Fewer nuggets, smaller salads as shrinkflation hits U.S. restaurant diners

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Feeling a bit cheated when you look down at your plate? It’s not just a figment of your imagination—portions at some U.S. restaurants are indeed getting smaller. Call it shrinkflation: when sizes shrink, but you’re paying the same price, or sometimes even more, for the meal or product.

America’s restaurants are in the same boat as the rest of the country, battling the soaring food and fuel costs that recently helped send US inflation to a 40-year high. Eateries have hiked prices, too. Government data Wednesday showed costs for food away from home have climbed 7.2% over the past 12 months. But now, restaurant operators are starting to worry about how much more they can raise the tab before diners start to balk, especially for something that’s considered optional spending.

So companies are instead coming up with some behind-the-scenes strategies to crimp costs, hence the shrinking portions. At Subway Restaurants across the U.S., rotisserie chicken wraps and sandwiches have less meat. Domino’s Pizza has cut down orders of boneless wings from 10 pieces to eight, and diners at Burger King will see the same reduction for their nugget meals. The side cups of salsa are getting smaller at Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill. And in Southport, North Carolina, the 1-pound salads at Gourmet to Go are now 2 ounces lighter.

“Yes, it’s inflation going on,” said Carolyn Gherardi, owner of Gourmet to Go, a small single-story shop with a front porch and a yellow door that offers customers grab-and-go “homestyle” meals. For now, she’s holding price steady on those salads at $6.95.

“We’re trying to keep the cost the same, but in essence it’s less value,” she said.

Restaurants are betting that consumers won’t mind a few fewer fries, or a little less filling on their sandwiches as much as they would grumble about seeing yet another price increase. It’s a strategy that tends to work because of how our brains compute—or don’t compute—the changes, said Nailya Ordabayeva, a marketing professor at Boston College.

“People tend to underestimate changes in object sizes,” she said. “It’s pretty convenient for companies to actually move size, move around size, more than they do price, because people do notice price changes more.”

Astute grocery shoppers will know that shrinkflation isn’t new. Switching to smaller sizes is an age-old technique to deal with tighter margins, especially for makers of packaged goods. But food costs are rising so rapidly right now that the practice is becoming more widespread, hitting restaurants and supermarkets.

In February, non-dairy cheese maker Daiya Foods got rid of its 8-ounce (227-gram) package size of vegan shreds to make room for a slightly different product that’s only 7.1 ounces. Gatorade has made a similar move, recently phasing out its 32-ounce bottles to just sell its 28-ounce version. Consumers on the r/shrinkflation subreddit forum have posted pictures of examples like smaller bags of chips, shrinking soap bars and lighter bottles of lotion.

Not even your toilet paper is safe. Speaking with AARP, Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World, said that major brands have cut the number of sheets that come on a roll.

Sometimes companies are attributing the changes to things like supply-chain issues or even consumer preferences. Gatorade, for example, says part of the reason for the smaller bottle size is that it’s easier to grip. Subway said reductions for the rotisserie-style chicken sandwiches “reflect our ongoing evolution to improve our offerings and are not in response to inflation.”

Consumers suspect a bit of foul play, assuming that eateries aren’t being straightforward. About 56% of US diners say they would be more willing to pay a little extra if restaurants clearly explain why prices are rising, according to a survey commissioned by MarketMan.

On top of tinier portions, restaurants are also taking other measures to battle rising costs, like swapping out regular proteins for lesser cuts.

When Salsarita’s head of operations heard about the nearly 26% price hike coming for steak, it was too much to stomach. The company went with a less-expensive cut of beef, opting to use ball-tip steak instead of tri tip. The swap brought that increase down to about 22%—still a staggering jump, but a little easier on the mostly franchised chain of 85 units. Now, the company alternates between the cuts, depending on what’s available and what’s cheaper.

“I feel like we were pretty fortunate because some of that conversation was, ‘Do we take that increase? Or do we sit it out and take steak off the menu?'” Chief Operating Officer Merrick McKinnie said. “We were able to drop that cost down, saying we’ll use either one.”

The Charlotte, North Carolina-based chain has also turned a supply-chain issue into a cost-cutting solution. After having trouble getting the standard 4-ounce plastic cups it uses for servings of salsas, queso and sour cream, the restaurants are often using 3.5-ounce versions instead. The half-ounce reduction doesn’t upset customers, and now the company is considering a permanent shift lower, McKinnie said.

“In a perfect world, if there’s a 4-ounce and a 3.5-ounce, we’ll shift to smaller,” he said.

At J. Alexander’s, a chain of about 20 steakhouses, the trimmings from the filet mignon used to get trashed, but now chefs are grinding up those extra pieces of beef to make cheeseburgers. They’re also putting them in other newly created dishes such as carne asada tacos, “because of inflation,” Chief Executive Officer Jim Mazany said.

“Today, we’re really utilizing that entire product,” Mazany said.

Consumers are likely to see more shrinkflation and cost-cutting measures in the months ahead, since price pressures aren’t going away anytime soon. The US Department of Agriculture now expects retail food prices to gain 5% to 6% this year—roughly double its forecast from three months ago.

Bryan Stotland, a 53-year-old from Chicago, says he’s noticing smaller portions mostly at grocery stores, but also for entrees at sit-down eateries, too. “It’s like $20 for an appetizer and $32 for a entree, and they’re pretty close to the same size. So in that sense portions have shrunk.”

“Sometimes I get a little frustrated,” he said. “But I guess it’s like the economy is messed up, and you understand.”

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9 thoughts on “Fewer nuggets, smaller salads as shrinkflation hits U.S. restaurant diners

  1. Midwest meals out are much larger, typically, than on either coast. There are three consequences as a result. One is eating everything on the plate (which can easily exceed 3,000 or more calories and dangerously high amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat) and becoming morbidly obese. The another is leaving food on the plate, contributing to a waste of food that ends up in a dumpster (which benefits no one). And the last one is paying higher prices to eat out, due in part to the cost of the large plate of food. Right-sizing the meal is a good thing that Hoosiers should welcome fir their own sake.

    1. While your point is fundamentally correct, restaurants aren’t doing this out of some clarion call to social responsibility in promoting a public health battle against obesity. That’s the last thing they care about. They’re doing this because of a horrendous economy marred by crippling inflation, and it’s the only way they can stay in the black without raising prices to levels that scare people away. In other words, they’re fooling people into thinking they’re still getting their money’s worth when they order out…but who are they fooling? We all know our money is worth significantly less than it was a year ago, or three months ago, or even two weeks ago.

    2. Lauren B. We have inflation because the economy is screaming hot soaring. It is wonderful to see how well things are going. Things are booming for the first time in 20 years. I am surprised you commented here on an IBJ article since I assumed from the tone of your comments, you would be getting most of your news from FOX.

      I bought a house in 1988 with 18% Interest rate because inflation was out of control. I guess all of your news sources have selective memory.

    3. Lauren B – I for one welcome smaller portions (and would argue for lower prices to boot), but would note that candy manufacturers long ago reduced the size of their products and kept prices the same after the down-sizing. There’s nothing new about that. Whether by choice or by necessity, there are few alternatives available to retailers in our current economic environment (which, btw, is not unique to the US as inflation and supply chain woes are global).

  2. Meals in all US chain restaurants seemed to be super-sized. It is always a pleasure to travel in Europe because if I order a sandwich at lunch, I will actually be hungry for dinner. In the US even the fruit in the super market is super-sized. Nobody really needs a 1500 calorie sandwich with a 900 calorie side of fries for just one meal.

    Amen to smaller meals.

  3. I’d rather a restaurant keep portions the same and up the prices. Many people share a salad or sandwich. As a guest I will note your shenanigans when commodity prices correct and you’re still giving me 3 French fries after raising the price.

    After the last bird flu from 7 or 8 years ago (?) ended, egg inventories were through the roof. Large eggs were around 3 – 5 cents each. And that was RETAIL. A three-egg omelet at your favorite diner was probably less than a dime in food costs (of course add more for meats, veggies, and cheese but you get the point). Breakfast operators made a killing. Most didn’t get stingy during the flu and they kept the same portions – and kept their customers.

  4. As most have noted, many meal sized were too big. One frequently would leave a good portion to be trashed or request a take home contained (to be trashed at home once the meal is forgotten).

    Perhaps more attention to quality instead of quantity should be the focus. However, those who still are able to afford dining out should not complain. Many do not have this option. Despite the inflation for food items, it remain much more economical to prepare and eat at home. The justification for eating out is not economic but because one wants to do so. Of course, one can eat out less often.