Snack O'Clock

Conquering off-meal hours with appetizer-style menus can capture new customers and boost the bottom line

When mid-afternoon hunger hits, today’s diners are less likely to be met with a bowl of peanuts at the restaurant bar or a canned response of “the kitchen opens at 5.”

“Not everybody gets to eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch at noon. Having the staff and the food available means people know that you are a place to go to at 3 p.m.”

— Manager Mark Hinkle of Annie Gunn’s

Instead, a bona fide snack menu, one that aptly straddles that awkward time between lunch and dinner, is becoming the norm. It’s the fourth daypart: a verified opportunity for additional revenue and economic efficiency.

“They work because they fill a gap,” says Chef Rick Tramonto, who creates snack menus for Bar R’evolution at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans. These gaps can be obvious, such as those between lunch and dinner or dinner and lights out. But snack menus also can fill demographic holes, allowing folks who can’t afford the full dinner menu to still get a taste of it. 

Need convincing? A snack menu boasts these additional benefits:

1. Cuts Food Costs. A well-planned bar menu reduces food waste and costs. At Story in Prairie Village, Kan., short ribs scraps from the dinner menu end up in gnocchi on the snack menu. Cuts left over from the halibut entree are transformed into seafood risotto on the bar menu. 

“It might be a little more work, but we turn it to our advantage (and) use all the odds and ends,” says Carl Thorne-Thomsen, Story’s owner and executive chef. 

2. Puts You On Trend. Snacks are the new supper. Good kitchens don’t reinvent themselves every time the public has a whim, but keeping current is important. An appetizer-style menu for off-meal hours shows you’re up to date.

3. Serves a Changing Workforce. Between-meals menus accommodate an emerging workforce that operates outside 9-to-5 hours. Restaurant workers, swing-shifters, telecommuters, business travelers, nurses and graduate students are just some of these professionals with schedules that break from the norm.

“Not everybody gets to eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch at noon,” says Mark Hinkle, manager of Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, Mo. “Having the staff and the food available means people know that you are a place to go to at 3 p.m. So many people cut their costs at those periods, but that is not thinking long term.”

4. Increases Sales. It doesn’t get more compelling than the bottom line, and serving diners during down periods translates into increased revenues. Tramonto estimates that a restaurateur can add $8,000-$10,000 to the coffers weekly with the right snack menu. “We will do a couple thousands dollars at the bar before we are even open,” he says.

Chef James Rigato of The Root Restaurant and Bar in White Lake, Mich., agrees, as appetizers generally have the best food costs. “You can sell something for $12 that has 20 percent protein. Most people want to sell wine bottles, but the glasses have much better cost. It is the same thing with a snack menu.”

5. Hones the Staff. Smaller menus are perfect training ground for cooks who aren’t ready to plan a full dinner menu.

“This is a great place for a chef to tell a line cook, ‘I need bar apps. Why don’t you try to do this?’” Tramonto says. “It gives them opportunity to engage.”

6. Builds the Customer Base. If your lunch and dinner menus are more substantial, they may be the occasional treat for diners in your neighborhood. But a more affordable bar snack menu turns locals into regulars.

Flora in Oakland, Calif., sees some diners eating at the bar four to five times per week. Adds Story’s Thorne-Thomsen: “We are an upscale restaurant in a city that does not really go for upscale. This lets us also be perceived as accessible.” 

Margaret Littman writes and lives in Nashville, where there’s never a shortage of good bars and good bar food.


Call it a snack or bar menu, small bites or anytime offerings—they feature diner favorites or creative takes on: 

  • Appetizers
  • Finger foods
  • Easy-to-prep dishes
  • Ingredients already featured on the lunch or dinner menu

Eat This 

Don’t approach snacks as glorified bar menus, but rather a way to show off skills and use ingredients creatively to feed hungry customers between meals. Chef James Rigato of The Root Restaurant and Bar specifically designs his dishes to pair with beer. “It is food that makes you want to drink,” he says.

Here’s a cross section of some dishes that make us want to skip lunch and go straight to a snack:

Creole Louisiana snapping turtle soup at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans

Tuna tartar with cucumbers, mint, potato chip and caviar at Story in Prairie Village, Kan.

Vegan Michigan cranberry bean hummus with pickled onion, balsamic syrup, sumac and grilled pita at The Root Restaurant and Bar in White Lake, Mich.

Caramel popcorn with candy floss at Diversion, a Seattle pop-up tapas restaurant from Chef Sam Crannell

Salumi and pickled hot pepper panini at Maialino in New York

Balancing Act: How to Manage the Chaos 

Adding a snack menu can make the line chaotic while cooks prep for dinner. That means the menu needs to work with—rather than against—the kitchen’s usual pre-service duties.

“It is kind of wild and crazy in here,” says  Yoni Levy, chef de cuisine at Flora in  Oakland, Calif. “Sometimes the grill is filled with 15 burgers and I have to jump in and help finish prep while the cooks finish the burgers. Sometimes it is a challenge, but it makes our cooks stronger.”

It’s also important to consider customers’ time constraints. Flora and the adjacent Fauna cater to those coming to the neighborhood’s live music venues. Snack dishes include chicharrones (fried pork rinds), burgers and other finger foods that are easy to enjoy quickly before a concert starts.