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Breakfast emerged as the humble champion starting with the 2007 economic downturn, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

The NPD Group reveals that breakfast and brunch sales have boomed post-recession, accounting for an estimated $59 billion in total industry revenues. Morning meal sales skew toward older, more affluent diners, but brunch has become an important social outing for younger diners.

And the segment is set to grow still more: Mintelpredicts breakfast sales to increase 2.8 percent in 2013, and a whopping 22.1 percent between now and 2017.

Quick-serve operators now represent 83 percent of all breakfast availability, according to Datassential’s “Egg Menuing—Breakfast and Beyond” report for the American Egg Board, stealing share primarily from the midscale segment.

It’s certainly been a winner for Good Times Restaurants, the 41-unit burger specialist headquartered in Golden, Colorado. Introduced last fall, breakfast now accounts for 8 to 10 percent of total sales, all of it incremental, according to Boyd Hoback, president and CEO, who admits to having resisted the notion of adding breakfast for years. “There didn’t seem to be any way to make it our own—we have a lot of competition in the QSR segment and didn’t want to do just another sandwich.”

Opportunity came in the form of a burger promotion a year ago featuring a burger topped with Hatch Valley green chilies, which proved immensely popular, and a real point of differentiation for the chain. Thus was born the Good Times Breakfast Burrito, filled with scrambled eggs, cheese, spicy green chilies, homestyle potatoes and a choice of breakfast meat, all at the competitive sweet-spot price of $2.

“This is not like other QSR burritos,” says Boyd. “The Hatch chilies give it a real authentic kick.” Using existing inventory makes the burrito easy to execute with just a few shift hours' worth of additional labor, making the program extremely profitable. “We had forecast a breakeven of 4 to 5 percent, and we’re doing twice that,” says Boyd. “And it’s bringing in new customers plus our Good Times loyalists.”

Breakfast 24/7—It’s Always Morning Somewhere

One of the things that can make breakfast so compelling is the fact that there is demand for it at all times of day, not just in the morning. Certainly shift workers in hospitals and manufacturing sites are looking for breakfast that fits with their particular schedule. So are night owls ranging from clubbers to studiers burning the midnight oil.

"There was one late-night option on campus, but when we decided to add another venue after hours we decided that it should serve breakfast," says Robert Volpi, director of dining services at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The underutilized Lee Snack Bar (which is used by faculty during the day) was retooled to provide breakfast service to students from 8:30 p.m. until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends, representing the culmination of a seven-year project to offer more late-night foodservice at the small liberal arts college. The grill at Whitmans' (also part of the Paresky Student Center), closes at 1 a.m.; many smaller colleges offer nothing after 10 p.m.

“Students wanted a place to gather later, and we wanted a different option than the usual wings, pizza and burgers,” explains Tyler Sparks, class of '15, student chair of the Dining Services Committee, which drives many of the decisions made by the foodservice department. “And we have a weird fascination with eating breakfast at odd hours. It comes from late-night study habits.”

With a small investment in short-order and IT equipment, Lee After Dark now serves a diverse menu of breakfast fare both traditional and less so, including healthy options like vegan blueberry French toast and omelets made with local cage-free eggs. There are also signature items like gelato, in such flavors as Grilled Honey Buns, made with the favorite breakfast baked goods. Response to the food has been great, according to Volpi, and there has been a 20 percent net gain in participation, with no cannibalization of sales at Whitmans'.

More importantly, perhaps, the new service has helped to create a lively and energized late-night studying and social scene at Paresky Student Center. “We’re creating a meeting place in a space that used to be dead at night,” says Chris Abaya, assistant director of student dining.

Brunch Appeals for Indulgence

Breakfast can be a time- and budget-constrained meal—and then there’s that leisurely weekend brunch.

Brenda Buenviaje of Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco certainly knows about the all-day appeal of eggs and other breakfast and brunch foods. The Louisiana native opened Brenda’s in 2007 and almost immediately became famous for New Orleans-style eye-openers like Beignets, Andouille and Cheddar Omelets, and Eggs Benedict with such toppings as fried catfish or chicken.

Her popular breakfast for Sunday Supper came about by accident; at the 3 p.m. closing time on Sundays, people were still lined up for breakfast. “We joked that we should just serve breakfast all day, and then realized that, yeah, we should,” says Buenviaje. So the breakfast/brunch menu stays in force all day, with the addition of items like Hangtown Fry (a traditional San Francisco oyster-and-bacon egg scramble), Shrimp & Grits, and sandwiches and burgers after 3 p.m.

The strategy worked, essentially adding a complete additional turn; the 72-seat restaurant will serve as many as 500 covers from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, and another 200 to 250 from 3 to 8 p.m.

“We really have to keep things moving in the kitchen, though,” says the chef. Brenda’s signature, doughnut-like Beignets—available in plain sugar-dusted, chocolate, Granny Smith Apple, Crawfish and as a “flight” of all four—are ordered as a starter by almost every table as they’re sitting down, buying some time for the hard-pressed egg- and pancake-station and also allowing customers to decompress for a while and enjoy a Bloody Mary while they contemplate the rest of their meal. “And service is spread out a little bit because late risers know they don’t have to rush to get here by 3 p.m.”

At Georgetown University, an ARAMARK-managed account in Washington, D.C., students are staying on campus—rather than going out to a restaurant—thanks to the popular upscale weekend brunch offered in Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall. Menus cater to student dining preferences by offering trendy offerings, nutritious options, customizable and made-to-order selections, as well as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free choices.

  • A new made-to-order yogurt parfait bar is a popular selection, where attendants custom-build healthy parfaits with granola, fresh blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, as well as yogurt options such as low-fat Greek, plain, strawberry, honey vanilla and other flavored yogurts.
  • The Diner station features made-to-order regular and egg white omelets (an average of 500 omelets are served daily during weekend brunch), as well as hardboiled, over-easy or scrambled eggs to order, chicken, pork and turkey sausage, bacon, hash browns and tater tots. A full tater tot bar with a variety of toppings is due to be featured soon.
  • Leo’s Bistro station serves brick-oven frittatas and breakfast pizzas with freshly made in-house dough; a favorite is the Farm Fresh Pizza, with mushrooms, spinach, ham, bacon and eggs.
  • Leo’s Bakery showcases numerous breakfast pastries, breads, and baked goods such as biscuits, muffins, doughnut holes, cookies, and fresh made crepes (Nutella stuffed crepes being the most popular); scones are also planned.
  • The oatmeal bar features oatmeal made plain without butter for a healthy alternative, which guests can customize with such toppings as raisins, fresh fruit, chocolate chips and brown sugar. 
  • A variety of pancakes is also served, such as plain, chocolate chip, banana, as well as whole wheat pancakes to provide an option with extra fiber and nutrients. A waffle bar and jam-filled French toast are also offered. 

Breakfast Between the Buns … and More

Breakfast sandwiches have emerged as a surefire breakfast hit for a lot of different operations, and not just fast feeders and grab-and-go convenience store outlets. They can range from prosaic bacon, egg and cheese on an English muffin to a signature-worthy creation like the Breakfast Torta served at Mike & Patty’s in Boston: egg, salsa and cheese plus roasted poblanos, potato, refritos and avocado on a Mexican-style torta roll. Or the unusual Maple from Meat Cheese Bread in Portland, Oregon: shaved fennel, sausage and spicy cheddar melted between two slices of currant-studded bread pudding.

Not surprising considering the rising profile of quality sandwiches in general—plus, they’re easy on the house and convenient and fun for customers. For instance, more than 170 Hyatt Place locations have rolled out an “a.m. Skillet Breakfast” concept that includes a complimentary selection of hot breakfast sandwiches, served buffet-style in colorful enameled cast-iron. The new program offers hotel guests an upgrade for the standard Continental breakfast, without the disruption and labor involved in cooking to order.

Popular sandwiches include the Signature Sandwich (potato roll, egg patty, applewood-smoked bacon and Gouda cheese); Santa Fe Bagel (whole wheat bagel with ham, egg patty, fresh spinach, tomato, and chipotle mayo); and Sunrise Croissant (with egg patty, pepper Jack cheese, tomato, turkey and green salsa). Other rotating buffet items might include cinnamon French toast, pancakes, steel-cut oatmeal with toppings, yogurt and fresh fruit.

Breakfast Specialties Build Loyalty

To be sure, hotels have had significant success by promoting breakfast as part of the room package, and are developing breakfast specialties that offer a true point of difference from the usual bagels, cereal and yogurt Continental service. 

Four Points by Sheraton, the business-hotel division of Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide, recently ran a highly successful Breakfast for a Buck promotion that touted a full American breakfast with coffee for $1.

“When you’re traveling on business, you need it to be easy,” says spokesperson Shara Seigel, “and often that means having breakfast included in the bill. But when you hear the words ‘free breakfast’ you think this is just cereal. Charging a dollar raises the bar and gives that quality perception that it must be real breakfast, because you’re paying for it.”

Sure enough, the company went to its property chefs to get some of their favorite breakfast recipes, which gave the menu more of a specialized feel—and made the promotion social-media friendly, since Four Points posted recipes for the likes of Hearty Quiche, Smoked Turkey Crepes and Red Velvet Cake French Toast on its Facebook page.

“This gave our individual chefs some attention, and also reiterated the differentiation of this promotion from the standard hotel breakfast,” says Seigel.

The morning meal has always walked a line that divides the traditional from the trendsetting, particularly when it comes to weekday breakfast vs. weekend brunch. “Breakfast is a very loyal daypart,” says Jan Barnett, director of marketing for E&I Holdings, Inc., parent company of The Egg & I, a breakfast-and-lunch chain based in Centennial, Colorado. “On the weekdays, in particular, our number-one competition is home. If people do go out, they tend to follow a routine.”

Still, the 70-unit chain, which counts 90 percent of its sales from breakfast, finds itself in an enviable segment: average tickets may be lower that they are at dinner—when alcohol is moneymaker—but this is a one-shift proposition, leading to both lower labor costs and lower turnover. And profit margins on eggs, toast and home fries are nothing if not strong. For these and other reasons, including the fact that The Egg & I seeks to appear like an independent in its local markets, the company is on track to open two dozen new restaurants this year, and it’s opening up new states to its franchisees.

“Breakfast was a growing market when the economy was down, and it continues to appeal to all demographics, financial as well as age,” explains Barnett.

The wide-ranging menu includes a little something for everybody, from dependable egg-and-bacon platters to six different Benedicts; seven “Skillets & Scrambles” features; a clutch of omelets and frittatas; more than a dozen pancakes, waffles and French Toast; and such “Smarter Choices” as the Egg Byte Omelet (egg whites with diced tomatoes, green peppers, spinach, mushrooms and onions, served with salsa and fresh fruit) and several kinds of oatmeal.

New on the menu—and designed to appeal to Millennials and other younger diners—is the Eggs Ole section featuring specialties like Huevos Rancheros Green Chili Chicken Hash served with two eggs any style and tortillas.

Catering to Morning Business

During the downturn, many businesses and others who were purchasing catering turned to morning events to save money, and in the process helped to create a new opportunity for caterers.

“Breakfast is very popular for us, and represents about 50 percent of our catering orders,” says Josh Hasson, operations manager, Morrison Healthcare Food Services at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who handles the $2 million-a-year catering division.

With a floor each in two separate buildings dedicated to meeting facilities, Northwestern competes with hotels for medical conferences and other healthcare-related events—and has the kitchen resources and staffing to prove it. Offering its services as an amenity to the medical community is an important part of Morrison’s mission statement at Northwestern, and the department provides everything from coffee service for five to multi-meal packages. Catering is not only a source of revenue, but also serves as a marketing tool for the hospital itself.

Here, says Hasson, “the Continental is King”—these are people in a hurry to get back to work, and packages that offer fruit, baked goods, yogurt and juice cups are much in demand. Still, oatmeal and other hot cereals have become very popular lately, and specialties like cranberry buckwheat and orange quinoa as part of a hot cereal bar add some “wow factor” at breakfast, along with Muesli. Another up-and-comer is a self-service yogurt bar with toppings such as nuts, granola and berries, which is great for large groups where premade yogurt parfaits would be prohibitive.

Baked goods also represent a major draw for breakfast catering. “Operators are leveraging catering opportunities to build additional revenue,” says Jen Maher, Marketing Manager-Muffins & Donuts, ARYZTA LLC, parent company of Otis Spunkmeyer. “Beyond just traditional catered events,breakfast plays a big role in catering for businesses, and baked goods are always in demand.”

Breakfast has also proved to be a moneymaker for Meliora Catering at University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York, where foodservice is managed by ARAMARK. The menu includes several different categories of options within the Everyday, Premier and Natural Selections divisions, ranging from Basic Beginnings (bagels or muffins with fruit and coffee/tea) to full French Toast and Sunrise Sandwich buffets. There is also a Simple Takeaways program that offers baked goods and other cold items by the dozen, available for students on their declining balance. A new dedicated catering website helps keep it all running smoothly.

Recently, the catering team has upped the ante with upscale new breakfast small bites that are meant to “class up the morning offerings, without a lot of additional cost,” according to marketing manager Kevin Aubrey. In test are such specialties as Tortilla Espagnole with Smoked Paprika Aioli, Tiramisu Breakfast Shooters, Cheesecake Pops with Fruit Drizzle, and Sunny Side Up Quail Eggs with House-Smoked Duck Bacon and Wild Mushrooms on Toast Points.

“People are looking for something different, and we’ve seen the face of breakfast changing over the last few years,” points out director of catering Rachel Kehm. These brunchy items are intended to serve like hors d’oeuvres for the more upscale events booked through the Premier division, which includes many administrative events for the Provost and Board of Trustees. These custom events tend to be smaller and more specialized, but the small bites give the caterers the ability to remain competitively priced.

“We’re basing these on the classics, and adding our own inventive twist, utilizing specialty ingredients that we have on hand for other upscale events,” notes Nick Willemsen, catering executive chef, who has experimented with the likes of mini French Toast stuffed with foie gras and peanut butter, and homemade corned beef hash bites topped with a sunny quail egg. “We can get pretty creative with these, and showcase seasonal and local products.”

Another one of the hottest trends in breakfast right now is oatmeal and other hot cereals. According to Technomic, oatmeal has shown impressive growth in the years since it broke out as one of the hottest morning menu trends. Appearances of oatmeal have nearly doubled at the nation’s top chains since Starbucks launched its Perfect Oatmeal in 2008, particularly within the quick-service and fast-casual categories. The coffee giant is widely credited with helping to establish the popularity of oatmeal in chain restaurants.

Meanwhile, independents are offering their versions. There’s even a boutique café/coffee shop in New York City, called OatMeals, which serves a number of signature oatmeal bowls, such as Indian Spiced and Fig & Gorgonzola.

On Trend: Extravagant Eggs

  • Sunshine Co., Brooklyn, N.Y.: Salt Cod Hash with Poached Eggs
  • Village Inn chain: Philly Steak Skillet (fire-roasted potatoes topped with tender beef, pepper Jack cheese sauce, red bell peppers and onions; served with two eggs any style and buttermilk pancakes)
  • Mercat a la Planxa, Chicago: Blackstone Benedict (toasted brioche and chorizo, truffled hollandaise, breakfast potato)
  • Ruby Tuesday chain: Crabacado Omelet (jumbo lump crabmeat, sliced avocado, Swiss cheese and creamy Parmesan sauce)
  • Primehouse, Chicago: Crispy Fried Chicken Livers & Eggs (bacon, onions, eggs any style, Texas Toast)
  • Wow Bao chain: Breakfast Bowls (rice, jasmine rice or quinoa, topped with egg, bacon and cheddar or egg and spicy sausage)

On Trend: Signature Breakfast Sandwiches

  • Subway chain: Black Forest Ham, Egg & Cheese (on a flatbread)
  • Chambers, San Francisco: Egg Sandwich (herb focaccia, remoulade, wild mushrooms, butter lettuce)
  • Caribou Coffee chain: Egg White & Turkey Bacon
  • Dinette, Seattle: Truffled Eggwich (thin-sliced egg crepes, frisee, lemony aioli)
  • Denny’s chain: French Toast Slam (two slices of French toast with two eggs, two bacon strips and two sausage links)

On Trend: Pancakes, etc.

  • The Original, Portland, Oregon: Polenta Cakes, candied bacon, aged white cheddar, Oregon honey butter
  • In a Pickle, Waltham, Massachusetts: Chocolate Chip Waffle
  • Corner Bakery chain: Baked French Toast & Eggs with Sausage (cinnamon-swirled brioche bread baked in vanilla custard, served with scrambled eggs and chicken apple sausage)
  • Max’s Wine Dive, Houston: Jake’s Cakes & Wings (seasoned and Southern fried chicken wings top three Southern style cornbread griddle cakes with maple syrup)
  • Sugar & Plumm, New York City: Cajeta Caramel Crepes (goat’s milk caramel, salted caramel ice cream, fresh whipped cream)

On Trend: Ethnic Inspirations

  • Culina, Los Angeles: Caprese Crostini (basil scrambled eggs, mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes)
  • Taco John’s chain: Chile Verde Breakfast Enchiladas
  • Little Goat, Chicago: Kimchee & Bacon & Eggs Asian Style
  • Salsa Fiesta chain: Levanta Muerto (“hangover tortilla soup,” topped with a fried egg)
  • Foumami, Boston: Breakfast Bing (Chinese bread with egg omelet, cheese, bacon or ham)
  • Talde, Brooklyn, New York: Breakfast Ramen (buttered toast broth, honey-glazed bacon, six minute egg)

On Trend: Upgraded Oatmeal (and Cereal)

  • The Sycamore Kitchen, Los Angeles: Stone-ground Oatmeal, Quinoa and Barley, Cinnamon-date “butter”
  • Cosi chain: Così Oatmeal (finished with a choice of strawberries, pistachios, raisins, dried cranberries or Così Break Bar bits)
  • 25 Degrees, Chicago and California: Homemade Granola (honey, vanilla or plain yogurt, three berries)
  • The Good Egg chain: Roasted 7 Grain Bowl of Wheat
  • Longman & Eagle, Chicago: Housemade Granola (with yogurt “leather,” cranberry-walnut compote, caramel and cereal milk)

School Breakfast Update

The USDA’s School Breakfast Program (SBP), begun as a pilot program in 1966 and made permanent in 1975, is a federally assisted meal program that provides cash assistance to states to operate nonprofit breakfast programs in public and private schools, as well as residential childcare facilities.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the USDA to update the meal pattern and nutritional standard of both the School Lunch and School Breakfast programs to conform to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which call for limiting calories, salt and fat and adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The School Lunch Program changes took effect this school year—in many cases requiring entirely new menus and options— and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) is due to be implemented gradually beginning in the school year 2013-14.

According to the most recent School Breakfast Scorecard report, for the first time nationally, more than half of all low-income students who participated in school lunch also participated in school breakfast, and more than 90 percent of schools that operate the School Lunch Program also offered the School Breakfast Program.

While there is a push going on in many states to expand the breakfast in schools, this March the School Nutrition Association asked Congress to delay the new breakfast regulations in order to allow districts to more fully absorb the changes in school lunch. Many schools are still struggling with some elements of the new regulations, according to FoodService Director’s 2013 K-12 Census.

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