KANSAS CITY — When it comes to consumers’ appetite for burgers and sandwiches, little is big.
Call it grazing, shared plates or little bites; smaller versions of perennially popular main dishes continue to be gobbled up in restaurants, at home and on the go.
Sliders have segued from quick-service, crave-driven and often late-night snacks to stalwarts on restaurant menus spanning quick-service drive-thrus to white-tablecloth steakhouses. On the retail side, heat-and-eat and ready-to-eat sliders have found spots in the supermarket freezer and in the prepared-food areas of many grocery stores. In the fresh-meat case, smaller-circumference patties are merchandised next to full-size patties and fresh ground beef by the pound.
Mini-me sliders have undergone a transformation beyond the basic bun, protein and condiments over the years. From artisan bread to sriracha mayonnaise to different types of pulled meat, these smaller bites underscore innovations in the food service, food-processing and retail industries and consumers’ much-talked-about sophisticated palates.
Industry experts agree sliders represent the adage that good things come in small packages.
“It’s part of the idea of shared plates, where everyone can have a taste of everything, or you want to taste a lot of different things,” said Mary Chapman, senior director for product innovation for research firm Technomic Inc. “I’ve seen flights, with a couple of different proteins on the sandwich. It’s a good way for chefs and others to try something new and get input from consumers, and good for consumers to try.
“Plus, sliders are very easy and portable in every day part and segment.”
Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association, agreed.
“Sliders did hit a trend peak a few years back and have since settled along the lines of menu staples,” Ms. Stensson said. “They are now commonplace in many types of restaurants and in many different forms, from chicken and barbecue to vegetarian and salmon. There are also gourmet versions — for example, with Wagyu beef or lamb loin.”
Sliders or mini-burgers?
Within the food industry, there is a discussion (sometimes lively, at least in the burger blogger world) about the distinction between sliders and mini-burgers, and the consumption of mini-protein sandwiches as appetizers/snacks or as smaller meal portions.
“While still primarily an appetizer dish, it’s not uncommon these days to see sliders on entree menus,” Ms. Stensson said. “Some restaurants feature them that way because they are easier for the guest to eat over a larger patty, or in multiples of different types that make up a main dish.
“In addition, consumers today are looking for a variety of options on menus so they can get exactly what they want depending on the eating occasion, customizing their meal and snack experiences, including appetizers as meals.”
Beyond reasons based on palate, novelty and the move away from the three-square-meals-a-day dining habits, there may be a boost in consumption of mini-sandwiches and sliders due to economic factors, in particular, high protein prices. Jamie Schweid, executive vice-president of sales, marketing and IT for family-owned gourmet ground-beef purveyor Schweid & Son, Carlstadt, N.J., suggested the mini-burger movement may be tied to cost.
“I think it has to do with the cost of steak and protein — more burgers and smaller burgers are on the menu,” he said.
Mr. Schweid said sliders are another option in diverse menus and product portfolios designed to reach a broad range of consumers.
“I don’t believe sliders are necessarily a replacement for bigger burgers, but as an appetizer portion or snack, there is some margin for operators,” he said.
Market studies support the popularity of sliders on the American menu. The market research firm NPD Group, which tracks servings of mini-burgers at food service, reports total volume for mini-burgers in 2014 was 160.1 million servings.
“Servings were up 14%, most likely due to more availability on menus,” said spokesperson Kim McLynn.
In Technomic’s recent Sandwich Consumer Trend Report, 41% of respondents said they purchased mini-sandwiches at least once a month in 2014, compared to 37% in 2012. Additionally, 45% of respondents found the idea of mix-and-match mini-burgers appealing in 2013, up from 43% in 2011 and 33% in 2009.
Smaller sandwiches also came up big in Technomic’s 2015 Food Trends report. Small plates and flexible portions were second on the list of major trends for this year.
Meanwhile, in its 2015 What’s Hot in Food survey, the N.R.A. listed smaller portions/half portions as a big deal, with 63% of respondents calling it a hot trend. Bite-sized appetizers were listed as one of the top five appetizer trends.
Food service options
For a food item that has become somewhat of a staple, the slider is still sliding onto restaurant menus. In the casual-dining arena, Ruby Tuesday recently added Mini Masterpieces, including classic burger, Philly cheesesteak and buffalo chicken varieties. Last year, venerable slider chain Krystal introduced new Krystal Stackers, with double the amount of meat on the eatery’s signature small, square bun. White Castle, practically synonymous with sliders, has added sriracha chicken sliders, pizza sliders and Chicken Italiano sliders to its menu. Earlier this year, the meatless veggie burger was moved from a limited-time to permanent menu item at White Castle. (On a side note: Hamburger historians ranked the original slider from White Castle as the most influential burger, in a recent poll from Time magazine.)
At the retail level, more sliders, including multi-packs and single-serve, are merchandised in the frozen section. Simplot Retail, for its part, recently rolled out a new line of minis, including buffalo chicken sliders, pulled pork sliders and queso burger sliders. Beyond beef burgers, both Tyson and Butterball offer sliders made from poultry.
Pre-formed, case-ready, fresh, ground-beef sliders, meanwhile, also may be a way for consumers to enjoy burgers in a form that cooks quickly, easily and less expensively than full-sized burgers.
Mr. Schweid pointed to the convenience and enjoyment associated with sliders that people may prepare in a home kitchen or backyard grill.
“It’s the fun aspect,” he said. “The cooking part is one factor in the success of these products, but it’s really about the diversity in what people want to consume at a certain sitting. At a party, for instance, they don’t want a 5.3-oz. burger.”
Sliders and mini-burgers do particularly well on occasions like summer grilling holidays, tailgate time and the Super Bowl, he added.
As for new products and future trends, Schweid is introducing a “Belly Burger,” adding bacon to its beef blend.“That’s the beauty of the burger — the diversity in how it can be prepared,” Mr. Schweid said.