A. Elizabeth Sloan

It’s a great time to be in the food business. Anything goes, and portion size is no exception! To some, big is simply best. Hearty portions are back, meat is “in,” and fried foods have never floundered. For others, bigger may be better, but balance is best and nutritional completeness is compelling. And, then again, less is often more, sending “small plate meals,” tasting menus, mini-sandwiches, and shareable portions soaring!

The days of pigeon-holing consumers as indulgent, healthy, or basic eaters are over. The truth is, we each have a little part of all of them in us. Meeting these spontaneous demands has triggered a new generation of product portions that promises strong sales and sustainable appeal.

Consumers are thinking big, and restaurants are responding. Denny’s features its Grand Slams and Signature Skillets. The Chicken Fajita Skillet contains two fried chicken steaks, a two-egg omelet, potatoes, peppers, onions , mushrooms, and more. Jack-in-the-Box has Monster Tacos, Wendy’s offers “Biggie” fries and McDonalds™ features the Big Xtra. Burger King™ is expanding its indulgent menu items. Its new X-treme double cheeseburger—with one-half pound of beef—is “monstrously huge” and “obscenely loaded with cheese.” So big, the sign says, that its picture is continued on the next window!

Heartier does mean meatier, too. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports meat consumption up 3.5% in 1999, for the first time in 20 years. Technomic, Inc., Chicago, tallied 1999 casual steakhouse sales up 21.5%, while hearty braised and roasted meats captured the gourmet sandwich market.

Use of fried foods is soaring. USDA statistics show that fried foods were unaffected by the nutrition revolution. French fries are still the top-selling restaurant item, fried options dominate appetizer menus, and—with the exception of fine dining and hotels—fried is still the preparation of choice for seafood. From wontons, tempura, and egg rolls to tostadas and empanadas, frying has accelerated our acceptance of ethnic foods. The Food Marketing Institute’s survey shows a further decline of concern for fat from 65% in 1995 to 46% in 2000, so fried goodies are likely to stay strong.

But fried foods are changing, adding bolder flavors. Using ingredients associated with Ranch and Cajun styles, fried foods are spiked with flavor. McCain Foods offers cracked black pepper, Jalapeño Fire, and Gusto Garlic fries. Tampa Maid Foods, Lakeland, Fla., boldly flavors its marinated/breaded New Orleans shrimp. Equally important are contemporary dipping sauces, like chipotle, tamarind cashew, sweet hot chili, and house firecracker varieties. Fried foods are also adding crunch to traditional meals. Fried chicken tenders are a tasty addition to salad. Many restaurants now serve fried shellfish as part of their “surf and turf.” Mixing fried items is key. For example, seafood salads may feature fried calamari, shrimp, artichokes, and mushrooms tossed with olives, tomatoes, and a zesty vinaigrette. There’s also a movement to equate fresh/healthy with fried. The use of coconut batters or fruit garnishes or topping fried dishes with roasted vegetables or peppers suggests that these fried goodies have redeeming qualities. Lightness is key, with many restaurants serving coconut-crusted, tempura, and lighter house-style battered options.

While bigger is still better, another large group of more-health-conscious shoppers are looking for greater balance and nutritional convenience in food. According to Brett White, Brand Manager of Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine—who launched the brand’s “Hearty Portions” line a few years ago, consumers have started to look for larger but more nutritionally complete meal alternatives.

Overwhelmed by nutritional controversies, consumers are are returning to eating more like the “Basic 4,” and a full serving from the fruit/vegetable group—included in all of Stouffers’ 12 SKU Hearty Portions line—is key, according to White. It’s apparently working, as he reports that this strong trend has boosted recent sales by 25%! Stouffer’s offers both complete-meal and single-serve options, hoping to capitalize on the concurrent schizophrenia between larger- and smaller-portion health-directed trends.

So maybe part of the world is getting smaller. Interest is growing in small plate meals, menus designed for grazing, and hearty individual mid-afternoon snacks. Individual downsized portions, mixed appetizers on one plate, or portions-to-share dominate.

Offering mini-sandwiches as an afternoon snack is quickly gaining in popularity. Small Panini, crustless Italian cocktail sandwiches—tremezzini—and mini-flatbread sandwiches with gourmet trimmings are enjoying great “grab and go” success. Roulades and pinwheel bread/cheese and bread/meat circular tidbits are popular, too. Literally, a coffee cup of soup and a mini-sandwich are strong lunchtime contenders, especially for working women—now half of all lunchtime away-from-home diners—according to NPD Group/Crest. The latest vehicle for packaging great food is the cone, made from potatoes, tortillas, pastry or pizza dough, cradling everything from chicken salad to stir-fried delights. Witness Taco Bell’s chalupas, whose creative edible packaging clearly ensures long-term success.

So it boils down to this: Whether big or little, healthy or not, the opportunity for portion-size–driven products has never been greater. The trick is to find what motivates your customer at what particular time of day, and provide it conveniently with great taste.

Contributing Editor