Afternoon Menus: Between the Lines – US Food Trends

09 July 2008
Afternoon Menus: Between the Lines – US Food Trends

With solid planning, afternoon menus can help full-service restaurants capture the snack market.

This article first appeared in the 1 June 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Scott Hume, Editor-in-Chief

When consumers in Granite Bay, Calif., go looking for an afternoon snack, their options aren't limited to McDonald's Snack Wraps or Wendy's new Chicken Go Wraps. At Hawks restaurant, the afternoon-menu choices include green-bean beignets with lemon-garlic aïoli for $5 and an artisan-cheese board for $14.

Molly Hawks, who owns the restaurant with husband and fellow chef Michael Fagnoni, says the afternoon menu has been growing in popularity because it synchs with consumers' busy lifestyles, which often result in skipped or delayed meals. And at a time when operators fight for every possible customer, the mini-meal menu also makes business sense.

"We would never want to be in a position of telling someone, at whatever hour, that we have no food for them," Hawks says.

Hawks is hardly alone in catering to consumers' 24/7 eating habits. Afternoon and late-night menus share space with those for traditional meal occasions at many full-service restaurants, and the number in their league has grown since Taco Bell christened later-evening snacks as "fourthmeal."

Fast-casual chain Einstein Bros. Bagels recently began testing a $3.99 Snack-Out Menu between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., offering Bagel Burgers and wraps as well as already-menued pizza bagels and bagel dogs.

"If we get 15 people between lunch and dinner, that's not a lot, but it's more than we would have had if we offered nothing" in the afternoon, says Ellen Yin, owner of Fork in Philadelphia.

Fork's Midday Menu, available between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, includes hummus with kalamata olives and pita ($6.50), herb-roasted pulled-chicken salad ($11) and baby back ribs with honey-hoisin glaze and Asian slaw on the side ($11).

A Place to Drop By
Many of the new afternoon menus differ from traditional happy-hour or lounge menus in their focus on foods that are meant to be small meals rather than mere complements to cocktails. And although some of the customers drawn to midday menus may visit primarily to drink, the clientele is varied.

"The [midday] customers are not the same as the lunch or dinner crowds," says Yin. "We get a lot of tourists who maybe forgot about lunch and a few regulars who are traditional late eaters. But we also get people who are looking for a place to get together for a meeting or just to share a light meal."

These guests are likely to order a glass of wine or two, but that's not the purpose of the get-together, Yin says.

The dinner menu at LarkCreekSteak in San Francisco offers a 14-ounce prime New York strip steak for $44.95 and a 16-ounce, 28-day-dry-aged prime rib-eye priced at $51. Portions and prices are smaller on the bar menu, available between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., where an 8-ounce Angus filet mignon is priced at $36.95 and a steakburger and fries is $13.95.

There's little cannibalization of dinner business, says general manager Michael Kapash, because "afternoon guests often are a different crowd" that LarkCreekSteak did not want to exclude. "We wanted to be that place where people could drop by in the afternoon and grab a great burger. And we've been successful capturing that market. We added a few smaller cuts of steak for those who wanted that, but mostly they come for the steakburger."

Serving Multiple Masters
Of course, that means staff needs to be available to cook and serve the steakburgers. Losing the traditional down time between lunch and dinner requires front- and back-of-the-house adjustments and planning, operators who have all-day service agree.

"It's certainly easier to shut your doors and say we're going to reopen for dinner in two-and-a-half hours," Kapash says. "But we tried not to reinvent the wheel. The [afternoon] menu typically consists of items that are on both our lunch and dinner menus, so the mise en place is there anyway."

On weekdays, a bartender may be able to provide all the service needed to attend to afternoon diners. On weekends, when shoppers stop by in the afternoon, lunch servers stay late or the dinner-service crew arrives early, Kapash says.

The temptation to "reinvent the wheel" by overcomplicating an afternoon menu can be strong, says John Gress, general manager of RED, a restaurant that recently opened in Pacific Palms Conference Resort in Industry Hills, Calif. "We have a lot of masters to serve: golfers who might be beginning or ending a round, business people having a quick meeting, resort/spa guests and destination diners from the surrounding area. It's a diverse clientele, all of whom are looking for something light and quick to eat."

In designing the menu, "we first came up with ideas about what we wanted, and we came up with all sorts of items," says Gress. But looking at the proposed lounge menu alongside lunch and dinner menus revealed the flaw. "We said, ‘Wait a minute. We have too many dishes [on the lounge menu] that only use such and such ingredients.' We could have 30 dishes that didn't use ingredients we have on hand for lunch or dinner.

"We didn't want similar-tasting foods, certainly, but we needed to have similar ingredients so we didn't overwhelm the kitchen," he says. Among the items on RED's afternoon/lounge menu are three styles of chicken wings (teriyaki, sweet chile and Szechuan BBQ) priced at $9; steak or chicken nachos with jalapeÁ±o-Jack cheese and roasted-tomato salsa and guacamole ($10); and a Kobe burger with crispy sesame shallots, avocado and wasabi cream cheese or mango salsa ($14).

Molly Hawks says her restaurant "eased into" offering an afternoon menu to minimize demand on kitchen staff. Hawks offered dinner only when it opened in Aug. 2007; it later added lunch service. But people came between the two set meal periods and "asked for more small plates" that could be shared, she says.

As a result, chicken wings that previously were saved for stock became Spicy Hawks Wings in the afternoon (served with Danish blue cheese and celery). Macaroni and Gruyère cheese with brioche breadcrumbs sells well as a shareable mini meal.

"The cooks are good with [the afternoon menu] now because they know what they have to prepare," says Hawks. "It's a challenge, but they also can be a little more playful with what's on that menu."

When dinner service begins, having an attractive afternoon/lounge menu can be a help, Hawks says, by allowing guests who might not have waited for a table to be seated at the bar or on the patio.

"It can be disruptive, sure," concedes Fork's Yin. "Especially on weekends. But we make it work."

The Lobbyists
A decade a ago, hotels focused attention on enhancing their restaurant concepts-often by bringing in outside chefs or management companies-to help entice guests to stay "home" for dining. Consumer dining habits are changing again and the availability of a white-tablecloth restaurant in a hotel isn't enough, especially when snacks or small meals are what diners increasingly seek.

Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International is rethinking its hotels' lobbies, bars and other public spaces with an eye to providing the dining services and styles guests want and improving unit economics. "Part of our effort to reinvent our lobbies is providing food-and-beverage service throughout the area," says Matthew Von Ertfelda, Marriott vice president for food and beverage. "The space has been redesigned with furniture that is conducive to guests who want to conduct business, work on their computer or gather in small groups for business or social purposes. And in concert with that, we wanted an F&B strategy that allowed us to get food to all areas of our reinvented public spaces."

Marriott day/night lobby bar
Marriott day/night lobby bar
The linchpin to the program is Marriott's "5,10,20" menu-an array of foods that can be served in 5, 10 or 20 minutes to guests in lobby and lounge spaces. Five-minute items include hummus, pita and celery; an antipasti tray of salami, cheese and olives; and hot soup and a baguette. Guests willing to wait 10 minutes can order spicy Rhode Island-style calamari; Thai chicken skewers with sweet-chile dipping sauce or a Sonoma Jack and Cheddar quesadilla with guacamole and salsa. The 20-minute choices range from pan-roasted salmon to grilled skirt-steak salad.

"Everything is presented on bamboo trays-it's speedy service but there's a European cafe-service feel to it; there's no compromise in quality," says Von Ertfelda. "It's good food, not just quickly prepared food."

A newly designed menu of signature cocktails, with offerings such as a Pomegranate Ginger Martini and a South Beach Mojito, complements the food.

Marriott also is converting lobby bars-which too often are dark during the daytime-into day/night bars, with graphics panels that rotate to provide appropriate atmosphere for breakfast service and evening cocktails. "They go from a.m. comfort to p.m. cool," Von Ertfelda says.

Marriott initially worried that offering the 5,10,20 small plates would cannibalize business in its full-service restaurants, but it has found that the opposite has happened. "By focusing more attention on the design of the bar and adding food-and-beverage offerings throughout the public space, we've created a more high-energy atmosphere that increases footfalls to the bar and from there to the adjacent restaurant," he says.

"Putting more focus on food and beverage creates a more meaningful experience for guests and makes economic sense for [hotel] owners."

Dessert First
Sometimes a between-meal dessert really is what sounds best, and operators are catering to consumers' afternoon and late-night sweet tooth as well.

The snack menu at The Violet Hour in Chicago includes curried crispy-rice squares along with Cheddar-walnut icebox cookies and spiced nuts for $6. Midday snacks at Atlanta's TAP gastropub include chorizo, chocolate and extra-virgin olive oil on toast. The 12-unit Insomnia Cookies chain, born of founder-CEO Seth Berkowitz's dissatisfaction with late-night snack choices, recently opened a store in New York City after concentrating on college-campus locations.

Patty Rothman, who opened cupcake bakery-cafe MORE in Chicago last month, says she is perfecting the perfect snackfood.

"Cupcakes are all-day indulgence," says Rothman, who has worked with Pastry Chef Gale Gand on MORE's recipes. "Everybody loves cupcakes. They fit in your hand and they're not a whole cake, so you can have one or a dozen."

Recognizing that consumers are eating mini meals throughout the day, Rothman and Gand developed an array of choices that they feel will find audiences at all hours. Breakfast choices include cinnamon buttermilk, blueberry sour cream and apple spice. Savory varieties for lunch or afternoon noshing include Parmesan rosemary; Roquefort, pear and port; and corn, bacon and maple cupcakes.

"It's trite, but cupcakes are happy foods," says Rothman. "Now they're going upscale."

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