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Snack size me

Drop in spending encourages restaurants to offer smaller portions, lower prices

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / July 14, 2010

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Here’s one habit restaurants embraced during the recession: grazing.

The number of menu items listed as snacks jumped 185 percent between 2007 and 2010, and items described as mini soared almost 400 percent, according to new research from Mintel, a Chicago firm. While McDonald’s pushed its snack wraps, local chains like Au Bon Pain introduced a “19th hole snack mix’’ and D’Angelo Sandwich Shop unveiled quesadilla snacks. Meanwhile, Friendly’s and Uno Chicago Grill added sliders, or miniburgers, to their menus.

Before the recession hit, restaurants had begun adding small meals as a way to drive traffic during off-peak hours and cater to consumers’ on-the-go lifestyles. But the economic downturn and sharp drop in consumer spending made snacks a centerpiece of menus. Smaller portions meant downsized prices.

“Snacks became more of a way for restaurants to attract consumers with low-priced food options, just to help sustain their business,’’ said Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel. “Certainly, the popularity of the dollar menu bears just how price-sensitive restaurants have become.’’

D’Angelo Sandwich Shop realized last year it needed a cheap snack option after seeing rivals roll out dollar tacos and other value deals. Using tortillas the shops already had in the stores for wraps, the Dedham chain created a quesadilla in three different varieties. This limited-time offer was intended to last 12 weeks, but the huge popularity has made it a permanent item on the menu, according to Michael McManama, senior vice president of brand development for D’Angelo and its sister chain, Papa Gino’s. The Number 9 Quesadilla (a steak and cheese combination) costs about $3 and is about half the size of the Number 9 sandwich for $6.

“It exceeded expectations by 25 percent,’’ McManama said. “It’s convenience, taste, and value.’’

Julia Williams of Dorchester is one of the snack converts at D’Angelo. Almost twice a week, she picks up the quesadillas for lunch, instead of a sandwich combination.

“It’s quick, good value, and cheaper than a sandwich,’’ Williams said. “And it seems lighter and healthier than bread.’’

Au Bon Pain, the Boston bakery chain, is currently testing a line of mini-pastries for $1.19 that are about half the size of its regular baked goods, including croissants and muffins that sell for $2.19. Last year, the company unveiled its 19th hole snack mix (a combination of nuts, grains, and sesame crisps) to expand its impulse offerings. In 2008, Au Bon Pain began its antisupersize movement with the launch of Portions, a line of small plates at 200 calories or under, such as a hummus and cucumber option and a mozzarella and tomato plate.

“With the tough economy, people were downsizing their meals,’’ said Ed Frechette, senior vice president of marketing for Au Bon Pain. “And people overall are grazing more. People want to dabble a bit without making the commitment to a full-size option.’’

While some consumers prefer snacking throughout the day to eating three sit-down meals, others purchase snacks as a way to eat smaller, healthier portions.

At McDonald’s, Jody Cullinam seeks out the Chipotle BBQ snack wrap that features crispy chicken topped with chipotle BBQ sauce and wrapped in a flour tortilla.

“It just seems better for you and lighter than a cheeseburger,’’ Cullinam said. (There’s also a Big Mac snack wrap for meat lovers.)

In addition to expanding its snacking fare, McDonald’s earlier this year unveiled a new a dollar breakfast menu to provide more value options, including a sausage biscuit and hash browns. And this week, McDonald’s rolled out its latest snack option — smoothies.

“We try to offer everyday affordability,’’ said Danya Proud, a McDonald’s spokeswoman.

Retail analysts expect the snacking movement to continue to grow, even as the economy recovers.

And there is opportunity across all segments, from quick service to fine dining, to add innovation to menus with snacking options and boost sales, according to Giandelone, of Mintel.

“With a stronger economy, there is often more disposable personal income that consumers can spend at restaurants not only for meal occasions but also for actual snacking,’’ he said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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