A. Elizabeth Sloan

There’s no doubt that small portions are going to be big business. American Culinary Federation chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Assn. in October 2007 named bite-sized desserts the hottest culinary trend for 2008, and tapas, small plates, and mezze were No. 4.

Simmons Market Research Bureau reports that more than one-third of adults (35%) said they were eating several small meals throughout the day in lieu of the traditional three squares in 2007, up from 22% in 2004.

Sales of 100-calorie portion packs jumped 42% for Y/E 9/9/07, and one-quarter of consumers now look for snacks with 100 calories or in single-serve portion packages, according to Information Resources Inc.

IRI’s 2007 Consumer Snacking Study found that watching portion size tops the list of parents’ strategies for kids’ snacks (63%). With 88% of parents saying that their children snack between meals, smaller portion sizes will be a big opportunity.

In addition, with Americans’ weight-control behaviors shifting away from specific diets and weight-loss plans to eliminating higher-calorie items, cutting back on the amount of food consumed, and paying more attention to portion size, 100-calorie packs, and miniaturized menu portions are right on target.

In 2007, the NPD Group reported that dieting was at its lowest level in 16 years. Moreover, the International Food Information Council’s 2007 Food & Health Survey found that reducing portion sizes was second only to increasing exercise as a way consumers were trying to lose or maintain weight; 69% used reduced-portion sizes to lose weight and 51% to manage weight.

The Hartman Group’s 2007 Pulse Report: Portion Control from a Consumer Perspective reports that 29% of consumers thought 100-calorie packages were worth the extra cost. However, price was still a barrier for 58% of those not buying portion packs; 33% felt that portion packs weren’t available for foods they’re most interested in, and some said that they “tasted different.”

T.G.I. Friday’s “Right Portion, Right Price” menu gives diners the option of a regular-sized portion or a portion that is 30% smaller for a lower price. Likewise, Quiznos offers Sammies, Wienerschnitzel has Chipotle Ranch Pupsters, and Bennigan’s menu includes Burger Bites and Chicken Minis. Despite the initial fear of smaller checks, restaurant sales of miniaturized menu items are soaring.

According to Harris Interactive, 82% of consumers prefer to dine at restaurants with various portions sizes, and nearly half (47%) of diners plan to order more small portions in 2008. According to the Oct. 29, 2007, issue of Nation’s Restaurant News, most chains report strong sales of mini sandwiches.

Smaller portion sizes align perfectly with the trend toward restaurant-sourced snacks. NPD/CREST reports that more than half of restaurant sales growth in 2007 came from the afternoon snacking daypart and that 23% of all snacks came from a restaurant last year. Traffic in restaurants that sell snacks during non-meal dayparts was up 5% for Y/E September 2007, following a 4% increase the previous year, according to NPD/CREST.

Smaller portions fit perfectly into the current “value trend,” critically important at a time when economic pressures are preventing some consumers from visiting restaurants as frequently as they did in the past. NPD/CREST reports that visits among the heaviest restaurants users—and snackers—(those ages 18–24) fell 3% per capita last year and 6% per capita among those ages 25–34.

With diners seeking more excitement and adventure in eating and especially younger diners expressing an interest in trying new foods, small portions permit patrons to taste a variety of culinary treats and to customize their sampling. They’re also well suited for sharing with family and friends, another fast-emerging diner demand. And with treating oneself still the No. 1 reason to dine out in 2007, according to Mintel Menu Insights Group, miniature tasting flights and samplers are an economical way to go gourmet.

Mini portions have also demonstrated an ability to bring back desserts. In 2007, only 14% of all restaurant orders included a dessert, according to NPD/CREST. Darden’s Seasons 52 chain offers 3-oz mini indulgent desserts for $2.25 each. Chili’s Bar and Grill introduced Sweet Shots ranging from 220–310 calories each and including a Seven Layers of Chocolate shot.

Smaller portions have greater appeal among women and older consumers, who traditionally have been more likely to order appetizers as a meal. NPD/CREST reports a per capita restaurant visit increase for those age 65 and above in 2007.

With singles and empty nesters now the largest U.S. household unit at 98 million strong, single-serve, dual-pack, and portionable/take-what-you-need packaging will remain in high demand.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor 
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif. 
[email protected]