Three tacos

In the past 24 hours, 92 percent of the U.S. adult population had a snack. These formerly minor events now represent half of all eating occasions, and although food is available on almost every corner, from food trucks to clothing stores, 80 percent of snacks are eaten at home, according to The Hartman Group’s new report, “Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors.” 

Smoothie shops and even coffee chains, including Starbucks, have worked to supply fresh, healthy snacks for other times of day — but only 6 percent of snacks come from food service. By contrast, the snack market is 85 percent owned by food retailers. 

People still turn to grocers for snacks, even though they make fewer “stocking up” trips than they used to. They stop by food-service operators for meals or portions of meals, but do not often think of those locations for snacks. If they went for snacks, particularly for quick “emergency” snack stops that often occur after work or in the evening, restaurants and other food-service purveyors could benefit from the fact that shoppers are less price sensitive for such quick stops. 

Some upscale restaurants have picked up on the opportunity, and their menu language reflects consumers’ snacking lifestyles. Mkt.’s menu in Seattle, for example, has a section called “snacks” with grilled green beans, orange-marinated olives, winter squash fritters and so on. Cakes and Ale in Decatur, Georgia, has offered fries, charred Brussels sprouts and quinoa hush puppies on its “sides” menu — all snacks in their own right. And Boston’s Blue Dragon features furikake popcorn, house-pickled vegetables and Japanese sweet potato chips as “snacks.”

Modern eating banner

The market opportunity is expanding as people lean increasingly toward snacks for sustenance and creative exploration. Already 48 percent of consumers replace meals with snacks at least three or four times a week. With that shift comes greater experimentation. There are fewer cultural boundaries around snacks, which, unlike meals, do not have to happen at certain times with certain people or particular foods. Snacks can be anywhere and anything — and they are often eaten throughout the day. 

People increasingly look to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy choices for snacks, something that restaurants are well positioned to offer, because many of them have menus that consumers already perceive as fresh. 

People also use snacks to discover and connect with other cultures. As Debbie in New York City explained: “I put things on my Greek yogurt which just make it special. I discovered rose syrup in Kathmandu, and I get it at Pakistani stores…It’s an emotional thing; it reminds me of my travels.” Many restaurants excel at offering menus with high-quality global flavors, and they could turn already popular appetizers, side salads, cups of soup and other dishes that easily scale down into high-quality, interesting snacks. 

Even more good news for restaurants is that, unless they’re replacing meals with snacks, people tend to look for snacks during food-service downtimes. In fact, 65 percent of snacking occurs after lunch — offering another avenue for sales at a traditionally slow time of day. A simple revamping, and in some cases just a renaming, of menu items for those hours could have consumers thinking more about popping into nearby restaurants for a quick snack.