing of guacamole. No less than 67% of consumers say high-quality/premium ingredients are important when choosing an appetizer, and one in three millennials agree that appetizers prepared tableside are higher in quality.

Step Up to the Small Plate

The Hartman Group recently described how a range of QSR operators are experimenting with new items that play to on-the-go consumption and the adoption of the small plate with consumers.

These offerings, which were quoted by The Hartman Group from a recent Associated Press report, include:

  • Arby’s lineup of sliders, which are miniature versions of its regular sandwiches and cost less than $2 each.
  • Sonic’s “Lil’ Doggies” and “Lil’ Chickies” (petite hot dogs and chicken sandwiches) and a “mini” size for its ice cream shakes.
  • Taco Bell’s “Dare Devil Loaded Grillers,” which are smaller burritos.
  • Burger King’s “Chicken Fries,” which the QSR claims is helping push up sales, with many people stopping in to get french fry-shaped fried chicken as a snack.
  • Dunkin’ Donuts’ new sandwiches, which are meant to be snacks—not lunch—to fit with the changing way people are eating.
  • Popeyes’ “Rip’n Chick’n” (developed to work as snacks and be easy to eat on the go), which is shaped so pieces can be torn off easily.