Dinner traffic has stalled for many casual-dining players, but some are seeing a bright spot in brunch. Adding or expanding brunch can boost customer counts—but it doesn’t come without challenges. Operators may have to purchase additional equipment and SKUs, add and train staff, and spend marketing dollars to get guests in the door. So these brands are finding savings elsewhere.
1. Shaking up service
The Hilton Oak Brook Hills Resort outside of Chicago hosts a lot of business breakfasts and weekend brunches through its banquet services, says Sean Curry, executive chef and food and beverage director. When a group requested a morning reception that would foster team building, he came up with the idea of a breakfast cocktail party. Waiters passed appetizer-style breakfast bites, such as potatoes stuffed with pulled pork hash, mini quiches, and ham and cheese scones.
“It became a conversation starter,” says Curry. The downsized dishes also reduced food costs. “More labor goes into the preparation of these items, but guests go through less food and there’s far less waste than at a brunch buffet or sit-down meal,” he says.
2. Optimizing training
When management at Burtons Grill noticed that its North Andover, Mass., location did four times as much Sunday brunch business between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. as the chain’s comparably sized restaurants serving the lunch menu, they decided to roll out Sunday brunch to all 12 units. But the rollout is intentionally gradual, says VP of Operations Denise Herrera.
“You have to add more cooks to the line at first,” says Herrera. “And with brunch service only one day a week, the challenge is consistency.” In the beginning, many have to be re-educated every week until they get the hang of unfamiliar tasks such as egg poaching, she says. Once the kitchen masters execution, Burtons takes people off the line and saves on labor. In the meantime, a pared-down menu of five items helps keep a lid on food costs.
3. Adding a daypart
At the end of October, Maggiano’s Little Italy—which previously offered brunch only as a banquet option—began testing a weekend brunch menu in Dallas and Austin, Texas. It was so well-received, says Larry Konecny, VP of innovation and restaurant support, that Maggiano’s sped the rollout of brunch to all 52 units on Feb. 28.
The menu features five Benedicts, including a play on Chicken Francese, a best-seller at dinner, lowering food costs by cross-utilizing entire dishes. Brunch is offered on Saturday and Sunday, but since the Benedicts and the Italian-American Breakfast (eggs, ham, bacon, Italian sausage and potatoes) have been crowd favorites, Maggiano’s added them to the daily lunch menu. The kitchen didn’t have experience with pancakes and other breakfast staples, so Maggiano’s eased prep issues by deploying field chefs to each location and leveraging its sous chefs to help train kitchen staff.
4. The event side of brunch
There’s opportunity to turn brunch into a destination beyond traditional activities. While customizable bloody mary bars and live music work for some concepts, Burtons Grill is going the fitness route by offering brunch-yoga packages at locations that have private group space. Herrera is working with local studios to hold classes followed by brunch. The package will go for about $30 and include healthier dishes.