Foodservice Trends: Thinking small
Hamburgers and chicken sandwiches don’t have to be bigger to be better. Many restaurants throughout the foodservice industry are finding bite-sized food to be a successful addition to their menus.
Mini burgers or “slider” burgers are a well-established bar item, but their popularity is now reaching far beyond the bar. Go to almost any casual-dining chain in the country, and odds are that some kind of “mini” sandwich will be on the menu.
“We have seen pub gastronomy and the whole trend of bar food that’s just a little better [quality] is really emerging, and it’s something that we’ve been taking a look at,” says Cammie Spillyards, director of food and beverage innovation for Chili’s Grill & Bar. “Burger slider fit right into our brand and our menu.”
Within the past 18 months, Chili’s has introduced several slider variations. The Big Mouth Bites are burgers with smoked bacon, American cheese, sautéed onions and Ranch dressing on smaller versions of the company’s regular sandwich buns. The Buffalo Chicken Crisper Bites have a typical buffalo wing build â€” wing sauce, bacon, lettuce, blue cheese dressing, while the Chicken Bites have ancho chile ranch, cheddar cheese and a pickle on a bun.
“The Burger Bites have become one of our better-selling items,” Spillyards notes. “People really love them.”
Chili’s saw the slider concept as a way to deliver its burgers and chicken sandwiches in a different, easy-to-eat size.
“A lot of [the popularity] is about the convenience and the ease of eating one of your favorite things in a little less messy way,” Spillyards says. Plus, she adds, the Bites are easy to share.
Spillyards notes that Chili’s did more than just throw them on the menu to cash in on a trend. Instead of using a dinner roll as a bun, the chain took the recipe for its regular burger buns and made a smaller version for the Big Mouth Bites.
“We really felt the need to have our bun to deliver on that flavor profile,” she says.
The burgers are created in-house, with the exception of the buns. The chicken items, Spillyards says, came about with the help of the chain’s manufacturing partners, particularly for the Chicken Bites.
“That was a new, proprietary process to get a hand batter-breaded looking product that was differentiated from our Boneless Buffalo Wings, because as you can imagine, those could be fairly similar,” she says.
More and more minis
Sliders are showing up on more menus across the country.
• Burger King began offering “BK Burger Shots” and “Breakfast Shots” in March. The BK Burger Shots are smaller versions of the company’s flame-broiled burger sold in two-packs or six-packs. The Breakfast Shots feature ham, bacon or sausage patties with an egg, American cheese and a smoky cheese sauce.
• Steak ‘N Shake is offering five varieties of Steakburger Shots, such as Chipotle, A1, BBQ and Frisco. The burgers are selling for 89 cents each, or 99 cents with cheese.
• Ruby Tuesday has a Mini Masterpieces section on its menu, which includes Bacon Cheddar Minis, Ruby Minis, Turkey Minis, and a trip combo that includes a Ruby Mini, a Turkey Mini and a Crab Cake Mini.
• TGIFriday’s Sliders entrees feature three slider sandwiches: Cheddar Bacon BBQ burgers, Chicken Parmesan sandwiches or Cheeseburger Sliders.
• One of the newest items on Applebee’s menu is a Cheeseburger Sliders meal, featuring three minis with American cheese, grilled onions and a signature burger sauce.
Many mini varieties
Eddie’s Attic, located in Decatur, Ga., is one of Atlanta’s premier music establishments and offers full menu service as well. Francina Sanders, head chef and kitchen manager for the establishment, revitalized the venue’s menu by developing an upscale take on sliders.
“Bob [Ephlin, the owner,] hired me about a year and a half ago to redo the menu,” she explains. “He wanted something that was not really standard bar food, but a little more upscale.
“I had recently graduated from culinary school, and [slider food] was something I had seen that was starting to show up on menus in bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles. It just seemed really fun,” she adds. Eddie’s Attic features Gourmet Sliders on its menu for $2.75 each, and customers must order a minimum of three. While it started with slider burgers, the menu now consists of upscale items like Horseradish Crusted Tilapia, Pulled Pork, All Beef Brat and Falafel. Sanders notes that all the sliders are popular, but it’s very rare that a slider trio leaves the kitchen without a Maryland Crab Cake on it.
Sanders routinely changes the menu to get a feel for what is popular or to showcase certain ingredients. The venue no longer has a slider burger as part of its menu, but it sometimes has a variety of burger sliders as a special, with each burger having different toppings.
“We do a lot of things on the menu where we encourage people to share,” says Sanders. “That’s the fun thing with bar food. It’s something you can pass around the table and share while you’re watching the show or sitting at the bar.”
Given the success of its slider items, Spillyards notes that Chili’s is also looking at how the item can be further expanded.
“We’re thinking in terms of other proteins that can be served on our Bites bun, but we’re [also] thinking of other things that can be served in a slider form,” such as a slider taco, she says.