Why Restaurants Should Embrace Smaller Portions

Mini is the new big for items like BonBites, which are a smaller version of Cinnabon’s classic roll.
Mini is the new big for items like BonBites, which are a smaller version of Cinnabon’s classic roll.
Cinnabon

With the restaurant industry growing slowly—and some months not at all—brands are doing whatever they can to bring more diners in, and with increased frequency. That includes offering additional (primarily smaller) portion sizes, a move that both price-sensitive and health-minded consumers have requested, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at The NPD Group.

“This is one of the things they have asked for repeatedly in many of the studies I’ve done on needs in the marketplace,” she says. “They want more choices, not only in terms of the food that’s offered, but in terms of the size of the portion.”

That’s why brands like Pita Pit are getting in on the small-eats trend, offering customers a 6-inch pita option in addition to the traditional 8.5-inch pita. “We’re a healthier concept, so the ability to choose your portion size empowers that proposition,” says director of marketing Patrick O’Dell, noting that the 6-inch pitas are typically $1.50 less than a regular pita. “We’re really helping customers have a lower-ticket cost if they just want a pita on its own.” He adds that a smaller, less expensive pita allows guests to pair it with a soup, smoothie, drink, or chips for a more affordable option.

Fast-casual concept Modern Market has become popular for its half-portion versions of pizzas, sandwiches, soups, and salads, all of which cofounder Anthony Pigliacampo says are especially popular during the lunch daypart. “If I can get a 350- or 400-calorie half option for lunch, that keeps me satisfied until dinner,” he says. “And we get that feedback a lot from guests.” He adds that lunchtime orders are almost evenly split between half- and full-sized orders.

Not only do guests appreciate having the option for smaller portions, but they also enjoy having access to often-expensive healthy fare at a lower price, Pigliacampo says. He adds that price can be an obstacle for consumers wanting to eat healthy since such products usually come at a premium. A $5 half-sized pizza is a filling midday meal for most customers, and, Pigliacampo adds, it allows them to eat high-quality food at a relatively low price.

Much like sister brand Auntie Anne’s—which released its bite-sized Pretzel Nuggets nearly seven years ago—Focus Brands concept Cinnabon has been trying its hand at smaller indulgences, too. Based on extensive research showing that guests wanted to satisfy their sweet tooth without overindulging, Cinnabon introduced BonBites, a bite-sized version of its classic Cinnabon roll. Vice president of marketing for Focus Brands Jill Thomas says the product launch last fall was one of its most successful launches in more than two decades. 

Last summer, the brand also rolled out 10-ounce servings of its signature beverages, including iced coffee and blended Chillatta drinks. Thomas says the new lineup of petite portions has resulted in guests returning at a higher frequency, as well as ordering more menu items than they would have traditionally.

Though BonBites do ring up at a slightly lower cost than the classic roll, the price isn’t as small as their size might indicate. “We say mini is the new big—at a premium,” she says. “The smaller you get, the more volatile things get and the more delicate they are. So it’s actually a little more challenging to make things smaller.”

However, Thomas says Cinnabon guests don’t mind the price of its smaller portions, largely because the average ticket still falls below $5. From a value standpoint, it’s more about customers being able to enjoy an indulgence, she adds.

While most Modern Market customers understand that the price of a half portion won’t be exactly half of a larger portion, a handful of customers do struggle with the value proposition.

“The way I always explain it is it takes the exact same amount of labor and facilities to make you the half as it does to make you the whole, and food cost is only one small percentage of the overall price of an item,” Pigliacampo says. “There are some people who get very irritated by that, and they just expect it to be half. But for the most part, people who are getting the half feel like it’s a good value, mainly because they don’t want the extra food.”

Although customers are seeking smaller portions—and taking advantage of them when they’re available—offering a sized-down menu isn’t always easy or profitable for restaurants. First there’s the increase in labor associated with smaller portions, since the back of house has to prep ingredients based on multiple portion sizes and pay more attention to order accuracy.

There’s also the operational challenge of bringing more items out of the kitchen in general, as well as the difficulty of making lower-ticket items profitable.

“We’re probably leaving top-line dollars on the table by offering half because our halves aren’t so small that you have to combine them with something else,” Pigliacampo says. “As a result, we tend to sell a lot of halves by their lonesome.”

However, concepts like Cinnabon and Pita Pit have actually seen average ticket prices rise after the introduction of smaller portions, thanks to consumers’ tendency to add on items for a more sizable meal. In fact, Pita Pit actively encourages its employees to upsell when customers order a smaller pita.

“A major goal of our marketing department was to try to introduce a [less expensive] item, but maintain our ticket average,” O’Dell says. “Really the only place to do that is with upselling.”

 

This story originally appeared in QSR's June 2017 issue with the title "It's a Small World After All."