US: Food marketers adapt to eat-what-I-want-when-I-want trend
The idea of a normal day being breakfast, lunch and dinner is a myth. Desserts are now eaten any time, sometimes even before breakfast. Lunch and dinner are increasingly combined into "linner" - this eat-what-I-want-when-I-want trend is changing some of the biggest names in food — from McDonald's to Kraft to Kellogg to Dunkin' Brands. Most have turned their new product labs and test kitchens on their heads. It's no longer about inventing the next big meal, but about concocting the next big snack.
EVERY COMPANY THAT makes or serves food in America has had to digest the same reality: We've become a nation of really weird eaters.
We eat what we want, when we want. No more of this breakfast, lunch and dinner stuff. We snack all day. We casually skip meals. And we want to customize everything we cram into our mouths. It's as if our social-media habits are going right to our stomachs.
A culture hungry to put its personal stamp on everything it touches is driving some foodmakers and restaurant operators bonkers. At the same time, it's offering all kinds of opportunities to those willing to sprint ahead of the food curve. Nowhere is this trend more palpable than with Millennials.
"Eating weird is the new normal," says Shawn LaPean, executive director of Cal Dining at the University of California- Berkeley, which serves students 30,000 times daily. "If students eat any square meals per day, it might be one. The rest is filled with snacks and food on the go."
These may seem like quirky, student eating habits, but they're evolving into lifetime traits. The numbers are mind-boggling. At least 35% of the meals eaten by Millennials aren't meals at all, but snacks, reports consultancy The Kruse Company. Four in 10 Millennials snack more than once daily, reports research firm Technomic. And only 5% of all consumers eat three square meals a day, says Technomic.
At Cal, fewer than 3-in-10 students are on its all-you-can-eat meal plan, vs. more than half a decade ago. But the clearest indication of our cultural meal confusion may be this: More than 30% of all cereal is eaten for meals other than breakfast, Kellogg says.
"The idea of a normal day being breakfast, lunch and dinner is a myth," says Ron Paul, president of Technomic.
Perhaps that's why 20% of the cookies and apple pies sold by McDonald's are at breakfast — and why one of its biggest "limited time" product roll-outs in 2012 won't be a burger, but McBites, a popcorn-size chicken snack. It's why Dunkin' Donuts sells gobs of Chicken Salad sandwiches at 9 a.m. And why half the products Denny's sells are breakfast items. It's why Kellogg has marketed Special K Chocolatey Delight and Rice Krispies as after-dinner snacks. And, it's why 20% of the folks who buy Stonyfield yoghurt eat it instead of dinner.
Desserts are now eaten any time, sometimes even before breakfast. Lunch and dinner are increasingly combined into "linner." Many consumers insist on breakfast for dinner, forcing restaurants to keep the breakfast grills fired all day to serve "brinner," says Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company, who consults for food companies on our topsy-turvy eating habits.
There are no traditional eating hours anymore, says Wade Thoma, vice president of US menu innovation at McDonald's. "People eat at all strange hours of the day."
This eat-what-I-want-when-I-want trend is changing some of the biggest names in food — from McDonald's to Kraft to Kellogg to Dunkin' Brands. Most have turned their new product labs and test kitchens on their heads. It's no longer about inventing the next big meal, but about concocting the next big snack.
"Our new paradigm for looking at the future is the lack of three structured meals," says Barry Calpino, vice president of breakthrough innovation at Kraft Foods. "When people approach food today, it's about anytime, anywhere and anyhow."
How some food giants are responding to these whacky habits:
• Creating more snacks. Chicken McBites — crunchy, bite-size pieces of chicken — are now rolling out in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., markets, and will roll out nationally, for a limited time, in 2012. "People seem to enjoy food in small, snack-sized portions," says Thoma. Instead of focusing on breakfast, lunch and dinner, he says, "We now put a lot of energy into creating foods people can eat à la carte."
• Thinking of breakfast differently. A few years after Kellogg launched Special K Chocolatey Delight, it learned that many target customers — dieting women — were eating it as a low-calorie evening snack. It created TV spots touting that message. When it runs the TV spots, up to 50% of the sales are for evening snacks, says Doug VanDeVelde, senior vice president of Kellogg's cereal and innovation.
McDonald's sells more than 20% of its oatmeal outside of breakfast, says Thoma.
• Letting customers customise. McDonald's offers more than a dozen sauces to encourage consumers to customize, says Thoma. Many folks who order McNuggets request both the buffalo sauce and ranch sauce so their McNuggets taste like chicken wings, he says.
Kraft's big product introduction in 2011 was MiO water flavoring ("mine," in Italian). The idea is for folks to squirt as much of the flavour in water as they want. Four more flavours will be added in 2012, and the product is on track to be a $100 million brand its first year, says Calpino.
• Staying open later. More than 95% of McDonald's restaurants now have extended hours, says McDonald's Thoma. Several thousand are open 24 hours.
• Accommodating unconventional requests. Dunkin' now offers iced coffee in the winter months, when it sells "a whole lot of it," says Frankenthaler.
Applebee's sees fewer folks eating lunch at conventional times, and has seen a "big lift" in full lunch orders between 2 and 4 p.m. "People eat when they have time to eat, and when they remember to eat," says a company spokesman.
• Combining tastes of two meals. The Maple Bacon sundae, which sold for a limited time at Denny's this year, was a smash, says Chief Marketing Officer Frances Allen. "Sure, it sounded weird, but here's a dessert that combined the taste of dinner and breakfast."
One of Baskin-Robbin's top-selling limited-time offers was the recent French toast ice cream. "I can't fully explain it," says Frankenthaler, "but folks showed up at the ice cream shop after dinner asking for something that tastes like French toast."
• Making food portable. At its new IHOP Express in San Diego, IHOP sells Cup O' Pancakes — which is pancake batter baked in a disposable paper cup and drizzled with cutomizable toppings. "You can put them in the cup holder while you drive to work," explains Jean Birch, IHOP's president.
Two years ago, Kraft rolled out Ritz Crackerfuls, Ritz Crackers filled with cheese. The line has been such a hit, sales doubled the second year and have grown double-digits in 2011. Kraft will extend into peanut butter next year, says Calpino.
• Selling desserts all day. Denny's has increasingly turned to all-day dessert items. It just rolled out Red Velvet Pancake Puppies, with cream cheese icing, white chocolate chips and powdered sugar. "People will buy it all day," says Allen.
• Offering sandwiches all day. Several months after Dunkin' Donuts rolled out its sandwich line, sales of them "are pretty much equal throughout the day," Frankenthaler says. Even at breakfast.
• Selling "pre-breakfast". One in three consumers who eat Stonyfield yoghurt say they eat it before breakfast, says Kristen Deshaies, senior brand director. Some grab it before heading to the gym or as an energy boost before a morning run, she says. "Of course, we embrace this."