Emerging Brands

Top 500: A changing of the guard in family dining

Daytime dining brands are stealing the mantle of old-guard three-meal concepts.
Bloody Mary
Photograph courtesy of Snooze, an A.M. Eatery

Before the coronavirus scrambled the restaurant business, an upheaval was already remaking one of its bigger segments. Past Top 500s sported a number of family-dining chains high in the rankings, with little mystery as to why. Sector powerhouses such as Shoney’s, Bob Evans and Village Inn offered three meals a day to a diehard pack of longtime fans. They may have lacked bars, but they served an ocean of high-margin coffee. And who could touch them at breakfast?

Try First Watch; Snooze, an A.M. Eatery; Another Broken Egg; The Egg & I; Jimmy’s Egg; Broken Yolk Cafe; and Eggs Up Grill, among a host of others.  Despite offering just breakfast, lunch and brunch, they’re supplanting many of the old guard as drivers of family dining’s growth. All hail the new a.m. kings, the emerging segment some are calling daytime dining.

Only one member of the pack, First Watch, has cracked the top 100 (No. 82, with systemwide sales of $558 million). But its growth has soared as it injects pizzazz into a daypart that had seen little innovation outside of the quick-service market for eons.

“No one’s done anything different at breakfast for 40 years. Same menu, same ambiance,” says David Birzon, CEO of Snooze.  “There’s a changing of the guard, but it’s not one dictated by the operators. It’s been dictated by the guests and where they spend their dollars.”

For one thing, he and others in the segment say, there’s the food. Tradition and predictability are celebrated on the menus of many old-guard family chains.  

“There’s never been a chef-driven component to breakfast, and that’s what we do,” says Birzon.

“When TGI Fridays opened, it was the hottest thing. People want new experiences, and the consumer has never been so educated.” —David Birzon, Snooze, an A.M. Eatery

Pancakes constitute a big part of Snooze’s menu, but the selections include Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes, pancake flights, and ones made with sweet potatoes. Guests can also try a pancake of the day.

Also on the menus are out of the ordinary items such as shakshuka, a Middle Eastern breakfast specialty, and breakfast pot pie.

“Those concepts are really on point regarding the mainstream trends, and certainly the food and beverage trends,” says Hudson Riehle, SVP of the research and knowledge group for the National Restaurant Association.

One of those mainstream trends, according to Birzon: Breakfast is no longer purely convenience-driven, even during the week. Today, white-collar workers have staggered hours, and meetings take place before 9 a.m., often outside of the office.

“The world has changed,” he says. “Work is wherever you have a laptop, and whenever you choose to work.” For Snooze’s fans, he says, that workplace of choice is a restaurant table or a seat at its bar.

A number of the daytime dining upstarts feature a robust alcoholic drinks program. Another Broken Egg has even experimented with unlimited cocktails.

Drinking at breakfast and lunch no longer raises eyebrows, says Birzon. Snooze’s bars generate about 12% of total sales, and that’s not counting juices, coffees or teas.

That willingness to veer from the old formulas of family dining is a big reason for daytime dining’s success, according to Riehle. Breakfast, he points out, has long been the meal consumers are most likely to eat at home. He, too, sees old habits dying away, but still credits time pressures as the major reason. Workdays are starting earlier, leaving less time for cooking.

The crunch “not only allows for greater expansion of dayparts like breakfast, but also the development of new business models that are more focused than concepts that were created decades ago,” says Riehle.  It doesn’t mean the old solutions are endangered species, it’s just a matter of where the growth is coming from.”

Birzon doesn’t disagree. “When TGI Fridays opened, it was the hottest thing,” he says. “People want new experiences, and the consumer has never been so educated.” They want a place like Snooze, where ingredient sources are identified to an extensive degree and the brand’s commitment to sustainability is noted at every turn. Transparency has been an aim since the first egg was cracked, Birzon says.

The challenge, he said, is figuring out how to change without muting the attractions that brought initial success.

“For old-line, old-guard brands, the difficulty is: How do you change and keep what’s core to your brand?” he says.

“Those concepts are really on point regarding the mainstream trends, and certainly the food and beverage trends.” —Hudson Riehle, National Restaurant Association, on daytime-dining brands

It’s definitely an art, says Anita Adams, CEO of Black Bear Diner (No. 122), a 25-year-old family dining concept that is currently enjoying its greatest success.

“At the end of the day, I really believe we’ve been successful because we offer something different,” she says.  

Part of that is adherence to the brand’s pronounced traditions. Each store features a full-sized wooden carving of a bear, plus a jukebox. Portions are enormous, and its signatures include homestyle pies that could have come right out of Aunt Bee’s kitchen.

“It’s classic diner,” says Adams. But then she applies the asterisk: “We think of our dayparts differently. At breakfast, we compete with more of the traditional family-dining brands. As you move into lunch and dinners, we become more of a casual-dining brand.”

At 4 p.m., the lights are dimmed, servers change into uniforms more suitable for a casual-dining place, and the music is reprogrammed to provide the right ambiance.

A nighttime-only menu features tri-tip steak, roasted turkey, smoked brisket and a roasted half-chicken. A prime rib special is offered on Sunday.

As for other traditional family-dining chains, “perhaps they didn’t evolve,” says Adam. “We’ve very much capitalized on those brands—we’ve converted 14 different concepts to Black Bear Diners.”

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

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