Why do consumers love starters, snacks and small plates?

Sharing plate

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Restaurant owners looking to draw in more customers and maximise their spending need to look to the little things, according to recent industry research on menu trends. Several studies on the UK eating out industry suggest that starters, snacks and small plates are very much in vogue with consumers, who are looking for increased variety, flexibility and customisation.

Whereas in the past, restaurants attempted to maximise their profits predominantly through serving elaborate and expensive main courses, this is all changing as more and more people are responding positively to menus allowing them to try a little of a lot of different dishes. As Big Hospitality reports, restaurants and food outlets are in fact lowering the price of main courses and instead boosting consumer spending through offering an increased number of starters, snacks and small plates. According to the latest Horizons Menu Trends Report, the number of snack dishes in UK restaurants has risen by an impressive 60 per cent each year.

In this period, the average price of main courses dropped by 2.1 per cent, standing at approximately £10.71 for a dish. This loss is more than compensated for, however, by the proliferation of small plates that are becoming increasingly popular everywhere from hotels to pubs.

But why is it that consumers love snacks, small plates and starters so much? Nicola Knight, Horizons analyst, says that this trend is due in part to the fact that consumers are increasingly demanding a flexible dining experience, wanting to eat “what they want, when they want”.

The success of small plates

Industry authority Technomic recently conducted a study on the rising trend that shows that 38 per cent of consumers say they order appetizers on most or all restaurant visits. In identifying how they order these dishes, Technomic found an equal split of 33 per cent eating small plates as a starter to a meal and a further 33 per cent as a main meal. Respondents also said that 14 per cent of the small plates they ordered were eaten as a snack, and 19 per cent as side dishes.

Technomic infographic

Large franchise restaurants such as Zizzi are taking note of the trend. Italian restaurants across London, such as Polpo, Tinello and Bocca di Lupo, have seen an increase in customer visits due to their unique and appealing cichetti menus, offering Italian tapas dishes to taste. Now, Zizzi is the first UK restaurant chain currently rolling out a specialist cichetti (small plates) menu across their extensive estate after a successful trial at three of its restaurants in Charlotte Street, Central St. Giles and Banstead.

The success of small plates lies in a variety of factors. Technomic explains, “consumers who have been purchasing small plates more often over the past year are largely motivated by health factors, with most doing so to eat healthier (61 percent) or avoid heavy foods (55 percent).”

However, the reasons consumers gravitate towards small plates are not always what proprietors might expect: “While operators tend to push small plates as shareable appetizers or tapas-style entrées, consumers tend to see them more as value-oriented, healthfully positioned meals that can be consumed for any mealpart. Operators can rely on the flexibility and appeal of small plates to strike a chord with consumers on several fronts.”

Sharing plates on the up

Sharable dishes, though, have also been subject to an industry boom. Allegra Foodservice reports that sharing plates have become an ‘established trend’ among restaurants, providing a refreshing alternative to the starters, mains and desserts segmentation of traditional menus. Lars Eriksen, writing for The Guardian, explains this from a consumer’s perspective:

“These days, when I'm presented with a menu that invites me to pick a starter, main and dessert, I often end up choosing three dishes from the starter section.” He continues, “The most quirky and inventive bits of a menu are almost always to be found among the starters, while mains feel like little more than bulky obstacles.”

Consumers are looking for restaurants and eateries that offer sharable dishes largely because of the social element they offer. But even among more conventional menus, flexible mix-and-match options are becoming more popular. The Horizons Menu Trends Report of summer 2016 indicates that “the proportion of side orders offered is now 18.2%, compared with 17.1% this time last year”, suggesting that the added extras are becoming more and more an integral part of the dining experience.

Chefs inspired by street food

Allegra Foodservice also identifies street food as a ‘hot trend’ in the market. As consumers become more culturally aware, more well-travelled and more open to sampling truly local flavours, street food is becoming touted as the marker of authenticity for world food. It also offers a similar level of choice, flexibility and convenience that small plates do; serving as ‘fast’ food that remains high quality and healthy.

Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares is one outlet that has taken on the street food trend. Their new bar snack menu features five small plates, each of which is created by a different chef in the kitchen to reflect the street food speciality of their own Indian home town. Dishes such as Grilled Curry Leaf Seabass (a classic Goan dish) and Pickled Prawn with Crispy Rice Pani Puri (a Mumbai speciality) are on offer alongside their normal menu and are anticipated to appeal to consumers looking to try many different tastes at once.

Consumers calling for customisable snacks

Aside from speed and variety, the key motivator in these developments is customisability. In their article instructing hospitality professionals on how to upsell effectively, The Caterer advises that food outlets offer a wide selection of small snacks and options, from portion sizes to side dishes.

They claim: “The old tricks are still as valid as ever too - offer different sizes and portions to make sure there's something for everyone; always have an appropriate accompaniment with main courses at an extra price – e.g. garlic bread with pasta and onion bhajis with curry.”

The fashion for flexible food is also growing within the retail sector. As New Food reports, “today’s consumer expects healthy, nutritious food with added elements such as design, pleasure and even playfulness.” As choice expands, customers constantly expect yet more options to be available. New Food cites 3D printing as a likely venture for the future, where vending machines would allow consumers to produce their own customisable snacks, altering the textures of items in a “layer-by-layer manufacture of various structures, from crispy to soft gels that produce a distinctive mouthfeel.”

Evidently, the little details that make consumers feel empowered in their food choices are just as important as impressive main courses and gastronomic innovation. Starters, small plates and snacks are only going to become more vital in the restaurant industry as consumers become increasingly aware of the health benefits of eating light, and seek more variety. Whether it be high-tech food printing or the more simple principles of choice and customisation, it is clear that these small dishes should no longer be viewed as simple accompaniments to a menu, but the building blocks of it.