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What's for breakfast?

It just may be the most under-exploited category on morning menus. It's not that menu planners forget about these items. It's just that many otherwise-imaginative menus seem to run out of steam by the time they get to them, ending up with plain old pancakes or the ubiquitous plate of French toast.It just may be the most under-exploited category on morning menus. It's not that menu planners forget about these items. It's just that many otherwise-imaginative menus seem to run out of steam by the time they get to them, ending up with plain old pancakes or the ubiquitous plate of French toast.

Dazzled by glamorous and trendy newcomers such as breakfast burritos, "skillets," frittatas, and gourmet coffee concoctions, some operators grow bored with humble batter-based breakfast items—and assume that customers feel the same way. Others see little incentive to improve their pancake or waffle offerings because of what one owner calls "the price point problem"—a sense that customers will resist paying more for certain breakfast items, no matter how good they are.

But this leaves the field open to innovators such as restaurateur Lynn Winter, of Lynn's Paradise Cafe in Louisville, KY, who says, "I follow the same philosophy that I have for pasta or egg dishes. You take a basic concept that most people are familiar with, and satisfy their desire for something wonderful." And a little different. Top-notch ingredients and knock-your-socks-off specialties work for Winter, as they do for other operators who delight customers with a dozen or more choices.

Winter's customers pay about $8 for batter-based breakfast specialties, in part because ingredients are top grade.

As Winter points out, these items are still quite profitable because costly accompaniments and fold-ins are added sparingly, while the waffles or pancakes themselves are "large looking, not dinky," adding to the dish's perceived value. The restaurant's baker takes the labor-saving step of premixing and bagging a week's worth of dry ingredients.

Sometimes careful execution of well-loved favorites is all it takes. A commitment to product consistency, together with a modest level of innovation, is the name of the game for Village Inn Restaurants, which has most of its 200-plus units in the West. "If we try to change the ingredients in our buttermilk pancakes, customers rebel," says Pat McClelland, manager of menu research and development for the Denver-based company, founded in 1959 and now owned by Vicorp Inc.

According to McClelland, success is in the details. In addition to following the recipe precisely, care must be taken not to overmix the batter, which can cause it to go flat; for the same reason, the batter must be used within two days. Area managers check regularly to make sure the pancakes measure up.

While leaving the basic buttermilk formula untouched, Village Inn has added new products aimed at the health-minded customer. Fruit and Nut Pancakes are made with a multi-grain batter, and the Cinnamon Raisin French Toast is dipped in a low-cholesterol egg substitute; both items carry a heart-healthy symbol.

Meticulously made batters and product innovation have also been important to International House of Pancakes since the 720-restaurant company, based in Glendale, CA, was founded nearly 40 years ago. "Our restaurants are known for distinctive tasting buttermilk pancakes. People come to us for products they can't get anywhere else," says marketing VP Susan Hernandez.

In addition to the carefully guarded pancake formula, IHOP has trademarked the recipe for Harvest Grain and Nuts, a batter made with whole grains, almonds, and English walnuts. The batter for Country Griddle Cakes, developed during the past five years, produces cakes with a light, crisp texture. Yet another batter is used for crepes and German pancakes, and children are partial to "funny face" pancakes made with a special chocolate batter.

A perennial best seller in IHOP restaurants is Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity, a combo of two eggs, bacon strips, sausage links, and buttermilk pancakes, with a choice of four fruit toppings. Similarly, in Village Inn's restaurants, a breakfast item with a side of cakes outsells solo servings of pancakes, waffles, or French toast.

It's the added touches that really count. The whipped cream on the Belgian waffle served by Lespinasse, Washington, DC's elegant restaurant in Sheraton Carlton Hotel, in looks ordinary enough. But one taste of the sweet froth reveals a tantalizing hint of tart apple. It was created by infusing green apple peelings in hot water, reducing the liquid, and folding the essence into the whipped cream.

The apple cream is typical of the subtle signatures at Lespinasse. "No one wants the culinary revelation of their life at breakfast. It's better to have something people know, and execute it perfectly," says Troy Depuy, chef de cuisine, who adds, "We spend a lot of time sourcing the accompaniments."

True to the owner's nationality, the Royal Canadian Pancake House, with three restaurants in Manhattan and one in Florida, offers maple syrup with its 95 varieties of pancakes, waffles, French toast, and crepes. But customers can also upgrade to a "rare medium amber maple syrup from Northern Quebec." Toby Graham, a long-time server, explains why some customers spring for the $2 surcharge: "It's less viscous. If you know your maple syrup, you can tell the difference."

Some customers do relish surprises, even early in the morning. Bourbon Ball French Toast is a menu staple at Lynn's Paradise Cafe, and so are the Virginia Corn Cakes, served either with sautéed apples and maple syrup, or a ham and butter bean ragout and crème fraîche.

Sorghum butter, a distinctive regional ingredient, inspired a special consisting of pancakes filled with diced apple, raisins, butternut squash, and oats. As an alternative to maple syrup, customers can choose sorghum butter blended with grated ginger root. "Tutti frutti" pancakes, a recent special, were dyed lime green and enhanced with chocolate chips, raspberry sauce, and multi-colored sprinkles. Kids loved them—and, less predictably, so did seniors.

Bolillo bread makes the difference in the Banana French Toast served at Cha Cha Cha Cafe, with locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA. The crusty Mexican-style rolls, with a fluffy, light crumb, are "the most delicious bread you've ever had," according to co-owner Tod Breslau. Bananas sautéed in butter go on top. Another signature is Croissant French Toast, made by halving, battering, and pan-frying croissants, then reassembling them with a stuffing of raspberry preserves and cream cheese.

Bickford's Family Restaurants, a Boston-based company with about 60 restaurants, menus batter-based specialties ranging from pineapple pancakes to pigs in buttermilk-pancake blankets. But only The Big Apple boasts a menu box of its own. "This is one thing we can offer guests that is different from any other place," says marketing coordinator Tina Brehob. A batter lightened with egg whites is poured into custom-made, single-portion pans. When apples are added, they sink to the bottom. Midway through the cooking, the cake is flipped so that the apples, oozing with cinnamon syrup, are on top for service.

Servers rush each Big Apple order to the table while the dramatic, souffle-like confection is three to four inches high. Using the same batter, cooks also make a puffy German pancake, served right side up with lemon wedges and a dusting of powdered sugar.

A party of four can get a Big Apple to split, in addition to individual breakfast orders. Customers often order one as a late-night snack, or ask that it be topped with ice cream, for dessert.

As part of its "breakfast at night" tradition, Bickford's two-for-one offer on Tuesday nights applies strictly to batter-based items. Customers are encouraged to mix and match the 21 choices of pancakes, waffles, French toast, and crepes. To build up check averages, extras are positioned prominently on the menu. "Customers figure that since they're getting a deal on the pancakes or waffles, they might as well order our ham steak, bacon, or sausage," says Brehob.

The oversized menu of Royal Canadian Pancake House hints at the dozens of choices inside. Gargantuan portions are another trademark. For a typical price of $8.75, customers get a choice of nine silver dollars (each 31/2 in. across) or three 14-in. cakes.

The batter for Immigrants Ecstasy contains matzo meal, while the one for Moose-jaw features lager beer. Oven-baked pancakes emerge fluffier than griddle cakes made with the same batter. Savory fillings rolled into Quebec Crepes include mushroom, spinach, and albacore tuna. As to waffles, the cornmeal version come with Canadian back bacon, and regular ones are topped with everything from peanut butter to lingonberries to a sauté of zucchini or tomatoes, with sour cream on the side.

Judging by the menu, you'd think Royal Canadian customers were adventurous eaters. But about 60% at the Midtown store order pancakes, notes server Toby Graham, while 30% take omelets, leaving only 10% of orders split among remaining items. And, customers are more likely to order blueberry-banana pancakes than, Brushwood-Style cakes with sweet potato chunks on top.

Nonetheless, the sheer volume of choices on the menu has helped make the pancake house's reputation. It's fun to read, and gives customers an incentive to return: After all, no matter which kind of pancakes, waffles, French toast, or crepes they order, there are 94 more left to try.

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