Foodservice operators find the mealtimes they are a-changing.
Not so long ago nearly everyone was on the same page at mealtimes. People ate
breakfast, lunch and dinner at standard times and consumed mostly the same things. Between-meals eating, if not
officially frowned upon, was limited to occasional treats.
But that is obviously no longer the case. Harried office workers are often hard pressed
to find time for breakfast or lunch. Shift workers and the growing ranks of telecommuters eat on varied
schedules. To satisfy their needs, snacking, all-day breakfast, late-night eating and on demand takeout and
delivery are augmenting the main meal dayparts.
“We are finding consumers today are approaching meals and snacks with a very
different lens than at any other time in our history,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president, culinary
insights at the Hartman Group, a research company.
“What that means is there is a lot less commensality,” [eating together]
adds Abbott. “We are certainly not having breakfast together as much. Breakfast is absolutely on the go,
eaten in the car or on mass transit.”
Satisfaction in snacking
For millennials eating is largely unscheduled, with meals and snacks occurring
throughout the day, according to a report this year by the Private Label Manufacturers Association. Half of the
consumers have no set schedule for meals. Sixty-two percent snack throughout the day and 47 percent average four
or more snacks a day.
Millennials, with their much studied behavior, have influenced overall attitudes toward
snacking, which the Hartman Group says accounts for about half of all eating occasions. They consider snacking
to be everyday eating behavior, Abbott says, in contrast to the attitude of baby boom and Generation X consumers
who were brought up to consider snacks as infrequent treats. However, the consumers in the older cohorts are now
snacking much like their millennial counterparts.
Today, consumers expect snacks to be more than palate-pleasing, indulgent treats,
Abbott says. They increasingly demand “quality convenience” foods which reflect prevailing notions
of freshness, flavor trends, nutrient density and social responsibility which might have been found at
Call it a snack, a meal or what you will, convenient, high quality, globally inspired
food is increasingly available for those with unconventional lifestyles and work schedules. For example,
consider the two Breakfast Republic restaurants in San Diego, where 20- and 30-something foodies are key
customers. They are enthusiastic takers for dishes such as Breakfast Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese, Breakfast Hot
Dogs and Vietnamese Chicken Wing Breakfast Bowl, often accompanied with draft beer, wine or cocktails, which are
served beginning at 7 a.m.
“There is a line out the door every day,” says Breakfast Republic owner
Around the time when the majority of people are waking up and starting their days,
Engman says his customers may be ending theirs and craving a libation and something zesty from his breakfast
“They might work on Saturday and Sunday and be off on Tuesday and
Wednesday,” says Engman. “They might finish up that architecture job or that app they are working on
at 6 a.m., and say, ‘I’m done with my day. I’ll go have a beer now.’”
Changes in how Americans work and shop are negatively affecting lunch visits to
restaurants, according to the NPD Group. The research firm cited a 24 percent increase over the last decade in
the number of people working from home and an 8 percent increase over the last year in online shopping as
factors contributing to four quarters of consecutively steeper declines in foodservice lunch. In the quarter
ended June 2016, lunch visits declined by 4 percent versus the same quarter a year earlier, the steepest decline
of all main meal dayparts.
“When you work at home you are not as likely to go out for lunch,” says NPD
Group restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs. She adds that the “sticker shock” of menu prices
raised by operators to deal with higher labor costs, among other factors, is contributing to softer traffic.
At the same time lunch has been declining, the p.m. snack occasion has been increasing
strongly, with four consecutive quarters of growth in the 6 to 9 percent range. The data reveals that the snack
orders were mainly breakfast sandwiches, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and some burgers. “It was people
trading down, not getting a full meal, and calling it a snack,” says Riggs.
Late-night snacking, either at home or in restaurants, is also an evolving, alternative meal occasion.
“It is the 'me time' after a busy day,” Abbott says. “That is when you can unwind, watch
TV or sit at the computer and feed yourself whatever you think can ground you and provide some level of
SNACK: Millennials and older generations are snacking more frequently. Offer smaller portion sizes with
flavors that satisfy each age group.