The numbers don’t lie. The restaurant industry has seen 8 consecutive months of decreased sales.

The cause: consumer behavior. Meal kit options like BlueApron are taking a bite out of the market and grocery store prices are dropping substantially. Guests are dining out less, especially during certain meal time frames, like lunch.

NRN reports, “According to the The NPD Group, visits to restaurants during snack occasions rose 3 percent in the year ended September 2016. Meanwhile, visits to restaurants at lunch fell 2 percent. Breakfast slowed, growing just 1 percent, and dinner was flat.”

If they’re not eating lunch, what are they eating?

There’s good news and bad news to this lunch time decline. The good news is that consumers are in fact still looking to restaurants for a “meal” during typical lunch-time hours (don’t send home your lunch time staff just yet!). The bad news: they have pretty specific desires. They want snacks.

In 2016, NDP reports that “afternoon snacking” is the strongest-performing meal occasion.

We’ve seen this before, though. Consumers in 2013 reported snacking 30% more than they did a year ago. What’s different? In 2013 they admitted to snacking on fruit and granola. Not exactly a staple ingredient on everyone’s menu. Now, however, lunch is on the “snack menu.”

Snacking used to be defined as what you ate out of a bag or something you did quickly, usually alone. Today, consumers are redefining what it means to snack.

Why the shift?

As with all good things, blame the millennials and technology. In an interview last year, Food Navigator reported, “It used to be that everyone was an 8  to 5 consumer and had their breakfast and lunch and then came home from work and had dinner.” Technology and the way we work allows us to be flexible, and with that in mind consumers want their meals to be flexible, too.

Add that to the fact that millennials especially are not “defining” meals by food groups (coffee is an all-day meal option) and the new definition of meals and “snacks” comes to life.

Putting “snacks” on the menu.

While consumers are not eating lunch in the traditional sense as often, NDP reports that they are still eating “lunch foods.” It’s not the meal, but the menu.

“… the menu item ordered most often as an afternoon snack was a burger. Chicken sandwiches were also among the items most often ordered as an afternoon snack, along with traditional snack favorites such as French fries, potato chips, candy/candy bars and cookies.”

snack menu burgers

For restaurants, meeting consumer demands can be the difference between success and failure. In this case, meeting consumer demands, luckily, does not have to mean changing your entire menu.

Some restaurants are opting for menus that offer smaller portions, others are repositioning and promoting different items on their existing menu. This could explain why small plates are such a big trend right now.

It turns out that you don’t have to build an “all-day snack menu” to keep up, but instead shift your current thinking a bit. Perhaps the answer is in server training. For some, it could be as simple as reframing the menu during what is traditionally “lunch”. For others, it may be about coaching servers to meet consumer demand by pointing out items that are “snack-worthy” on the existing menu.

No matter what you call it, snacking isn’t going anywhere that’s for sure.


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In a perfect world, Theresa would spend her days reading good books and writing all the time... and she'd own all the shoes her heart desired. When she's not on the hunt for shoes, you can find this Rhode Island transplant on the hunt for food that comes close to "Long Island". Her favorite? Caffe Dolce Vita in Providence's historic Federal Hill.