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Portion Distortion

Sysco Shape January 2013


It turns out that bigger is not better. Smaller portions are becoming more popular. According to the Chicago-based NPD Group’s Healthy Eating Strategies by Generation report, 43 percent of the more than 5,000 adults surveyed indicated that they ate smaller portions always or most of the time during the past year. Also, 57 percent of adult consumers said they planned to eat smaller portions in the coming year.

Restaurant guests are opting for smaller meals in an effort to eat more healthfully. Lower calorie counts are not the only factor though, as consumers are also seeking high quality ingredients, sustainably produced foods and lower prices.

Just look at tapas, says Chef Neil Doherty, senior director of culinary development for Sysco Corp. “Consumers like tapas because they are less expensive and more social,” he says. “People end up buying more, so the check average goes up and beverage sales go up.”

Of course, not every concept can offer tapas, but there are other ways to present smaller servings, keep food costs low and satisfy customers. Several operators have added small meals, snacks and sharable entrees to their menus.

Taking a Small Risk

T.G.I Friday’s launched its “Right Portion, Right Price” menu in 2007. The launch was so successful that the chain made the items part of its permanent menu a year later. Today some of T.G.I Friday’s “Right Portion, Right Price” menu items include BBQ Chicken Flatbread, Balsamic-Glazed Chicken Caesar salad and a six-ounce sirloin steak.

While other chains had tried smaller portions that were met with indifference, or worse, lower sales, T.G.I. Friday’s was successful for several reasons. The chain gave consumers a choice of whether to eat smaller portions. Also, the lower prices pleased budget-minded consumers. “What they found is you have to give the option, just like in fast food restaurants where they give you the option between small, medium and large,” Doherty says.

Quick-serve eateries have added smaller meals as snacks during mid-afternoon, a typically slow time for fast food, and for the late-night fourth meal. McDonald’s famously found success with its Snack Wraps. KFC offers the KFC Snacker Sandwich and other fast food chains offer value meals that consumers buy as snacks.

Another secret to T.G.I Friday’s “Right Portion, Right Price” success was the word “right,” not “small,” which helped make the menu items more attractive. The menu listings did include a calorie count for these items but did not separate the foods into a heart healthy or low calorie section of the menu.

Other chains have added smaller portion items, too. Cheesecake Factory offers Small Plates and Snacks, such as Stuffed Mushrooms, Vietnamese Tacos and Chicken Samosas. Johnny Carino’s offers desserts in regular and mini sizes. Ruth’s Chris offers a Classics menu, a fixed-price menu that includes a starter, entrée, side and dessert, with smaller cuts of meat, such as a six-ounce sirloin steak instead of a 12-ounce or 16-ounce. California Pizza Kitchen offers Small Cravings such as a Spicy Chicken Tinga Quesadilla, Asparagus and Arugula Salad, and White Corn Guacamole and Chips.

Half portions and sharing are other trends that help generate interest in smaller portions. “If you go to any other country, you don’t see people ordering a chow mein and eating it by themselves,” Doherty says. “They buy one chow mein and one General Tso’s chicken for four people, and everyone shares.”

While some restaurant guests see value in ordering a meal so large that they end up taking home leftovers, others see value in the social aspect of the meal. Bertucci’s encourages customers to share meals. “If you want to share a few of these dishes, go right ahead. Eating together and passing plates are part of the experience,” the menu notes.

What operators can do

Consumers expect smaller portions to cost less. According to a 2011 study by Chicago-based Technomic, 62 percent of consumers believed that restaurant prices have increased and 32 percent said portion sizes have shrunk.

People want to feel that they are getting their money’s worth. At the same time, commodities prices have gone up. Also, preparing smaller portions can sometimes entail more work in the kitchen.

If you offer a smaller serving of meat, make sure you offer vegetables that are sourced locally or, even better, organic. “Consumers want a better burger with good bread and local lettuce and they want you to tell a story about the tomato,” Doherty explains. “They want better ingredients, pure and simple.”

In noncommercial settings, higher education foodservice operators may find that university students are receptive to smaller portions, if they know that the food is high quality, organic or locally grown. “People who have the money, the knowledge and the education will embrace the brown rice, the farm fresh produce, the better quality foods,” Doherty says.

Finally, here is a tip based on science: consider buying smaller plates. According to a study published this year in the Journal of Consumer Research, professors at Georgia Tech and the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab found that people served themselves more food when they were given larger plates

“If you look at the last 10 years, we started using 12-inch platters, and now 14-inch, and prior to that the plates were 10-1/4 inches,” Doherty says. “The cheapest way to cut back on portions and not have to change prices is to change your china.”

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