With economic woes leaving dinner sales slumping, it may be breakfast's time to shine.
This article first appeared in the 15 April 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>
By Christine LaFave, Associate Editor
Operators who have ramped up the variety of their breakfast offerings and the quality of their coffee program appreciate the effort that goes into persuading consumers to change their routine in this habit-driven daypart-and in 2008, consumers say they're keeping a closer hold on their wallet in a less-than-stellar economic climate. However, it may be just that economic uncertainty that offers operators a break at breakfast this year.
"A lot of things seem to be coming together in favor of foodservice breakfast right now," says Michele Schmal, vice president of product management in foodservice at Port Washington, N.Y.-based The NPD Group. "Consumers are really in a value mindset, [and] breakfast is a great value in restaurants relative to lunch or dinner." The typical foodservice breakfast, Schmal says, costs $4.30, whereas comparable costs for lunch and dinner are $6.40 and $8.60, respectively.
"Even if [a consumer is] going to try a little-more-expensive breakfast item, it's still less expensive [than lunch or dinner]," Schmal says. "Consumers are kind of winning."
A conscientious move by consumers to trade down to dining during a less-expensive daypart isn't exactly ideal from an operator's perspective. However, operations that take advantage of the chance now to lure in new customers for breakfast or brunch stand to build brand loyalty that can express itself in more-frequent visits. So how can foodservice capitalize on the moment and deliver a breakfast that boasts value, convenience and menu variety? Customization and combinations are two winning tools, operators say.
As They Like It
At Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe, more than 60% of morning customers take advantage of the opportunity to customize their menu selection, says Ric Scicchitano, the fast-casual chain's vice president of food and beverage. "I was amazed," Scicchitano says. "So many folks come in and say, ‘Hey, can I get fresh fruit with that, can I get something else,'" instead of standard breakfast-entrée accompaniments of oven-roasted potatoes and toast.
Offering the chance to opt for egg whites and no green onions in an Anaheim Scrambler recognizes consumers' demand for meals as personalized as their cup of coffee, Scicchitano adds. "[The customer attitude is], ‘I wouldn't have made that at home, that's why I'm buying it from you, but you're one ingredient too far for me, or you're missing one thing.'"
Hitting that recipe sweet spot of accessible but intriguing-and giving customers the freedom to add the final touches to make an item that is "just right" for them-was Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger's Bagels' goal in developing its new omelet sandwich. "We really wrestled with things," says Executive Chef Philip Smith. "We felt that spinach and portobello was too gourmet, and then if you go down the line, you get a meat-lover's omelet. Somewhere in the middle seemed like the right thing."
In January, Bruegger's debuted the outcome of its efforts: the Spinach and Cheddar Omelet Sandwich, available on any of 14 bagel varieties. The sandwich is menued without meat, but customers can choose to add bacon, ham or sausage.
Of more importance, it offers weekend-type flavor in the portable, enthusiastically accepted format of a breakfast sandwich. (The Spinach and Cheddar Omelet Sandwich already is Bruegger's top-selling breakfast sandwich, says company spokeswoman Danielle Swift.) "Breakfast is sort of, ‘I've got to do it; it's fuel,'" Smith says. "We're saying, ‘Well, let's find a way to make it fun.'"
At Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., incorporating the fun of customized hot breakfast is do-it-yourself easy: Among students' breakfast options are omelets from a self-service omelet bar and make-your-own waffles. "Honestly, there definitely seems to be a bigger trend as far as students wanting a hot breakfast," Associate Director for Dining Services David Chase says. "They're looking for brain food, and they want to get up and have a hot breakfast."
For all of the buzz about breakfast-serving operations opening earlier to cater to crack-of-dawn commuters, morning foodservice purchases may be moving in the other direction. "Morning snacks are on the rise," Schmal says. Consumers have a tendency to graze in the morning, she notes, and whether they didn't have a chance to grab breakfast before starting their day or they're looking for something to tide them over until lunch, they're open to exploring their 10 a.m. foodservice options.
Corner Bakery Cafe's Scicchitano sees that played out during the week in a couple of ways. "We get that weekday brunchy meeting" of businesspeople, he says, adding that offering free Wi-Fi service has helped boost morning traffic. And it's not only the office crowd that fills seats in the hours leading up to lunch, he notes. "If it's not the business group, it's the church group that's meeting or the group of moms," he says.
On the flip side of the convenience coin, grab-and-go items remain invaluable options in the morning. Portable breakfast paninis and flatbreads are a hit at business-and-industry accounts of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, The Americas Division, says Southeast regional marketing manager Lucinda Roenicke.
Combine and Conquer
Breakfast "is a very price-sensitive daypart," says Paul Coletta, senior vice president for marketing and brand development at Emeryville, Calif.-based Jamba Juice. For a weekday breakfast, consumers are hesitant to spend more than $5, he observes; Compass Group's Roenicke puts the target price point for her operations at closer to $3. As a way to entice customers to try additional items and boost morning check averages, operators increasingly are offering breakfast value combos.
At Jamba Juice, one recently introduced promotion offers any baked item, regularly $1.95, for $1 with the purchase of fresh-squeezed orange juice. "We're going to be doing more and more bundling," Coletta says.
Indianapolis-based Steak ‘n Shake, which began serving a nationally known coffee brand and new made-to-order breakfast items in March, menus a combo of a bagel sandwich, hash browns and coffee for $3.99. Coupon-carrying customers can get the meal for $2.49.
Discounts and loyalty programs are crucial for boosting visits at Roenicke's 200 Compass Group accounts, which recently began offering a discount on a bottled beverage with the purchase of coffee or juice. Other incentives, Roenicke says, include a $2 coupon for every $20 spent. "It's very simple; it doesn't cost a lot; and it does create that return business," she says.
Bruegger's Spinach and Cheddar Omelet Sandwich is available with or without meat; Corner Bakery Cafe customers can have their Anaheim Scrambler (opposite) made with egg whites.
Bold(er) is Beautiful
Whether it's employed to describe a cup of coffee or a sausage-and-egg burrito, "bold" is a useful if ubiquitous menu descriptor, as Americans express an interest in more assertively flavored items. But more so than at other dayparts, at breakfast, there's a fine line between safe-adventurous and too-adventurous flavors. Striking the right note is often a matter of trial and error.
Breakfast dishes spiced up with Cajun chicken sausage are a hit at Tustin, Calif.-based Mimi's Cafe, says Lowell Petrie, the chain's vice president of marketing. Given their success, Mimi's decided to go a step farther and offer a chorizo-and-eggs dish. "That didn't do very well," Petrie says. "American palates have found that taste a little extreme."
The chain swapped out traditional pork chorizo for a chicken chorizo and found much better results. "When we tested that, it got a good trial and very, very good comments," Petrie says. "The chicken version is leaner, for one thing. And it's also less strong of a flavor profile."
Seeing the Lite
The NPD Group's Schmal knows operators' wariness of menuing more-healthful items-consumers "often have paid lip service" to health concerns, she notes. But now, she adds, "It does seem like they're making a few more healthy choices."
Jamba Juice's Paul Coletta is a believer. Coletta names Jamba's all-fruit smoothies, introduced in 2006, as one of the chain's biggest hits. In February, Jamba Juice launched several breakfast offerings, including Chunky Smoothies (a blend of soymilk, nonfat yogurt, organic granola and chunks of fruit).
Corner Bakery Cafe's Ric Scicchitano agrees that healthfulness is a greater priority for customers today. "There is that element of ‘Gimme the quality carbs, the quality fats,' " he says. "It's important to [consumers] now because they're educated."