Will Sides And Snacks Replace Entrées?

In today’s society each second seems to move faster than the last, which can make it hard for anyone to find enough time for much of anything, including eating. Quick service restaurants (QSR) are very aware of the overwhelming schedules many people have become subject to, due to the change in culture going from 9a.m.–5p.m. to “all the time.” For example, the convenient addition of combo meals to QSR menus was initially instituted to make the ordering process faster and easier for busy patrons and employees. However, with the recent overwhelming popularity of cheaper value menu side items and the drop in combo meal sales by about one billion servings since 2007, one would beg to ask: are sides and snacks replacing entrées?

QSR entrées don’t fret. Americans’ affair with fast food is continuous, though nearly 60 percent of QSR patrons say they would like to exchange a combo meal side dish for other options, making side items coveted resources for culinary additions, side replacements or customized meals.

Since its inception in the late 80s to early 90s, the value menu has served several purposes, including building check totals, driving transactions and creating consumer awareness. Furthermore, the added value of the side menu is that it allows the vendor to reach a wider demographic, cater to different diet styles, i.e., health-conscious eaters, and make it plausible for servers to compete in different sectors of foodservice. For example, Wendy’s recently introduced breakfast menu items within specified test markets, which allowed the company to upsell add-ons like home-style potatoes and sliced fruit in the quick-serve breakfast sector that, according to Bonnie Riggs, research analyst at NPD, a global marketing firm, makes up 22 percent of all fast-food traffic.

Menu innovation is important to draw new customers and intrigue loyal patrons, so it’s imperative to keep in mind that side options are not regulated to only singular fare like fries, nuggets and cheeseburgers, but also “snacks” that can substitute as a meal, like the increasingly popular snack wraps found at QSRs such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s and KFC — another big draw to why sides are seemingly outshining entrées.

According to QSR magazine, snacks today are more than a basic bridge between meals. They have become gastronomic events that are anticipated almost as fervently as meals. These snack-style “minis” are consumer-friendly in that they are smaller, generally contain less calories, are easy to transport and offer the diner a substantial blend of flavor and sensory arousal for less money. Moreover, mini meals are a top 20 Hottest Food Trend of 2012 according to the chefs’ survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association.

Menu innovation does not stop at savory side menu items, as dessert items are also gaining increasing popularity on QSR menus. An array of different flavored frappes and milkshakes that make wonderful meal additions, or smoothies and parfaits which can serve as meal replacements, have gained noticeable exposure on restaurant menus across the food industry. The latest food trends report the top three dessert sectors as artisan/housemade ice cream, bite-size/mini desserts and savory desserts. These categories can easily be added to quick serve menus to boost sales.

According to a recent consumer survey by Technomic, 70 percent of consumers eat dessert at least once a week. And contrary to popular belief, consumers purchase desserts most often during the afternoon or as an early-evening snack.

“Desserts allow QSR’s to compete with not only dine-in restaurants but also C-stores growing fast in the snack market share. There is less opportunity for veto-shoppers when you have desserts in your offering,” explains Anna Pata, Director of Sales at PreGel AMERICA.

Pleasure without the caloric guilt and price-friendly desserts make for a sweet addition to any combination of choice, whether it is a pre-picked combo meal or a customized “value menu” meal. Considering the fact that the overall goal of a quick service restaurant is to appeal to everyone without breaking the bank on food costs, and the American diner is ravenous for meal customization, it would seem as though the sweet and savory selections of the value menu could replace entrees. However, in lieu of entrée replacements, these menu items are instead a canvas for menu innovation, a profit booster for vendors and an overall delicious complement to QSR menus.