Forget the Big Mac attack. Now is the time of the snack attack.
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After years of slinging super-sized servings, some fast-food chains are starting to see the benefits of offering daintier bites. That includes mini-hot dogs, little chicken sandwiches and shakes that are smaller than a small.
It's all intended to entice people who are searching for a small treat between meals, a cheap bite or a little something extra at mealtime.
This week, Arby's introduced a lineup of sliders, with the miniature versions of its regular sandwiches costing less than $2 each. Earlier this year, Sonic introduced "Lil Doggies" and "Lil Chickies,"or petite hot dogs and chicken sandwiches, for around the same price. They were so popular the chain is bringing them back next week.
Taco Bell is promoting its "Dare Devil Loaded Grillers," which are smaller burritos for about a buck.
The more modest serving sizes are intended to serve a variety of eating habits, including the uptick in people snacking and eating smaller meals around the clock. That means giving people options that don't make them feel like they're pigging out.
They aren't all shrunken versions of regular items, either.
Burger King said the return of its chicken fries is helping push up sales, with many people stopping in to get French fry-shaped fried chicken as a snack. And Dunkin' Donuts CEO Nigel Travis has said the chain's new sandwiches are meant to be snacks â€” not lunch â€” to fit with the changing way people are eating.
"What we're seeing is the definition of meals is changing," said Popeyes CEO Cheryl Bachelder.
She said Popeyes' new menu items are developed to work as snacks and be easy to eat on the go, such as its "Rip'n" chicken, which is shaped so pieces can be torn off easily.
Snacks on fast-food menus aren't entirely new; McDonald's has offered snack wraps for years â€” and White Castle might as well have patented the slider. But overall, Arby's Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lynch thinks chains are losing customers to convenience stores like Wawa because they haven't done a great job with smaller, cheaper bites.
"They're getting this business because the restaurant industry hasn't built a platform that meets this need," Lynch said.
Reduced portion sizes can also be a way to attract deal-seekers, because smaller sizes usually mean smaller prices. That's an area some fast-food chains are struggling with, as rising costs for ingredients like beef and dairy have made it tough to keep offering traditional dollar menus.
McDonald's and Wendy's, for instance, have both replaced their dollar menus with value menus that offer options at a variety of prices. But the CEOs of both chains have admitted they need to do something more to satisfy the value-seeking crowd.
Relatively dainty sizes can also entice people into indulging in treats they would otherwise avoid.
It's why Sonic introduced a "mini" size for its ice cream shakes, and why Starbucks offered a "mini" 10-ounce version of its Frappuccino this spring. The idea is to bring in customers who are careful about caloric splurges, while still dishing out bigger portions to others.
If restaurant chains are lucky, the smaller offerings can also be a way to get regulars to spend more. When Arby's tested its sliders, the chain said some people add a slider to their orders as a way to sample another sandwich.
"They want to try different things, but they don't want a whole additional sandwich," said Lynch, the chain's chief marketing officer.
Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi