Fast-feeders' offensive: go after snack attacks

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Americans are eating more snacks than ever before, and fast-feeders from Burger King to Arby's and McDonald's are quickly assembling menus to cash in on consumer cravings for impulse fare.

Mom's admonitions aside, eating between meals is big business. Americans are noshing on easy-to-eat snacks in restaurants to the tune of about $20 million, according to Harry Balzer, VP at NPD Group. On top of that, consumers ate some $30 billion in chips, cheese puffs, cookies and snack bars last year, according to the Snack Food Association.

With a recent survey showing that about 6% of fast-food sales were purchased as snacks in the first half, chains are hoping to up that ante with new lines. Burger King Corp. is the latest chain to launch a snack menu. The No. 2 burger chain this week rolls out from test an eight-item BK Cravers line that includes mozzarella sticks, jalapeno poppers and snack-size sandwiches. BK is using the new finger food line to reposition its Great Tastes value menu launched in 1998. Each Cravers item will be sold for 99› as a permanent menu addition positioned for everyday value.


The line will be supported with an estimated $12 million advertising push to include national TV, local radio and outdoor, and free-standing inserts.

The commercial, called "Hot Rod" was created by Bromley Group, San Antonio, the chain's Hispanic consumer agency. While the company wouldn't disclose details about the spot, they are said to focus on the "cravability" and value of the menu items. Cravers commercials by Lowe, Lintas & Partners Worldwide, New York, that ran in an earlier test market show a burger race across the screen followed by sauce.

The company realized the potential to grow its snack daypart last year during its launch of frozen Coke, aimed at taking away business from convenience stores. "We saw the opportunity to venture into snacks as convenience stores were getting customers during off-peak hours and consumers told us that we offer a clean, safe, inviting environment for a quick snack," said Dana Frydman, director-product marketing, Burger King. She wouldn't project sales for the snacks, but said that when in test markets, BK Cravers drew a "significant piece of incremental business."

That's not surprising when you consider the latest Quick-Track study by quick-service consultant Bob Sandelman & Associates. The poll of 2,400 fast-food users showed that fast-food purchases as snacks are steadily rising. In the first half of 2000, 6% of fast-food purchasers identified their purchases as a snack. That's up from 3.4% in '97.

Moreover, consumers are opting for choices other than traditional side items like french fries, onion rings and cole slaw. When asked what they ate as side items during their last fast-food visit, 7.8% of respondents cited non-traditional sides like poppers and buffalo wings. That "other" side item category was 3.2% of side items ordered in 1996.


Following its May debut, Arby's Sidekickers menu of three appetizers, including mozzarella sticks, onion petals and fried jalapeno bites, has accounted for about 6% of sales -- and 80% of Sidekickers' sales are incremental, according to Lloyd Fritzmeier, president of Arby's Franchise Association. "We're seeing more snack usage, dinnertime usage and add-on sales at lunch," he said. Ads for the Triarc Restaurant Group chain positioned the line as the same quality of snack offered in casual dining chains, rather than playing up the line's value price like Burger King does. Doner, Southfield, Mich., handles.

But snack sales are proving to be a challenge for fast-feeders to measure because they are viewed two ways: as a food and as an eating occasion. The frequency with which the average American has purchased an in-between meal snack at a restaurant remains unchanged since 1994. It gets more complicated to track as fast-food "snack items" are increasingly eaten as the main meal, said NPD's Mr. Balzer. The incidence of snack foods eaten as a meal at restaurants have increased 6% in the last 18 months, while the incidence of snacks consumed as snacks has dropped 4%. "The value of snacks is that they are easy food," said Mr. Balzer. "That's what Americans want for all their meals."


Other chains also are dabbling in snack menus to grow their morning and evening snack dayparts. McDonald's Corp. has tested desserts and cookies along with limited-time offers for such items as buffalo wings, but so far the chain hasn't introduced a permanent snack menu nationally.

Taco Bell Corp. and Wendy's International have also gone after impulse buyers, using the nighttime daypart to grow sales. Taco Bell spots by former agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., have touted the daypart with spots that carried the tagline, "It's late. Eat more." Wendy's began adding late-night reminder tags on its national advertising from Bates Worldwide, New York, in June.

Purchases after the main evening meal account for 2.2% of all dollars spent at restaurants, according to NPD Group research. When people do buy late-night snacks, 85% of sales are at fast-food chains -- and Mexican fast-food accounts for 3.3% of the 85%. In fact, late-night purchases have been on the rise at Taco Bell, said a spokeswoman, who added that 20% of its $5.2 billion in sales comes from purchases after 9 p.m. A majority of units are open until between 1 and 4 a.m., and some stores are open 24 hours.

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