CHICAGO — Snacks represent a growing opportunity for restaurants, with 51% of consumers snacking at least twice a day, compared with 48% in 2012, said Technomic, Inc.

Nearly a third of consumers said they are snacking more frequently than they did two years ago, and their definition of between-meal bites has broadened to include more food and beverage options. The survey included 1,500 consumers aged 18 or older.

“Snacking occasions represent a growth channel for restaurant operators,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic. “The retail market is aggressively promoting snacks, but there’s plenty of room for restaurants to expand their snack programs and grab share. By providing more innovative, healthy and easily portable snacks, and boosting variety, restaurants can position themselves to increase incremental traffic and sales — particularly among a younger customer base.”

Of increasing importance to consumers is convenience, with 60% indicating portability is an important or extremely important factor when choosing a snack, up from 55% in 2012. KFC keyed in on the trend of on-the-go grazing with last year’s launch of Go Cups, designed to fit in a car cupholder and hold snack-size portions of chicken and fries. Additionally, Taco Bell recently has introduced menu items that may be eaten with one hand, including the Grilled Stuft Nacho and Loaded Grillers, the components of which are corralled within a tortilla.

Half of consumers said healthfulness is an important factor when choosing a snack. To appeal to health-conscious snackers, Starbucks last fall began offering Evolution Harvest snack bars and trail mixes, which feature clean labels and on-trend ingredients, such as pumpkin seeds and organic agave syrup.

Another key factor for snackers is value: forty-five per cent of those who purchase snacks from restaurants said they order from the dollar or value menu. Several fast-food chains, including McDonald’s and Wendy’s, have tweaked their dollar menus over the past year to include more items at higher price points.

As for the most popular snacking occasions, 71% of consumers said they typically grab a bite during mid-afternoon. Late night represents the next most popular snack time (40%), followed by mid-evening (39%) and mid-morning (37%). Nearly half of consumers surveyed reported eating snacks between meals, and 45% replace a meal or two with snacks.

To court these round-the-clock customers, restaurant chains are experimenting with deals across day parts. Jack in the Box targeted the nighttime nibbler with a new late-night Munchie Meals menu last year.

Among top snacks, 71% of consumers said they purchase candy at least occasionally, 62% said they chose nuts, 59% snack on crackers, 58% buy fruit, and 50% said they purchase cheese snacks.