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Breakfast: Morning news

The breakfast segment has been one of the bright spots in this dim economy. While lunch and dinner traffic has fallen off, more diners are going out for breakfast—or taking it to go. For one thing, Americans still want to eat in restaurants and breakfast hits the wallet with the softest blow. For another, breakfast is a meal that can effortlessly fit into both rushed weekdays and more relaxed weekends.

According to Technomic‘s 2009 Breakfast Consumer Trend Report, nearly 33 percent of Americans eat breakfast away from home. Although breakfast has become a hotbed of activity for restaurants, retailers and manufacturers trying to better establish themselves in the market, there is room for improvement. Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, believes breakfast is still the most underpenetrated daypart. “There’s an opportunity to draw in more customers with more ethnic selections, healthy offerings, like oatmeal, yogurt and fruit, and higher quality, more innovative grab-and-go items,” he says. Here’s what three operators are purchasing and menuing to meet the challenge.

Roti Mediterranean Grill
Chicago, IL
4 locations

Lunch was Roti’s prime focus when the fast-casual Mediterranean café launched, but “we felt it was opportunistic to add breakfast at our new downtown Chicago location. We’re in the middle of a busy street and 20,000 pedestrians walk by each day,” says president Bill Post. In step with the healthy menu mix at lunch—flatbread and pita sandwiches, fresh salads and grilled kebab platters—the breakfast menu features egg wraps, yogurt parfaits made with thick, Greek yogurt, granola and fruit, and muffin crowns baked every morning in house. Stone-ground oatmeal may be an option for winter. The coffee is Metropolis, a local brand with a cult following. Everything can be taken to go and prices range from $1.50 to $3.

“The limited menu makes it operationally feasible,” notes Post. “The staff comes aboard in early morning anyway and many of the ingredients can be cross-utilized. Plus, if items like the yogurt parfaits or muffin crowns are left over, they’ll sell out during lunch.” Currently, Roti sources from two broadliners, relying on smaller suppliers for more unique products; deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables arrive five days a week.

“As we grow and our menu evolves, we’ll use more local suppliers,” says Post.  “Mediterranean and Middle Eastern are trends that are being embraced around the country and we see lots of room for a QSR that serves a healthy breakfast.”

J. Christopher’s
Atlanta, GA-based
21 locations

lthough J. Christopher’s serves breakfast and lunch during its operating hours from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., customers have the flexibility of ordering breakfast all day. The core breakfast menu, featuring such “familiar with a flair” favorites as Blueberry Crunchcakes, Spinach and Bacon Skillet with sunnyside-up eggs and Billy Goat Omelet topped with goat cheese, remains pretty stable to appeal to the concept’s regulars. But this past year, president Sam Haddock and CEO Dick Holbrook decided to change things up a bit by adding five special seasonal menu inserts. Gingerbread Waffles and Egg Nog French Toast were two of the recent holiday offerings.

“We have to be very careful about change because we have a very loyal following,” says Holbrook, “but this gives us a chance to add freshness and call attention to the menu.” Nevertheless, both the extensive core menu and the limited time specials offer creative touches and a good balance between healthy and indulgent selections. “Our brand has a healthy halo and items like the Goddess Omelet (made with egg whites), turkey bacon and sausage and fruit parfaits do very well for us,” reports Haddock.

J. Christopher’s is a firm believer in prepping at the restaurant level to maintain quality, so most of the products they bring in are fresh or minimally handled. The breakfast potatoes, for example, are simply cubed and frozen so the kitchen can oven-roast or griddle them with its signature seasonings. They’re offered both for breakfast and as a side for lunch. “We lean on Sysco [our broadliner] and our purchasing consultant to get new products in front of us,” says Holbrook.

What might future menu changes bring? “We’re thinking about adding grab-and-go items; making some of our breakfast selections more portable for the guest who wants something to go with our great lattes,” adds Haddock.

Desert Diamond
Casinos & Hotel
Tucson, AZ
One location

In addition to attracting daily visitors, this gaming center does a large banquet and conference business. “We book 25 to 30 meetings a week,” says director of food & beverage Wayne Wilson, “but these groups want to start the day with something light.” So Wilson has perfected serving continental breakfast to a crowd, offering up a spread of muffins, bagels and pastries accompanied by juice, fruit, coffee and tea. He is especially pleased that after years of asking, he can now buy Sara Lee frozen par-baked pastries in mini sizes.

“Switching to minis has provided us a way of significantly reducing waste and cost while still giving guests plenty of variety,” he explains. “And they’re easy to handle from an operations standpoint. We just open the box and pop them into the flash oven.” The product line includes downsized versions of fruit and cheese Danish, muffins, cinnamon rolls, croissants, bagels and several other bakery items. The pastries also double-task as afternoon pick-me-ups with tea and coffee service.

Desert Diamond is a high-volume customer: Wilson orders 40 to 50 cases of the mini-pastries each week and uses 400 to 500 pieces a day. He stores them in on-premise warehouses, keeping about five cases in the main freezer “for a rainy day. If I get 40 more people in one morning, I have the product on hand,” he says. “These pastries take much less labor and time than baking from scratch.”

As far as the rest of his breakfast menu goes, Wilson finds that the current economy is forcing some larger companies to offer bargains on high quality food items. “Formerly untouchable products are becoming more affordable, which allows me to upgrade some of my selections,” he points out. For example, honey bacon is coming in at the same price as regular bacon, whereas it used to cost almost twice as much; ready-to-eat cereals sold in convenient bowls now fit his budget while they didn’t a year ago. It’s a win-win for the operator and the guest.

What’s happening on the breakfast plate?

Technomic’s 2007 Breakfast Consumer Trend Report identified the breakfast category as an area of potential growth. The industry took notice and the company’s 2009 report offers an update on activity in the breakfast daypart.

  • 46 percent of consumers now say they would like breakfast to be served all day at full-service restaurants, while 32 percent would like that option at limited service concepts. The majority of those consumers are women.
  • Breakfast-menu development at leading fast-casual chains is worth watching; these concepts were more likely to add new entrées, signature breakfast sandwiches and side items in 2009.
  • In the full-service arena, value is more likely to be linked to hearty portion sizes via combo plates, while handheld items and breakfast sandwiches at limited-service chains convey value through convenience.
  • When it comes to flavor, mainstream FSRs are going the bold route with peppery Southwestern entrées, while emerging and independent menus are adding sweeter, fruity accents.
  • Underscoring a premium characteristic for proteins—with apple- or cherrywood-smoked, honey and hickory menu descriptions for bacon, ham and sausage, for example—increases the quality and value perception.
  • Emerging/independent concepts consider healthy breakfast items to be those that focus on whole grains, nuts, yogurt and fresh fruit. Regional and local ingredients may also have a health halo. 

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