Small bites, just right: Mini-sized meals a good deal for consumers and businesses




For more than two decades, Eat'n Park's Smiley cookie flashed a broad 4-inch grin and weighed in at a hefty 56 grams. But after 25 years, Smiley's been downsized.

In December, Eat'n Park rolled out a mini Smiley cookie that measures just 2 1/2 inches across and weighs less than half of the original. Children (or their parents) can choose the original, the mini or an apple for their after-meal treat.

The fact that the mini version of this Pittsburgh icon has been "overwhelmingly popular" proves that when it comes to food, it's now hip to be small.

From mini-Blizzards at Dairy Queen to cake pops at Starbucks, restaurants are rolling out bite-sized offerings in hopes of piquing the taste buds of fickle diners who increasingly are watching their waistlines and wallets.

The trend isn't limited to desserts. Industry trend watcher Andrew Freeman and Co., a San Francisco and New York based consulting agency, named mini-sizing one of 2010's hottest trends. Creative chefs are shrinking everything from pizzas and hot dogs to lasagnas and burritos. At Hough's Bar and Restaurant in Greenfield, diners can even dig in to mini pierogies.

Small is big at the grocery store, too. Food manufacturers have jumped on the trend by introducing a variety of miniaturized product versions such as Keebler's 100 Calorie Right Bites cookies and Ben and Jerry's even-less-than-pint-sized, 3.6-ounce ice cream cartons.

In the cereal aisle, Kellogg's has shrunken its Mini-Wheats into Mini-Wheats Little Bites. In the bread section, Pepperidge Farm has cut the bagel down to size with its line of mini bagels. And if you need a schmear with that mini bagel, Kraft's Philly Minis might be just the right size.

The advantages of going mini are multiple. Small sizes help diners manage their budgets, caloric intake and tastebuds.

"Diners get to sample. They get to try a lot of different things, so they don't get bored," said Tim Ryan, a former Pittsburgh resident and president of the Culinary Institute of America.

Like most trends, mini sizing isn't entirely new. Tapas, or small plates, have been ubiquitous in Spanish cuisine for centuries. And mini sizing has long been popular in the catering business, where it's important that food be easy to hold and easy to eat. With the popularity of sliders and tapas bars, American restaurants and chefs are seizing the opportunity to take mini mainstream.

"Now, we're finding mini is something people like in regular meals, too, because they are counting calories," said Ken MacIntyre, director of operations for Guckenheimer, which manages cafeterias for Dick's Sporting Goods and American Eagle.

Mr. MacIntyre said mini offerings such as cake balls -- three round bites of cake in a cupcake holder -- have been huge hits.

Kristin Smith and her sister Kadee Lewis recently opened Bella Christie's, an Aspinwall bakery devoted exclusively to petite-sized desserts and pastries.

Ms. Smith had been doing "mini" through her catering business for eight years. When customers kept asking for a storefront where they could "just pick up" her creations, she knew she had a business opportunity.

Every item at Bella Christie's -- from eclairs to fruit tartlets to homemade fig bars -- is scaled down to an 1 1/2 to 2 inches in size. That's one or two bites.

"People used to think the more volume you had, the more value," she said. "But I think everybody was getting tired of oversized everything -- desserts, cookies, cream puffs as big as your head. You can't finish it, and you feel wasteful throwing it away."

Many industry experts said the mini-sizing trend is being driven, in part, by backlash against years of restaurant "supersizing." That backlash combined with the economic downturn of recent years and diners' increased concern about their waistlines made the market ripe for mini-sizing.

Susan Fisher, a professor of foods and nutrition at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said, "Marketing is responding to the negative side of super-sized portions leading to increasing incidence of overweight individuals. Smaller sizes mean the consumer may not have to forgo the item. They can choose to keep it, just as long as the portion is within what they perceive as reasonable."

The visual appeal of mini-sized food also is an important aspect of its increasing popularity. In the eyes of consumers, tiny equals adorable, said many chefs and restaurant owners.

"It's kind of like loving babies and puppies. Everything is cuter when it's smaller," said April Gruver, owner of Vanilla Pastry Studio in East Liberty, where mini whoopee pies and tiny Ho-Ho lollipops are hot sellers.

Given the popularity of mini-foods, it's no surprise that beverages are going mini, too. Houlihan's, a casual restaurant chain with five Pittsburgh area locations, offers mini martini flights. Miniature and half bottles of wine also are a popular option because they give budget-conscious diners more flexibility.

"Sometimes full bottle prices are high, so mini bottles and half bottles give wine lovers a chance to try something new and exciting at a lower cost," said Alessia Antinori of Marchesi Antinori, an Italian winery that distributes worldwide.

Restaurant owners and caterers are finding the mini-sizing trend has advantages for their bottom line. While mini-sized food can be more labor-intensive to prepare, many said the extra effort is worth it because smaller sizes entice diners to try items they otherwise might not.

That's been the experience of the Boston-based burrito chain Boloco since its introduction last year of 4-inch mini burritos in eight varieties.

"The size of one's wallet and the size of one's hunger really varies. It's great not to be forced into one size. Our customers are able to try us out for less commitment, less risk and less money," said Sara Steele-Rogers, social media and marketing manager for Boloco.

Mini-sizing also can help restaurant owners and caterers tap new markets.

"You don't necessarily think of burritos for catering a business meeting. But the mini size makes them more approachable," said Ms. Steele-Rogers.

Mini-sizing is catching on for at-home entertaining as well. Party Spot, a party planning spot owned by popular wedding website The Knot, reports that mini comfort foods such as mac 'n' cheese bites and tomato soup shooters with mini grilled cheese are the latest craze at parties.

Kitchen and home stores have responded with lines of lilliputian-sized dishes and glassware specifically designed for mini-sized food. In the Kitchen, a Strip District kitchen supply store, sells mini casserole dishes, spoons and martini glasses. Owner KC Lapiana said she welcomes the mini-sizing trend because of what it teaches consumers about food.

"More than just cute, mini sends a positive message," says Ms. Lapiana. "If you make food well, a small bite can be very pleasing."


Mini servings with lots of flavor:

KC Lapiana of In the Kitchen in the Strip District shares these recipes that she made for us, presenting them in mini servings using items she sells at the store at 1725 Penn Ave. (shopinthekitchen.com and 412-261-5513). She says even in Pittsburgh, where "people like to eat," mini dishes and spoons recently have become extremely popular.


Deviled Eggs and Asparagus

  • 6 hard-boiled eggs
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 teaspoons Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce
  • 12 cooked asparagus, diced finely; save tips for garnish

Cut eggs in half and put yolks and all other ingredients into a bowl. Mash together and, using a pastry bag, pipe into eggs. Garnish with tips of asparagus.

-- KC Lapiana, In the Kitchen


Coconut Ceviche

  • 1 1/2 pounds skinless snapper fillet, diced
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice (approximately 4 limes)
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, diced
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (reserve some for garnish)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped oregano leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup toasted shredded coconut

Place snapper in a bowl with the lime juice and set in the refrigerator for 30 to 45 minutes.

Drain fish and transfer to a clean bowl and add all remaining ingredients, except coconut. Mix well and cover. Refrigerate for 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.

Garnish with coconut and cilantro.

-- KC Lapiana, In the Kitchen



Espresso Pot De Creme

  • 6 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), finely chopped
  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Put chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring cream, milk, espresso powder (to taste) and a pinch of salt just to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring until espresso powder is dissolved. Then pour over chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Whisk together yolks, sugar and a pinch of salt in another bowl, then add warm chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass measure and cool completely, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

Line bottom of a baking pan (large enough to hold ramekins) with a folded kitchen towel and arrange ramekins on it. Skewer several holes into a large sheet of foil. Divide custard among ramekins, then bake custards in a hot water bath, pan covered tightly with foil, until custards are set around edges but still slightly wobbly in centers, 30 to 35 minutes.

Transfer ramekins to a rack to cool completely, uncovered, about 1 hour. (Custards will set as they cool.) Chill, covered, until cold, at least 3 hours.

-- KC Lapiana, In the Kitchen


Chilled Watermelon Soup Shooters with Spiced Shrimp and Basil Oil

  • 1 seedless watermelon, skin removed, cut into 1-inch diced pieces
  • 1 cup diced sweet onion
  • 1 cup peeled, diced cucumber
  • 2 cups vegetable stock, chilled
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Spiced Shrimp and Basil Oil (recipes follow)

Place watermelon cubes, onion and cucumber in the freezer for at least 1 hour or until icy. Puree frozen ingredients in a blender with 1 cup of the chilled vegetable stock and salt. If soup is too thick, add more chilled vegetable stock. Keep soup chilled until ready to serve.


Spiced shrimp

  • 1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Olive oil

Mix coriander, cumin, chili powder, cayenne and salt together. Toss shrimp with enough spice mixture to coat well. Heat a saute pan over medium heat, pour in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and saute spice-coated shrimp until just cooked through, about 1 minute.

While shrimp are cooking, portion watermelon soup into shooter glasses or martini glasses. Make a small slit into the shrimp to sit on rim of glass, drizzle basil oil on top of the soup and garnish with fresh basil.


Basil oil

  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup olive oil

Finely slice 6 to 8 basil leaves and reserve for garnish. Combine remaining basil and oil in a blender; puree for 1 minute. Let basil oil sit to infuse flavor for at least 30 minutes. Strain oil through a fine mesh strainer, discard solids and reserve basil oil.

-- KC Lapiana, In the Kitchen


Alisha Hipwell is a freelance writer living in Bradford Woods: ahipwell@zoominternet.net .




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