Marketers Adapt to 'Weird Eaters'

Follow eat-what-I-want-when-I-want trend

Published in CSP Daily News

BERKELEY, Calif. -- 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, according to a USA Today report.

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.

A culture hungry to put its personal stamp on everything it touches is driving some food-makers 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, according to the report. Nowhere is this trend more palpable than with Millennials.

"Eating weird is the new normal," Shawn LaPean, executive director of Cal Dining at the University of California-Berkeley, told the newspaper. "If students eat any square meals per day, it might be one. The rest is filled with snacks and food on the go."

These quirky, student eating habits are evolving into lifetime traits. At least 35% of the meals eaten by Millennials aren't meals at all, but snacks, reports consultancy The Kruse Co. 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.

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.

How some food giants are responding to our wacky habits:

  • Creating more snacks. McDonald’s 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. Dunkin' is creating snacks designed to appeal all day, such as Bagel Twists, which originally came in cheddar and cinnamon, and have since been extended to other flavors, including French toast drizzled with maple icing.
  • 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. McDonald's sells more than 20% of its oatmeal outside of breakfast.
  • Letting customers customize. Kraft's big product introduction in 2011 was MiO water flavoring. The idea is for folks to squirt as much of the flavor in water as they want. Four more flavors will be added in 2012, and the product is on track to be a $100 million brand its first year.
  • Staying open later. More than 95% of McDonald's restaurants now have extended hours. Several thousand are open 24 hours. Most Applebee's, which used to close around 10 p.m., are now open until midnight or later.
  • Accommodating unconventional requests. Dunkin' now offers iced coffee in the winter months. 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.
  • 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. One of Baskin-Robbin's top-selling limited-time offers was the recent French toast ice cream.
  • 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 customizable toppings. 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.
  • Offering sandwiches all day. Several months after Dunkin' Donuts rolled out its sandwich line, sales of them "are pretty much equal throughout the day." Even at breakfast.
  • Selling "pre-breakfast."One in three consumers who eat Stonyfield yogurt 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.