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Pandemic Fuels Snack-Menu Opportunities

“Overall, we’ve seen increased demand for our sides during the pandemic—a trend that was occurring pre-pandemic as well”

– Quinn Adkins, director of menu development at Culver Franchising System.  The chain is known for its Butter burgers, Wisconsin Cheese Curds and Frozen Custard, among other items.

Operators expand variety and experiment with new items to fill all-day demand for off-premise noshing.

The pandemic has accelerated the opportunities for operators to showcase snacks on their menus, building on a trend that has already been gaining traction in the industry.

Consumers have increasingly shifted away from traditional meals and opted instead to nosh throughout the day, or to combine multiple snacks, tapas-style, to create their own meals. Operators are responding with more snacking options, such as an expanded assortment of French fry options and loaded dishes, pretzel bites, sliders and other portable finger foods that can easily be eaten on the go.

More Side Options

The most popular sides at Culver’s are its Crinkle Cut Fries, Wisconsin Cheese Curds and Onion Rings, he says. During the pandemic, Culver added promotional materials around the chain’s variety of menu items, including its sides.

“We’ve always believed more menu options mean more ways to brighten your day,” says a TV ad promoting Culver’s wide range of offerings, including its fried Chicken Tenders, Onion Rings and Cheese Curds.

The chain revived one of its most popular snack items, Pretzel Bites, in 2020 with a limited time offer. The Pretzel Bites, which are served with Culver’s Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Sauce for dipping, “are a perfect savory treat,” says Adkins, noting that sales of the item were up 40% year-over-year in 2020. The item first appeared as an LTO in 2018.

Culver’s seeks to balance new menu options with its “tried and true” items, says Adkins.

“We have seen incremental value in our LTO sides like Culver’s Pretzel Bites and Sweet Potato Fries,” he says.

The characteristics of a successful snack, he says, are crave ability, portability, quality and uniqueness to Culver’s.

“Every time we have offered Pretzel Bites, the momentum has continued to grow,”

– Quinn Adkins, director of menu development at Culver Franchising System.

“We recognize that this menu item resonates with our guests, and we look forward to continuing to leverage its success.”

“Diners are willing to take more chances with [appetizers] because they are a smaller commitment than a main entrée,”

– Distributor U.S. Foods in a blog post.

“Smaller portions also mean that strongly flavored or premium ingredients can star.”
Opportunities for Experimentation

Snacks and appetizers, especially as limited-time offers, also provide opportunities for operators to test new flavors, ingredients and menu items, and gauge the response of their guests. Customers are more likely to experiment with snack-sized portions of items, operators say.

In line with that observation, street foods from around the world have gained prominence on menus as snacks. These include items from Latin American menus, such as empanadas, and Indian snack foods such as samosas.

Operators also can get creative with “loaded” nacho, French fry and potato tot combos as snacks. The Rabbit Hole in Normal Heights, California, for example, offers Abnormal Tot-Chos, which include a base layer of potato tots, tortilla chips and wonton chips, topped with jalapeño cheese sauce, cotija cheese, pico de gallo, salsa roja, cilantro crema and scallions, with the option of adding chicken, ground beef or carnitas.

Afternoon Snacking Expands

The pandemic also has added some new dimensions to the snacking daypart. With more people sheltering at home all day with their families, the demand for afternoon snacks and snacks that can be shared among multiple family members has increased.

Some operators have launched new items specifically to fill in this afternoon daypart. Burger chain Farmer Boys has re-launched its No Brainer Deals, intended as affordable snacks and light meals that offer customers the opportunity to sample the variety of offerings on the Las Vegas-based operator’s menu.

The offerings include sandwiches and snacks that can be enjoyed any time of day, such as Crispy French Toast Dippers and Fried Chicken Dippers.

“Our February launch plans came to a halt at the onset of the pandemic,” says Larry Rusinko, vice president and chief marketing officer of Farmer Boys. “The positive response from our guests during the initial launch period propelled us to reintroduce these eight uniquely designed menu items that are the perfect fit for an afternoon pick-me-up, light breakfast, or if a guest wants to sample a little bit of everything we have at Farmer Boys.”

“People are working from home and need a break from the house, so a little snack and a walk in the afternoon is a perfect pick-me-up to get through the day,”

– Jen Biesty, chef and co-owner of Shakewell in Oakland, California

As the industry continues to face unprecedented challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic, operators are finding they can help offset some of the their losses by menuing innovative snack and side dish items that cater to the growing consumer demand for all-day noshing.