Recently quoted in this article by John Lofstock
With customers spending more carefully, smaller portions and appetizers are proving to be effective low-cost menu items.
Restaurant operators that focus on infusing their appetizer menus with “craveable” items can expect to gain additional consumer traffic. However, during tight times, consumers are less willing to order appetizers, soups and salads. To justify spending on items from the left side of the menu, they want more value—dishes with unique flavors they can’t make at home, or are large enough to share or eat as an entrée.
“Consumers are trying to cut their dining budgets, in many cases by eliminating starters,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at foodservice consultant Technomic. “To drive cravings and create interest in appetizers, salads and soups, operators must innovate with exciting dressings and dips, unusual ingredients, and preparation techniques that can’t easily be duplicated at home. These encourage consumers to feel the experience is worth the extra cost.”
These and other findings are detailed in a study from “Technomic’s Left Side of the Menu” series, which includes the Appetizer Consumer Trend Report, the Salad Consumer Trend Report and the Soup Consumer Trend Report. Based on more than 4,500 consumer interviews and analysis of menus from the Top 250 chain restaurants, emerging chains and independent restaurants, the reports examine consumer attitudes, purchase behavior and price sensitivity, plus emerging trends in flavor, preparation and presentation. Select findings include:
• Fifty-eight percent of consumers overall, and 64% of consumers aged 18 to 34, are not fully satisfied with the variety of appetizers menued at restaurants. Over two-thirds (70%) said that salad variety could be improved as well. Though most consumers (68%) expect restaurants to menu just three or four soups, 40% would like to see more ethnic soups offered.
• For shareability and for making a starter the main course, size is important in appetizer purchases. Four out of five (82%) consumers felt that appetizers should be shared, and 61% said that portions should be large enough to do so.
• For soups and finger foods like chicken wings and tenders, global flavor profiles are in vogue, especially those derived from the cuisines of Asia and Mexico. Mexican flavors tend to dominate at chains, while Asian-inspired soups are widely menued by emerging chains and large independents.
• Health drives the decision to order a salad as an entree for 66% of consumers at lunch and 63% at dinner.
Make it Portable
Cost and portability are two crucial aspects to convenience store customers, said Dean Dirks, president of Dirks and Associates, a foodservice consultancy in Tacoma, Wash.
“Flavor profiles and quality are extremely important, but for c-store customers, many of whom are reducing their foodservice spending in this recession, the price has to be affordable and they have to be able to eat it in the car,” Dirks said. “That means the container has to fit in the cup holder and the food can’t be too messy.”
Dirks, a former retailer with more than a decade of service developing food programs at West Star Corp. and Balmar Petroleum, warned that chain restaurants like Wendy’s and McDonald’s are expanding value menus with an eye toward stealing c-store customers. Furthermore, they are adding snack items like cake, cookies and coffee to the value menus to entice more traffic.
“C-store retailers need to know what their competitors are doing and should be real concerned about the growth at chain restaurants,” Dirks said. “Not only do they offer a large variety of items for $1 or less, they are eroding margins and changing consumer expectations on the price point. This means you have to offer value not to gain a competitive advantage, but just to keep up.”
Add Some Spice
Meeting consumers’ current food cravings often translates into presenting items with new, interesting and bolder flavor profiles. Ethnic flavors, in particular, play an important role. Likewise, appetizers give operators an important opportunity to test new appetizer items for consumer appeal.
“We brought egg rolls and tornados into our roller grill program about three years ago, and they now account for 48% of our roller grill business.” said Jay L.E. Ellingson, Ph.D., director of food safety and quality assurance for LaCrosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip.
To that end, Kwik Trip is currently testing a chicken product called “Rollerbites” with an eye on adding the food item to roller grills in its 350 stores.
Kwik Trip has had success pushing value meals such as two small dogs and a fountain drink for $1.99. “We also have two-for pricing on most roller grill items and this helps with multiple sales,” Ellingson said.
While new products help attract new customers, old favorites are still the backbone of the c-store menu. Chicken wings, for example, drive sales at Uniontown Chevron Inc., in Uniontown, Ala. The company dropped its local foodservice provider to partner with Hunt Bros. to enhance the menu. It currently moves more than 450 pounds of chicken wings each week at its flagship store, according to Company President Brian Malone. It averages an additional 365 pizzas at the same store per week.
“After studying the demographics of our market and the competition, we found that chicken wings were the ideal menu item because they give us the flexibility to offer them as a meal or a snack. This enables us to satisfy a variety of needs,” Malone said. “We decided to switch to Hunt Brothers because they offered a choice of flavors on the wings. Our previous supplier only offered hot wings, which meant we were missing out on sales opportunities.”
On the price side, Uniontown has an extremely competitive offering. It sells six wings for $2.69 and still ekes a 35% margin.
“The good thing about this wing program is that there is no waste. The profit could be better, but in this economy a 35% margin isn’t too bad,” Malone said. “Plus, we have had success upselling fountain drinks and other beverages to increase our overall margin.” CSD
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