Snacking Solutions

As millennials redefine what a snack is, operators try to satisfy customers while making snacks healthier.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

The 24Shop at University of Maryland.

There is no doubt that snacking is on the rise. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during the last 30 years, the number of snacks consumed by the average American has doubled, and the percentage of adults snacking on any given day has risen from 59% to 90%. The USDA’s research also concluded that snacks now contribute an average of 586 daily calories for men and 421 calories for women.

As FoodService Director talked with operators about the snacking habits of their customers, two trends emerged. First, millennials, particularly those on college campuses, are recreating the idea of what a snack is. Chips, pretzels and candy are no longer what students tend to consume when they gather in social or study settings. Instead, snacks are more often either appetizer-type items like chicken wings and mozzarella sticks or smaller portions of foods like sandwiches, wraps and salads.

Second, operators, who are concerned about contributing to the obesity of their customers, are looking for ways to provide healthier snacks so that they don’t lose out on those impulse purchases customers may make in cafeterias or out of vending machines.

On the following pages, we offer a few examples of how operators are responding to each of these trends.

Snacking in the early a.m.: The 24 Shop, a snacking location at the University of Maryland, in College Park, was opened this semester to complement the offerings of a nearby convenience store, says Joe Mullineaux, senior associate director of Dining Services. The unit is located in the lobby of 251 North, the newest resident dining hall on campus, and as the name implies the 24 Shop is open around the clock.

“We have a large convenience store, about a block away, that is open from 7:45 a.m. to 1 a.m.,” explains Mullineaux. “The students called it the InCon, because they didn’t think it was open enough hours to satisfy them. So we created the 24 Shop.

“Because we wanted to complement, rather than cannibalize, the convenience store, we concentrated on snack foods, and particularly foods people would want in the middle of the night,” he adds. “So while you can get cereal at the 24 Shop, it is an individual serving rather than a box.”

The menu includes chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, fries, ice cream and milkshakes, microwavable burritos and “everything imaginable that could go on a roller grill,” says Mullineaux. There also is a self-service espresso station as well as a fountain beverage island.

“We really thought our biggest daypart would be morning, because in that particular area of campus you have to walk about eight minutes to get food,” he notes. “But we found that our busiest time period is from midnight to 4 a.m. It is so busy that we had to add staff to do the cooking to keep up with the demand. It is so busy that we’ve actually had to go to other parts of the building to cook.”

In that four-hour time frame, Mullineaux says the 24 Shop can serve as many as 800 customers. The busiest nights are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“It is a social experience,” he says. “They’re coming in groups, they’re buying their snacks, they’re talking and they’re sharing foods.”

Adding to the popularity of the 24 Shop, particularly during the late-night hours, is its location. “From 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., to get in the door you have to be a resident and you have to swipe your card,” Mullineaux explains. “That makes it seem like it’s ‘their’ place and it’s special. I think that helps add to its popularity.”

Mullineaux, who is a graduate of the university and has worked in Dining Services for more than two decades, says he has witnessed the subtle shift in how students snack and what they choose as a snack.

“Snacking today is all about grazing,” he says. “Ten years ago, it was, ‘I’m going to go get a sub sandwich.’ Now, it’s ‘we’re going to get the chicken wings—in a variety of flavors—and mozzarella sticks and we’re going to share.’ They’re definitely choosing more appetizers and finger foods. Sushi is popular as a meal, but we’re also seeing sushi sharing as part of their snack habits.”

To emphasize his point, he tells of a recent experience he had at Adele’s, the university’s sit-down restaurant.

“I was in Adele’s when six girls sat down, and they all ordered off the appetizer menu,” he recalls. “While they were there they all had their laptops out and they were all doing their homework. Occasionally they would talk with each other, but they were all sharing from this communal snack table they had created in our restaurant. They were there for a long time and they just kept ordering appetizers.”

Chips remain a popular snack food at the 24 Shop; 15% of the 24 Shop is dedicated just to various types of chips.

“They’re also moving away from the pastry type of snacks,” he adds. Ten years ago, doughnuts were popular. Now, the spice level has increased and—sorry to say—so has the grease level. They definitely are looking for things that are greasy.”

Mullineaux also believes that the time of day affects student customers’ snacking choices.

“During the day students want to eat healthy,” he says. “They seem very dedicated to their studies and are very conscientious about their food choices. From 9 p.m., all that seems to go out the window as they begin socializing. You can get a salad at the 24 Shop at 3 a.m., but nobody does.”

The chips are down: At Georgia Tech University, in Atlanta, “the day of the bagged chips” as a snack food is over, according to Dori Martin, marketing manager for Sodexo at this 24,000-student urban campus.

“We just opened a new, LEED-certified dining hall called North Avenue, which is open 24 hours a day,” says Martin. “From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., what we are serving are pizza, pasta, chicken wings, wraps and grilled sandwiches. We also have a waffle station that has tons and tons of toppings that students eat as anything from a dessert to an early breakfast item.”

If this sounds more like meal service than snacks, Martin is quick to point out that portion sizes make these items more amenable to snacking.

“Our sandwiches are actually half a sandwich,” she says. “Wings come in various sizes; you can order just three of them if you want. During the day we make pasta dishes to order, but at night the pasta comes premade and served in ceramic containers.”

Martin adds that several types of foods that are available in the dining halls on a regular basis are packaged and sold at North Avenue late nights. Among these items are hummus and pita chips, tabbouleh salad and sushi.

Martin notes that part of the drive toward late-night snacking is the fact that “the breakfast meal has lost its thrill.”

“Instead of the three main meal parts being breakfast, lunch and dinner, they’ve become lunch, dinner and late night,” she suggests. “Eating at midnight to 2 p.m. can be a fourth ‘meal’ for students, but for many it’s the third meal.”

Even at small schools, such as 1,700-student Bowdoin College in Maine, late-night snacking is a big draw. One idea that came from students that has become a huge success for the department is Super Snack. Super Snack is a late-night dining option, open from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays Fridays and Saturdays.

Director of Dining Services Mary Lou Kennedy says Super Snack satisfies students’ desires for another opportunity to use their meal points. Super Snack offers simple snack foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, fruit, cheese and crackers, and cereal. Kennedy calls the late-night gatherings “incredibly communal.”

Marketing the healthy snack: Although millennials may be turning the idea of snacking on its ear, in most non-commercial markets health appears to be driving what people are snacking on—or at least what some companies are offering. A case in point is Parkhurst Dining Services, the Pittsburgh-based contract arm of the Eat ‘n’ Park Hospitality Group. A few years ago, Lenny DeMartino, the general manager for Parkhurst at health insurance provider Highmark, created a line of snacks he called HIP—Healthy Interruption Points. The line has been so successful that it is starting to be picked up by other Parkhurst B&I accounts.

“We took away candy bars and chips in 2004, at the request of the client,” explains DeMartino. “So we were challenged with how to capture additional sales. So we developed HIP.

“HIP foods are just some quick, healthier items we position throughout our café so that customers, while they’re waiting for their stir-fry, while they’re waiting for their chicken Parm, while they’re waiting in line at the cashier, can actually look at an item and grab it as an impulse buy,” says DeMartino. “We’ve targeted several locations where we know there are going to be lines.”

All items are packaged by Parkhurst employees in five- to six-ounce portions and sell for around $1.99. Among the items are sunflower seeds, Craisins, mixed nuts, dried fruits, granola and trail mixes, and sugar-free candies. Some items, such as the granola, are housemade, while other items are bought in bulk and packaged on site.

“We started with two or three items, and we now have 10 or 12 in our arsenal,” says DeMartino. “We get some guests who pick up a snack or two to eat later, and we have others who come in just for the healthy snacks. From a health standpoint, it makes Highmark happy. From the sales side, it’s a fantastic way to upsell.”

HIP items have gravitated down the street to the PNC 2 Tower, another Parkhurst account. Pattie Malloy, general manager of the PNC 2 Market, added HIP to the product mix in this 15-square-foot c-store. (PNC 2 Tower does not have a full-service cafeteria.) Other healthy snacks offered at this location are celery and carrot sticks, yogurt parfaits and hard-boiled eggs.

According to DeMartino, HIP snacks also are available at the Carnegie Museum and the Carnegie Science Center.

Up For Grabs: Another Pennsylvania foodservice contractor, Metz Culinary Services, has developed a similar snacking program geared toward healthier options. Called Up For Grabs, the highlight of the program is a twist on the typical parfait.

“We offer the typical breakfast parfaits with yogurt, but we also have these other snack items, served in parfait-style cups, that are actually layers of flavors, such as sliced brie with apples,” says Ryan McNulty, director of culinary development. “We have a rotating menu with up to 30 different varieties.”

Other healthy snacks include salads using exotic grains such as quinoa and spelt, served in three- to four-ounce portions. “We’ve given these a Mediterranean flavor profile, and we’re introducing some Moroccan spices as well,” says McNulty. Housemade granola bars also are popular, along with energy and protein bars, dried fruits and baked chips.

The vending equation: In school districts, snacking is a much thornier issue. Federal regulations, along with those in many states, are dictating what types of foods can be sold in school cafeterias. Vending machines, which are often controlled by school administrators rather than the foodservice directors, compound the problem because they are not always part of the new edicts.

Whitsons Culinary Group, based in Islandia, N.Y., is trying to bring the idea of healthy vended snacks to schools through an as-yet unnamed program.

“This is the way vending is headed,” says Michael Rota, vending services director for Whitsons. “We recently purchased some new refrigerated vending machines, and what we’re trying to do is introduce these machines into schools with some healthier items, things like sliced fruit, hummus and pita chips, yogurt, carrots with dipping sauce and hard-boiled eggs.”

Whitsons has placed the new machines in 17 school districts, all on Long Island, including Sachem, Commack and Manhasset. Rota says reaction to the new items has been mixed; on the one hand, he notes, kids like items like carrots and yogurt, but with the machines positioned next to ones with more traditional snacks the choice can be difficult to make.

“It’s a balancing act,” he explains. “We just started offering the products, and that’s the other challenge. Kids don’t hesitate to buy a bag of chips but sliced fruit? They’re not sure. They wonder, do I trust it? Does it taste good? Is the quality there?”

One way to make inroads, he adds, would be to do product samplings in the schools. That is sometimes more easily said than done.

“We’re trying to explore the whole tasting thing,” he says. “But in districts like Sachem, where they do their own foodservice, but we do the vending, we’re seen as competing with the foodservice program.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “the districts get a commission off our sales, so it’s in their best interest to promote the vending machines.”

Whitsons is not alone in trying to push healthier vended foods. Aramark’s Just4U vending program has a variety of products that meet certain healthful criteria, such as Cal Smart (300 calories or less), “Heart Healthy” (low in fats, cholesterol and sodium) and vegetarian. Canteen, a division of Compass Group North America, reports that at least 15% of the items in its traditional machines conform to basic healthful guidelines for calories, calories from fat and saturated fat, and sodium.

Two years ago, Canteen created a new line of vending machines, called 2bU. Considered a complement to Canteen’s Balanced Choices program, according to Laura Rengel, marketing manager for Canteen Vending, the machines offer the latest in nutrition, sustainability, technology and energy conservation.

“Canteen launched the 2bU program in September 2009 at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.,” says Rengel. “We started with three machines, and we’ve now got more than 400 out in the field.”

The targets for 2bU are colleges and universities, large corporate dining locations and healthcare accounts such as the Lehigh Valley Health Network, in eastern Pennsylvania, which installed 2bU machines this summer in all three of its hospitals

“The value proposition of the 2bU program and the machines is centered around wellness, sustainability and energy efficiency. From the wellness perspective, we really target certain dietary preferences,” she adds. “Products in the machines have no preservatives, no artificial flavors or sweeteners. The items are more wholesome and nutrient dense, and speak to a wide variety of dietary preferences, including gluten free, vegan, kosher, local and organic. They are going to be perceived as a little more high-end than what you would find in most machines. The great thing about 2bU is that it can live within traditional vending as well and be seen more as a premium destination.”

The 2bU machines sell only snacks and beverages, and both products and technology are aimed squarely at younger consumers, Rengel says.

“The graphics, as well as the technology, speak to the millennial population. There are interactive features that allow you to use your mobile phones with them, as well as touch screens that allow consumers to see all of the nutritionals for the products in the machines. So again, feeding that interaction and adding that element of choice, which is so important to millennials.”

Rengel adds that clients like the machines because of their environmentally friendly nature— all are Energy Star rated, use LED lighting and motion sensitive dimmers. All of the energy conservation elements provide a more holistic solution. Not only do the machines offer a wide selection of healthier items, but the machines also will provide nutritional information on each item.

Despite all of the inroads operators are making in vending, however, the concept of healthy snacking is still anathema to most consumers. According to the most recent State of the Vending Industry report from the National Automatic Merchandising Association, healthy snacks still rank low on the list of items being purchased from vending machines, far outstripped by such snacks as candy bars, potato chips, nacho chips and toaster pastries.