What's the BIG DEAL About Small Snacks?

`BITE-SIZE is the right size, man!" So trumpets Bart Simpson on a box stuffed with miniature Butterfinger candy inside Choice Mart, a convenience store here.

It's a big-name endorsement for tiny hand-to-mouth food and one of the many telling signs that a miniature food revolution is alive and well in America.

Indeed, in any food store in this country today, a growing number of snacks labeled "bite-size" or "mini" have invaded both check-out counters and snack-food aisles.

A recent stroll through Purity Supreme in nearby Cambridge, Mass., for instance, revealed a hefty list of petite snacks ranging from Brownie Bites and Mini Muffins to Granola Bites and Mini Rice Cakes - as well as a host of button-size versions of old-time favorites: Mini Oreos, Nutter Butter Bites, and Bite-Size Pecan Sandies.

So what's with this wave of tiny food products? Why now, and why here - in a land deeply planted in notions of "bigger is better"?

Americans demand "convenience and portability," says Kerry Lyman, a spokesperson for Continental Baking Company. Hostess, one of the company's subsidiaries, packages its tiny brownies and muffins in plastic bags. The products have been a success, she says, because "people like something easy to eat on the run." Hostess is currently test-marketing mini-cinnamon rolls.

Victoria Yuen, a 13-year-old from Boston who totes her lunch daily, adds that the nicest thing about tiny cookies is that "they don't crumble." Minis combat cookie slump

Executives in the cookie industry point to a slow market, and not consumer demand, as the driving force behind the mini-cookie trend. Indeed, since the soft-cookie war of the mid-1980s, Nabisco, Keebler, and Sunshine have shown profits as flat as a Midwest horizon. Today's tough times - stemming from an American public that is pinching both waistlines and pennies, and a recent growth of private labels - has left the industry scrambling for new products that will woo customers. These button cookies unders core the companies' marketing hunger: Cookiemakers have crept into the snack-food category and are mimicking the "look" in hope of increasing their revenue. As Alexander Nichols, a spokesman from Sunshine puts it: "Everybody's taking a little bit from everybody else."

Stuart Greenblatt, a spokes-man for Keebler Company, says the company's main interest is in "staying alive," which means "coming up with innovative products and giving customers what they want."

It is Nabisco, however, the oldest (200 years) and largest cookie-cracker company in America (it dominates 49 percent of the industry), that has most aggressively pushed the mini products.

Not surprisingly, it was this giant company that instigated the "bite-size" invasion in 1987 when they shrunk top-selling Ritz into Ritz Bits. Pleased to find their tiny tykes turning a healthy profit, they quickly downsized more: Premium Bits and Triscuit Bits, then followed with fun cracker-cookie bears that made celebrity status: Teddy Grahams. In 1991, they rolled out the first downsize cookie: Mini Chips Ahoy!

Who's most apt to gobble down bite-size morsels? Ann Smith, a spokesperson for Nabisco, says: health-conscious adults ("Five mini Oreos give them the same satisfaction as one regular Oreo"); teens ("They don't mind popping the mini products into their mouth - there's something cool about that popping thing"); and little people ("Kids love the mini product - it's just right for their hands").

Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields, Inc. cookies, jumped on the mini bandwagon more than a year ago with 1-inch drops of her best-sellers. She calls them "nibblers," and according to Mrs. Fields: "They're the most successful product introduction we've ever done."

Yet some in the industry are less enthusiastic about mini products. Sunshine, for example, has yet to produce offsprings of top sellers. Mr. Nichols maintains that mini cookies often cannibalize sales of their parent brands. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of incremental volume coming from bite-size products," he says. Undercurrent of `trickerism'

Part of Americans' appetite for bite-size food may stem from deeper sources. Lorna Sass, a culinary historian based in New York, says she believes an undercurrent of "trickerism" leads people to mini snacks. In our "fat-conscious" climate, she says, (which makes people prone to feeling guilty about eating sweets), they are more apt to "eat small things like they don't count.... We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to have a little, and a little, and a little...."

Martin Friedman, editor of New Product News, agrees with this take on Americans' eating sensibility. He says the draw to tiny food is a tribute to Americans' ability to delude themselves about what they eat. "Cutting down to smaller sizes makes you think you're eating less," he concludes.

Deeper still, some say about this tiny-food invasion, are political tugs. Clark Wolff, who runs a food-trend company in New York City, says minis are a backlash to the prosperous '80s: "Reaganomics' conspicuous consumption is not only dead, it's buried. Mighty morsels are more appropriate."

Mr. Wolff is also quick to link the trend to America's increasing openness for things European. "America has always been about the great, big, and plenty. We always had a giggle in Europe with miniature pastries and candies. Now we're grown more health conscious and more knowledgeable."

Ms. Sass, on the other hand, theorizes that America's larger decade-long trend - portion-sizing - has paved the way for mini snacks.

"In miniatures the bite has been created for us," she says, and adds that the industry has turned into our "surrogate mommy."

But some food watchers say a lighter current is fueling the trend. Richard Sax, author of "The Cookie Lover's Cookie Book," says America's insatiable appetite for cuteness and novelty underscores the draw to mini cookies. "It's like we all grew up with Oreos. We all know what Oreos look like. And all of a sudden, here are these baby-size Oreos...."

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