The recent recession did more than adjust people’s spending habits – it also changed how and when they eat. The days of three strictly observed standard meals are now past. As a result, snacking and off-peak food service continue to emerge as growth opportunities for restaurants.
Because of financial tightening, more consumers have focused on deals and smaller purchases, including for their food. They’re ordering less during main meals – which can make them hungrier during the day. This makes them graze and snack more often, as well as eat during non-traditional hours.
According to Technomic’s 2012 Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, 48 percent of consumers are snacking at least twice a day, up from 25 percent in 2010. As restaurants have adapted to this trend, their share of the snack market has increased from 17 percent in 2010 to 22 percent today.
Thirty-seven percent of consumers have broadened their definition of snack to include a wider variety of food and beverages. Sixty-two percent admitted that snacks are typically an impulse purchase as well.
According to the 2015 Restaurant Industry Forecast, operators would likely find a receptive audience for off-peak offerings, particularly if it came with a discount. Building business during the off-peak periods could pay dividends for limited-service operators, particularly if there were pricing differences. In fact, 77 percent of adults – including 85 percent of millennials – say they would be likely to go to a restaurant during off-peak times if they received a discount.
If you plan to capitalize on off-peak demand, your aim will be to increase traffic without detracting from peak-hour sales.
Morning and mid-afternoon
A sales opportunity during the morning breakfast hours is to offer smaller food items such as fresh fruit, trail mixes and bagel bites for later snacking. Many people will eat these snacks before or after lunch or in place of lunch.
Downtime between lunch and dinner provides another chance to augment daily sales. Many operators identify 2 p.m. as being close to a big snacking hour. Some fast-casual or quick-service restaurants such as Sonic and Cici’s Pizza will also offer discounted specials from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. to stimulate off-peak traffic.
Many restaurateurs are finding the greatest off-peak opportunity to reside in the late afternoon, especially during Happy Hour (typically 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.).
The late-afternoon window offers consumers a chance to dine out while remaining budget conscious. Happy Hour-only menus including specially priced cocktails, small plates and appetizers are common.
Happy Hour can serve as a bridge to dinner hours as well. The post-recession economic shift has made many restaurants the new bar. More consumers are remaining at one location rather than moving around, making restaurants destinations for a full night out.
Late-night post-dinner dining represents yet another potential infusion of revenue for restaurants. The key to success is operating within the right context, as late-night crowds can differ significantly from the rest of the day’s customers.
Later diners will often visit your restaurant to extend the night. A good percentage may tend to be younger (18 to 24) and look for a different experience or atmosphere from those who dine during typical dinner hours. Your late-night customers may be arriving from a party, a show or a concert, or a night of libations. To appeal to this group, you’ll want your restaurant to be fun, ambient and affordable during these hours.
Restaurateurs will often switch to a simpler late-night menu at around 10 or 11 p.m. The menu might feature more snacks, small plates, appetizers and value-focused food that can be shared.
Other restaurants use the time slot to feature fine cuisine or a balanced meal. A late-night menu can reflect items not offered during dinner or scaled-back versions of a chef’s sophisticated style.
The late-night crowd will still expect good service. Consider your atmosphere too. Some restaurants adjust the lighting or play different music. Others – such as Buzz bakery-café in Alexandria, Virginia – offer board games to encourage customers to have fun and linger. You can make your restaurant a late-night destination.
Once you set your late-night hours, adhere to them. Don’t close early or change them without notice at the risk of alienating customers.
For late-night staffing, assign those who have the stamina and don’t mind the hours and the type of crowd.
Stick to your strategies
Building an off-peak customer base takes time, effort and patience. Accommodate your customers with the right food choices according to their schedules, budgets, preferences and lifestyles. Step up your marketing and publicity efforts. Build awareness and word-of-mouth through your website, your menus and social media.
You can add to your profit margin if you connect with off-peak diners correctly. You might also wind up making them regular customers during other daily meals.