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Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

New Noshing Notions
Using international inspirations to tackle snacking.
Taquitos taste good.

When it comes to snacking, we Americans don’t typically stand on ceremony.

We’ve never really warmed to the pleasant, civilized ritual of afternoon tea and scones. We seldom slave over a hot stove to prepare the perfect mid-morning appetite-tamer. And late at night, we’re more likely to reach for a handful of chips, a bowl of ice cream, or a clutch of cookies than to make a fuss over the affair.

Maybe it’s our loss. Maybe the fact that our between-meal noshing is so utilitarian robs us of something enormously pleasurable. Maybe Americans are ready for a different kind of snacking experience. And—to cut to the chase—maybe there’s a way for quick-serve chains to make more money by offering just that.

McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, and other concepts already have made some bold moves in the direction of upgraded snacking: From Snack Wraps to Fourth Meals to a broad selection of finger foods, these industry giants know full well that snacking is big business and that offering a variety of menu items that fill the gap between the Big Three meals is a smart way to increase traffic during traditionally slow periods.

The question is: How many ways can there possibly be to skin the snack cat? And the answer is: More than you might think. For proof just look at how some other world cultures snack.

Tapas

We often think of fast food as a solitary experience: one meal, one mouth, one serving at a time. But consider the Spanish tapas model as a likable alternative. With tapas, the idea is group snacking—several small plates of pre-meal fare, including both finger foods and single dishes (such as a potato omelet with salsa or a seafood casserole)—that serves as a sort of prelude to dinner. Fast food hasn’t yet tinkered with this notion, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Imagine if, say, Papa Murphy’s unveiled a plate of various calzones presliced or pre-perforated to make sharing and sampling different flavors simpler. Or, suppose Moe’s Southwest Grill was to unveil a series of individual taco bowls or taco salads that came served within a larger taco platter. With varieties ranging from chicken to carne asada to beef, this would again promote more tasting, turning what would normally be a one-course snack into a varied and much more interesting experience from a flavor standpoint. And for parents looking for a post-game snack for the soccer team or a platter ideal for sharing at kids’ birthday parties, it might also represent a new way to make sure everyone gets a little of everything he or she likes … without having to order 10 pizzas, 15 burgers, or 22 tacos. Since cost-consciousness is all the rage here in the first half of 2009, this might just be the right time to consider the merits of tapas-style snack fare.

Sushi

Mindful that some fast foodies would still like to sample widely among flavors and textures even when they’re in the car, hunkered down in the office, or seated solo at a booth, there exists another international snacking alternative that could allow for just such variety—sushi. In Japan, sushi generally is considered a snack or pre-meal ritual, not a meal in and of itself.

No, I’m not proposing that Long John Silver’s start offering raw mackerel or amberjack over a bed of white rice or that McDonald’s augment its Filet-O-Fish with California rolls. What I’m thinking about are snack platters founded on the sushi concept, a sampling of different foods that together make up a snack experience. Most sushi is characterized by different kinds of fish, vegetables, and sauces served on a single type of carrier—often, a combination of rice or seaweed.

With that structural format in mind, think about how fast-food pizza fans might react to a serving of maybe four or five fresh-baked, stuffed breadsticks, each with a different filling and dipping sauce. Mexican chains could apply the same principle to come up with a mini-taquito sampler. And hamburger chains could look at developing small, piroshki-like dumplings containing several different meats or even vegetarian fillings and serving up the whole works as a single snack package.

In the beverage/dessert category, variety-craving Generation Y diners, in particular, might enjoy ordering a cluster of three or four milkshake samplers, or maybe two or three little parfait cups—just enough to get a taste of each and satisfy an afternoon or late-night sweet tooth.

If quick-serves are to continue their focus on bringing diners through the door at all hours and not just at mealtimes, taking a few cues from the tapas and sushi worlds might offer some interesting new avenues for exploration. After all, you can’t get a hot, freshly made snack in a box, a bag, or a prepackaged bar, and with freshness, quality, and value at a premium, this could be a great time for chains to go on the snack attack.

 

As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.