Restaurant snacks a bargain for diners

Golfers Ben Curtis, Mark O'Meara enjoy dim sumHave you noticed lately how the snacks section of a restaurant menu is getting bigger and bigger? The small-sized portions are apparently the hottest things sizzling up the restaurant industry. They are cheap, don't leave you feeling stuffed and guilty and are available at hours outside of strict meal times.

The phenomenon spans from fast food to the fine-dining sector. McDonald's expanded its popular Snack Wrap recently and chains such as Kona Grill are also focusing on it. The Cheesecake Factory recently debuted its first-ever happy hour menu, which includes 16 full-sized appetizers for $5.00.

The chain also has a 'Small Plates & Snacks' menu "to provide new ways for our guests to have a great Cheesecake Factory-quality dining experience without busting their budget," said Mark Mears, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, in an e-mail. The 'Small Plates & Snacks' menu, which includes more than 20 items priced from $3.95-$6.95, has been well received by diners and the company has seen incremental sales as a result of the menu, Mears said.

But budget-conscious diners is just one of the reasons contributing to the trend. A study released in March by food service research firm Technomic shows that many consumers are replacing meals with snacks. "There appears to be growing interest among consumers in more frequent, smaller meals," said Erik Thoresen, director, product innovation. "Restaurants have taken notice and are working to meet this growing need."

Since 2007, snack items skyrocketed 170%. According to Mintel, a market intelligence firm, it's a trend that will continue. It's probably one of the few ways that the restaurant industry can fight the still-painful economy.

"By innovating menus with various snacking options, restaurants can boost sales throughout the day and drive guest traffic during non-peak hours," said Eric Giandelone, director of food service research at Mintel in a release.

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