The new “Triple Happiness” happy hour menu at P.F. Chang’s includes small-plate offerings like Korean street-style tacos with beef, pork and shrimp, providing customers a light meal option and the concept a testing ground for new flavors. Photo courtesy of p.f. Chang’s china bistro. Instead of building lives around mealtimes, consumers are fitting meals around lives in off-peak hours
By Monica Kass Rogers
A culinary tour of Asian cities has left chef Eric Justice’s mind and mouth full of flavor memories of street snacks available to anyone and everyone late into the night. Hot bowls of cau lau (spicy pork noodle soup) in Hoi An, Vietnam. Crispy jian bing crêpes on the streets of Shanghai and classic grilled chicken satays with zesty peanut sauce in Bangkok.
“Depending on where you go, you’ll find dozens, sometimes hundreds, of vendors, each one cooking one thing and cooking it well, and people buying it all hours of the day,” says Justice, vice president of culinary for P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. “But there, definitions blur more — people frequently eat what we might think of as lunch food for breakfast.”
Back here in America, Justice, who oversees menus for 180 Pei Wei Asian Diners and 195 P.F. Chang’s China Bistro units, thinks we’ve barely exposed the tip of that all-the-time-eating iceberg: “We’re years from where Asia is on this, but we’re moving in that direction, with more people eating during what used to be considered ‘shoulder hours,’ more intense flavors in small packages and more restaurant focus on doing a few things really well.”
Helping this along, Justice is leading his culinary team’s soon-to-come launch of a small-plate test at Pei Wei, and six months ago, he shaped a new variety of happy-hour foods at P.F. Chang’s. Among the Pei Wei plates: a pocket-sized, very aromatic, lemon-grass and rice-noodle salad; crisp-fried Vietnamese spring rolls with the traditional lettuce-leaf wrap, mint, cilantro, Thai basil and nouc cham (spicy chile) dipping sauce; curried-chicken samosas; and a Korean/American BBQ-pork lettuce wrap with Asian slaw.
“All of these work either as small-bite complements to other dishes as a meal or can be grabbed as a snack at 3 p.m.” says Justice.
Meanwhile, at P.F. Chang’s, the company’s “Triple Happiness” happy hour menu launched with a handful of dumpling options, such as the lemon-grass chicken dumpling, plus Korean street-style tacos with beef, pork and shrimp. Besides adding “fun and variety” to the menu, Justice says Triple Happiness works well as a testing ground for new flavors.
GRAZING THROUGH THE DAY
Industry-wide, snack-hour dining options continue to evolve with burgeoning mid-morning, late afternoon, happy-hour and late-night offerings. Driving this is a push-and-pull effect: a push from operators seeking to create the “fourth meal” occasion that makes good dollar sense, and a pull of greater guest demand created by a whole host of changing realities.
“People are working longer and harder,” says John Wilkerson, general manager at The Purple Pig in Chicago, a tapas venue with a meaty, Mediterranean slant.
“There’s less adherence to a strict 9-to-5 work-schedule, more flextime and work-from-home arrangements, which means people are eating throughout the day,” adds Randy Schechter, owner of New York City-based Energy Kitchen, a 10-unit healthy-eating concept. “Instead of building their lives around mealtimes, people are fitting their meals around their lives.”
Additionally, food trucks have created a “want” for a greater variety of interesting portable snacks, and bar menus have evolved far beyond fried-and-fatty junk food to embrace world street foods, sophisticated charcuterie and more vegetables. The savvy restaurant “snack” reality that is emerging makes a whole lot of sense.
Skewers of baby-corn elotes, served with mayo, lime and cilantro are on the “Tidbits” menu at The Beagle in New York City, a salad of fresh peas three-ways (shoots, tendrils, peas) with bacon, pecorino cheese and spearmint is at The Purple Pig, and a Sicilian white anchovy, pine nuts, celery and parsley-leaf salad with toasted ciabbatta bread-bits makes the bar menus at Columbus-based Cameron Mitchell’s three Marcella’s Italian Kitchen.
New concepts such as 10-unit Sweetgreen — a sustainably sourced yogurt and salad concept based in Washington, D.C., were built with this kind of noshing in mind. “Sweetgreen was designed with flexible life-cycles in mind. It was our answer to the demand for how to eat healthy and delicious and to fit within people’s budgets and time constraints,” says Jonathan Neman, co-founder. “Normally, a salad business would be looked at traditionally as a lunch business, but we do a big in-between business: 40 to 45 percent of our sales happen after four p.m.”
Neman says people eat full-salad meals through much of the day. But snacking is on the rise, and the concept is considering ways to do more healthy snacks, seasonally. For a start: “We launched spicy kale chips this past fall — $2.75 for a big cup — and those did very well.”
In some industry categories, such as the fast-casual bakery-café, all-day noshing has long been a part of the DNA. But even within this segment, evolution is ongoing, and there is room to grow.
“We’d love to get more butts in seats between 8 and 10 and after lunch,” says Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage for Dallas-based Corner Bakery Café. “The coffeeshop experience is one thing — we’ve nailed that with our coffee program and baked goods, but there’s more work to be done on things like frozen lemonade, smoothies and tea.”
Scicchitano adds, “People are eating lighter, and we continue to feed that with new trio salad options like our Southwest Avocado Wedge with corn, tomato salsa and crispy tortilla strips on a bed of jicama slaw. We also see potential for breakfast sandwiches that are higher in protein and lower in carbs.”
At Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger’s, “We’ve always had a strong snack daypart, but we’re seeing significant increases in that,” says Scott Colwell, chief marketing officer for the 300-unit bakery-café chain. Colwell says the morning snack category is the fastest growing, “and healthy is a big part of that.”
This year, Bruegger’s launched skinny bagels, sliced to eliminate one-third of the bread and featured in a variety of under-500-calorie breakfast and lunch sandwiches. Also, for the first time, Bruegger’s added café-sized salads as an alternative to entrée-sized servings. Thus far, over 10 percent of guests are opting for the skinny bagel, and the café salad is doing well enough to merit a permanent berth on the core menu.
At Atlanta-based Huddle House, Don Turley, director of research and product development, is also strategizing how to get people to eat more morning snacks.
“A lot of guests just come in for coffee in the morning, so we would like to give them something small to snack on to go with that,” says Turley. “We’re just now at the beginning of working on lagniappe-type things to fit that.”
Turley is testing deep-frying little balls of Huddle House’s frozen biscuit dough, sprinkling them in powdered sugar and selling them as “Biscuit Beignets.”
Targeting afternoon traffic, nine-unit fast-casual Roti Mediterranean Grill, based in Chicago, has done lots with its dips. Noting a moderate uptick in mid-afternoon sales of hummus, baba ganoush and chips, Director of Marketing Peter Nolan expanded Roti’s menu nine months ago to include extra hummus flavors — kalamata olive and roasted garlic — in addition to the plain variety. He also added a more-prominent grab-and-go area and updated the dip packaging to make it more attractive. The changes boosted category sales 30 percent.
“People get hungry at 2:30 in the afternoon,” observes Nolan, “but it’s a heavy ‘guilt’ occasion; people may lean toward the cheeseburger, but know they should grab something healthier. Putting hummus at their fingertips makes that choice easier.”
HIP, FRESH, AFFORDABLE
Affordability, hipness and freshness are the big selling points behind Moe’s Southwest Grill’s dips — queso and salsa. The Atlanta-based chain created a website with contests and prizes hoping to create awareness, generate buzz and increase system comp sales by 1.5 percent — especially among youthful after-school snackers. As a result, Moe’s queso sales have increased 6.8 percent — mostly between the hours of 2:30 and 5 p.m. And the free salsa bar is another snack-traffic driver.
“Every six months we add two new fresh-salsa flavors to the salsa bar to keep it interesting,” explains Dan Barash, executive chef. Newest flavors, added in May, include ancho-lime and roasted corn and poblano.
At Energy Kitchen, “healthy” helps snack traffic. “The bulk of our business is done from 12 to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m., but we’re consistently seeing off-peak build,” says owner Schechter. “From 11 a.m. to noon and 3:30 to 4 p.m., we’re seeing 25 percent more traffic during those periods than when we opened six years ago.”
In addition to “huge growth” in healthy gourmet burger options, Schechter says guests go for Energy Kitchen’s “host of very healthy side dishes,” such as the black bean and mango salad and the corn and edamame salad. As well, an early-spring 2011 test of baked french “fries” did very well. “One out of every four guests who opted for fries bought the baked ones,” says Schechter.
In Chicago, Geoff Alexander, vice president and managing partner of Wow Bao, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant that sells very snack-suitable bao buns, thinks “the afternoon snack is the new water cooler or cigarette break. People need that energy fix.” Helping to promote traffic at that time, Wow Bao launched its “3, 4, 5” special at one of its units: between 3 and 4:30 p.m., guests get to choose three snack items for $5. “Traffic during those hours has doubled,” Alexander reports.
DRIVING OFF-HOUR GROWTH
Leading the charge on expanded snack options in chain-restaurant casual dining, T.G.I. Friday’s just stepped into new territory with new snacks and “Tapa-tizers.”
“The shoulder periods work well for us,” says Ricky Richardson, executive vice president and chief concept officer for the 900-unit chain. “We have seen 6 to 7 percent growth in traffic during the late night and later afternoon.”
Helping to drive that growth, the company ramped up new fresh/light options six months ago. Some items, such as a Heavenly Hummus dip of sesame butter (tahini), garbanzo beans and goat cheese topped with olives, tomatoes and basil, are being tested on a new T.G.I. Friday’s pilot menu in Denver. Other options now on the core menu include Spinach Florentine Flatbread, oven-baked crispy flatbread topped with a spinach and artichoke-heart spread and bruschetta mix of diced tomatoes, garlic and freshly chopped basil, and Tapa-tizer skewers in Mediterranean or Japanese varieties.
“These Tapa-tizers,” says Richardson, “have a lot of appeal for the snacking crowd. They have bold taste but eat lighter.”
Uno Chicago Grill has rolled out an all-day, every-day small-plate addition to its menu, featuring between-meal items priced from $3.99 to $4.99. Photo courtesy of uno chicago grilll. Expanding on this, T.G.I. Friday’s various international chef teams are trading notes on new flavors. The Asian slaw accompanying the new skewers, for example, was a flavor profile first identified and developed for menus in T.G.I. Friday’s Asian markets. The chain also is exploring fresh, flavorful alternatives to french-fried potatoes (plantains, sweet potatoes, etc.) and testing more flatbread flavors as Tapa-tizer line extensions — “not just small portions,” says Richardson, “but shareable items, freshly prepared in house.”
While the company currently uses the same menu for both happy hour and late night, differences in ordering behaviors may prompt the development of a new, late-night-specific menu. “At late night, we know there’s a prevalence to eat a little heavier than at happy hour. Based on that, it could be that we’ll do a late-night menu with more-extensive sandwich and burger offerings,” Richardson concludes.
Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill is also expanding its small plates. These used to be limited to the company’s “Snack Hours” menu, available at the bar from 4 to 7 p.m. and from 10 p.m. to closing, Sunday through Friday. Adding to the options, Uno just launched an all-day, every-day small-plate section to the regular core menu. Priced from $3.99 to $4.99, the six new items fit between the $1.99 to $2.99 bar snacks and the larger, shareable appetizers.
“They are not cannibalizing appetizer sales,” says Christopher Gatto, vice president of food and beverage for Uno Chicago Grill. Popular options include the Sautéed Shrimp and White Beans, with spinach, tomatoes and white-wine sauce, and the Farro Salad with diced tomatoes, cucumber, balsamic vinaigrette and chips.
HOTEL VENUES FIT THE BILL
Meanwhile, in hotel restaurants, “the whole lobby-meets-restaurant-meets-living room thing is a growing trend that all-the-time-menus fit right into,” says Andrew Freeman, president of his eponymous San Francisco-based hospitality consultancy. “Since they have the real estate and the staffing, keeping a snack menu going all day makes sense.”
Two-o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon is a time independent lunch/dinner restaurants would traditionally shut down, putting away remnants of lunch and switching over to the dinner mise en place. But that’s not the case at Five, at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza in Berkeley, Calif. There, a good number of guests sit in the bar area and nosh on bar bites from a “happy hour” menu that never ends.
“When we first opened, we didn’t have this,” says chef Banks White. “But we have found that people want snacks all the time. And, since this is a hotel and we always have someone in the kitchen, we figured offering the bar bites from noon till close was a good way to pick up revenue.”
According to White, this doesn’t cannibalize the regular lunch business, and Five now also gets a pretty steady crowd between lunch and dinner, all snacking on popular items like pulled-pork sliders with onion rings and house-made pickles, house-baked pretzels with smoked-Gouda dipping sauce, and little, one-bite plantain tostones, topped with short-rib barbacoa, chile-lime-garlic sauce, Mexican crema and cotija cheese.
Most snacking and small-plate innovation still happens at independent restaurants around the country. Many that have opened in the last year or two shaped what they do around all-the-time eating. There are street-food restaurants, such as chef Susan Feniger’s Street in Los Angeles and Rick Bayless’ Xoco in Chicago, that churn out upmarket world-street food in chic settings. Plus, a greater number of gastropubs have opened with very approachable, serious eats like the whimsical wonders at Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen in Denver.
“The idea was to make everything sophisticated, but approachable,” says owner Beth Gruitch, who, with business partner/chef Jennifer Jasinski operates two other Denver-area restaurants. Giving the items at Euclid Hall fun names helps the uninitiated over the threshold to try what might otherwise be unfamiliar: Ants on a Log Foie Gras, the Itsy Bitsy Fishwich and Buffalo-style Pig Ears are just a few examples.
“Giving something a silly name gives people a reference point to something familiar,” says Gruitch. “It makes it feel like these are safe enough to try. Then, once we have gained their trust, they branch out and try more things.”
The multi-tiered snack menu at Farm Burger in Decatur, Ga., is another great example. On the core menu are $2 boiled peanuts, beet-pickled eggs and seasonal pickles; $3 fried chicken livers and $4 chicken-pot-pie fritters with Georgia peach chutney. And rather than just offer french-fried potatoes with the burgers, the company has gone gangbusters with green-veggie alternatives that guests often order as a stand-alone snack.
“During okra season, we sell a ton of fried okra,” says owner George Frangos. “And when okra’s not in season, we do Georgia green beans with crispy onions. I’d say the split between the green-veggie option and the french-fried-potato option is about 40/60.”
Also a rock-star green, kale did well featured in a salad as a “Fashion Week” special at Cafeteria, an all-hours restaurant in New York City that has seen dining patterns evolving toward healthier foods and shoulder periods. The salad included black kale, dried cranberries, ricotta salata, pine nuts and a grilled Meyer lemon vinaigrette for $12 — a smaller/lighter value compared with the larger $18 entrée salads.
“People are more health-conscious in general, wanting lighter, quicker meals,” says General Manager Clark Gale. “Being a cafeteria, there’s a stigma you have to fight — people think it’s all comfort, but we’re showing them comfort also can be light and fast. Every time we redesign the menu, we add more things in the healthy, quick, shareable direction.”
“Our goal is to have product available whenever the consumer wants it,” says Colwell of Bruegger’s.
“It’s going to have to be that way moving forward,” confirms consultant Freeman. “People want more flexibility, fewer rules. There are people who want the sit-down traditional meal, but there are also a lot more who want to make less of a commitment to a full dining experience. If someone just wants to nosh, you have to find ways to let them.”
Gruitch of Euclid Hall agrees: “Sometimes they’ll choose a snack, sometimes a whole dinner. No matter. Today, customers should be able to get whatever they want whenever they want it.”
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