A. Elizabeth Sloan

Little Bites Are Big Business
There’s no doubt that appetizers and mini-morsels are destined for long-term success. Sales in the frozen appetizer/snack category—which includes Buffalo wings, bagel-bites, and standard party hors d’oeuvre—doubled over the past five years and are projected by Packaged Facts to top $1.3 billion by 2006.

In chain restaurants last year, appetizers ranked third in new menu items, behind seafood entrees and desserts, according to Chain Account Menu Survey (CAMS). “Appetizers” have found a new niche as fun “dip-able” meals and heartier snacks for children and teens. And now, pre-appetizers—formally called amuses and once served only in high-end restaurants—are becoming standard restaurant fare.

Restaurants & Institution’s 2001 Menu Census confirms that chicken strips/fingers/tenders, chicken wings, onion rings, pasta/ravioli, nachos, quesadillas, crab cakes, and shrimp cocktail are America’s best-selling restaurant appetizers. While the list hasn’t changed much, the pace of innovation has. Poppable forms such as McDonald’s Pop-Its, KFC’s Shaker Popcorn Chicken, and Icelandic USA’s Buffalo Popcorn Fish are fast gaining in popularity. Breakbush Brothers’ boneless Chik’n Bursts put the dip inside the nugget; turkey, duck, dark meat chicken, fish/seafood, and ostrich morsels are creating competition; and wings, drumettes, and riblets are going boneless. Coatings and signature breadings, laced with bold flavors and blends, continue to add a competitive edge. Buttermilk and branded beer batters, like Tampa Maid’s Corona Shrimp, are back in vogue. Fish and veggie sticks, fried specialty cheese nuggets, fried stuffed pasta, and even giant fried stuffed olives are giving America’s favorite munchies a new lease on life.

Led by shrimp, seafood accounted for nearly one-third of new chain-restaurant appetizers. Popcorn, cold broiled, jumbo, and Mexican flavored shrimp options, like Longhorn Steak House’s Margarita Shrimp Cocktail served in a peppered rimmed Margarita glass, are some of the latest preparations, according to CAMS. Ceviche, calamari, mussels, and clams are gaining mainstream recognition. Caribbean crab cakes with jerk seasoning, lobster spring rolls, coconut shrimp, stuffed clams, giant calamari, and shrimp/crab fondues are other recent restaurant additions. Chefs are also showcasing one form plated with three different preparations, such as oysters—fried, smoked, and Rockefeller.

CAMS reports that Southwest/Mexican and Asian appetizers showed the next heaviest new menu activity. In addition to miniaturizing all types of Mexican fare, tapas and regional variations are attracting chefs’ attention. New quesadilla flavors include shrimp/avocado; Southern BBQ pulled pork, and chicken with a blend of spinach and artichoke hearts. Nachos are topped with specialty sausages, and quesadillas are filled with lobster or crab. Asian appetizers also continue to be popular, led by Claim Jumper’s new Salmon Spinach Rolls and Thai Lettuce Wraps.

Tempura ranked 14th on R&I’s Menu Census list of top menu gainers. The success of regional Italian dinner houses like Olive Garden is spawning another appetizer trend. According to CAMS, bruschetta topped the list of the most menued appetizers in that segment, offered by 69% of chains, followed by calamari 54%, mozzarella 46%, mushrooms 46%, shrimp 46%, mussels 38%, dips 30%, and anti-pasti 23%. Bruschetta was the most frequent new menu addition in fine-dining restaurants. R&I’s Menu Census reported that bruschetta was the most likely appetizer to be added, followed by antipasto, pizza, egg/spring rolls, grilled portobello mushrooms, and quesadillas.

While cheese has always had a major role in the appetizer segment, among pace-setting restaurants monitored by CAMS TrendSpotter program, goat cheese now is the single largest cheese offered on appetizer menus. Blue cheese is the single largest cow cheese, with applications ranging from homemade potato chips to blue cheese slaws. Including cheese brand names on menus, such as Maytag or Great Hill Bleu cheese, is another trend. With more than 160 artisan cheeses being produced in California alone and the increasing familiarity of ethnic cheeses, the potential for innovation is limitless. Parmesan is also gaining in menu prominence on appetizer menus.

Little classic tea sandwiches; retro appetizers such as steak tartare and escargot; novelty protein items like frog’s legs and alligator bites; and veggies in all combinations are gaining momentum. Artisan and signature breadsticks and dips; mini-toast points; focaccia sandwiches; mini-burgers; and grilled specialty cheese sandwiches are also among emerging favorites.

And these savory bites are beginning to find a new role in other categories and meal parts. Health Is Wealth is marketing Breakfast Munchies—egg whites, cheese, and ham in whole-wheat mini-pockets for breakfast, while creative restaurateurs are serving a host of mini-morsel appetizers with a shot glass of soup or a variety of mini-soup samplers.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.