Chefs Answer Consumers' Calls for Healthy Breakfasts – US food trends

05 April 2010
Chefs Answer Consumers' Calls for Healthy Breakfasts – US food trends

Operators are delivering on demands for healthful menu options with better-for-you breakfasts.

This article first appeared in the 1 March 2010 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. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

Leah Zeldes, Special to R&I

Busy and on the go in the morning, consumers don't always approach breakfast with nutrition in mind. In R&I's 2010 New American Diner Study, when asked at which meal they're most likely to try to eat more healthfully, just 13.2% of consumers chose breakfast, compared with 27.4% at lunch and 43.7% at dinner.

Yet digging a bit deeper suggests that these inclinations may be driven more by a lack of opportunity than a lack of interest. In a recent survey by Chicago-based market researcher Technomic, nearly half of the consumers polled cited a healthful nutrition profile as an important or extremely important attribute in breakfast foods. And foodservice professionals say that when tasty and attractively priced healthful choices are on offer, customers are open to starting their days in wholesome ways-especially when recipes go beyond routine egg-white omelets and bran muffins.

"Breakfast is the time of the day when our guests are open to healthier choices," says Cyril Renaud, chef-owner of New York City's Bar Breton, which serves weekend-brunch dishes such as a whole-grain buckwheat galette (a Brittany-style crêpe) with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. "These items sell very well," Renaud says. "We are pleased by the responses and the comments we receive about having healthier options available on the menu."

Daniel Ovanin, chef at Glen Prairie in Glen Ellyn, Ill., says that healthful a.m. alternatives such as the wild-mushroom-and-spinach egg-white frittata and the "heart healthy breakfast" (fruit, house-made breakfast bread and organic yogurt) are much appreciated by his clientele, many of whom come from the adjacent Crowne Plaza Hotel.

"We have lots of business travelers who order these items when they stay with us," he says, noting that although more-indulgent items still are popular, not all guests want to start the day with a heavy breakfast.


In a June 2009 survey from Chicago-based researcher Mintel, 54% of respondents said eating healthfully at restaurants is more expensive than not eating healthfully. That's not necessarily true at breakfast, operators say.

"Breakfast is the best opportunity to promote healthy eating … [and] the ingredients are less expensive than [for] lunch fare and dinner entrées," says Ken Toong, executive director of dining and retail services at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst, where students can order such nutritious morning choices as whole-grain pancakes or omelets with low-fat cheese and low-sodium salsa.

At Energy Kitchen, a 10-unit, healthfocused quick-service concept based in New York City, lower prices are luring grab-and-go consumers who might otherwise pick up morning meals from other types of eateries, says concept President Anthony Leone. A recent promotion for $2.99 breakfast sandwiches-all containing fewer than 500 calories and made without oil or butter-has helped push same-store sales up 50% from the same time last year, he says. Among Energy Kitchen's more-unique offerings is the 473-calorie bison-and-egg wrap, which combines egg whites with the lean protein in a whole-wheat wrapper.

Even without special offers, healthful dining typically costs consumers less at breakfast because many favorites at that daypart are meatless, notes Phil Palmer, owner of Atlanta breakfast-and-lunch cafe Radial, where only a handful of choices on the extensive morning menu contain meat. Especially popular with customers is the vegan hash, made with tofu and sautéed vegetables.

"We marinate the tofu for two days with lemon juice, grainy mustard and soy sauce, which gives it excellent flavor," Palmer says. "We sauté it in a small amount of oil with red potatoes, onions, peppers, broccoli, mushrooms and fresh sage. It's a pretty simple dish, but very good. It also sells well." Some customers request an optional topping of cheese, so Palmer knows vegans aren't the only ones ordering it.

At UMass, where Toong says breakfast is a fast-growing segment, dining services has been subtle about incorporating healthful options into morning menus.

"We have been providing a stealth-health program-essentially, we use healthier ingredients, but we're not labeling them as such-for the last three years," Toong says. "Providing smaller portions, reducing the amount of sodium in recipes, offering less-sugary beverages, doubling the [servings] of fruits and vegetables-these are some of the positive changes that we have made."

Good nutrition also is camouflaged in a.m. meals served at schools in Texas' Houston Independent School District (HISD). Through the schools' First Class Breakfast program, which delivers morning meals to classrooms, students might start the day with sausage biscuits, but the fluffy biscuits are made from white whole-wheat flour and the sausage patties from low-fat turkey, says Julie Spreckelmeyer, director of communications for Philadelphia-based Aramark's education division, the district's foodservice provider. "The best thing about it is the kids are liking it," she says.


Retro better-for-you breakfast choices are proving to be rising stars for some operators. Hot cereal, for example, is "selling like hotcakes" at UMass, Toong says. The university offers two choices, oatmeal and cream of wheat, available with various toppings. Toong plans to add traditional Asian-style congee (rice porridge) in September.

Guests at Aura Restaurant in Boston's Seaport Hotel also are enthusiastic oatmeal fans, Chef Rachel Klein reports. Aura offers Irish steel-cut oats with brown sugar, apple compote and sweet butter. Popular, too, is another old-fashioned, wholesome breakfast choice: grilled tomatoes. The dish gets an update with sautéed spinach, roasted red peppers, mozzarella and basil pesto and optional hollandaise.

In Cambridge, Mass., upscale-casual restaurant Tory Row is bringing back the grilled grapefruit, a staple of 1950s menus. "Five minutes on the grill completely transforms the typical grapefruit into a complex dish that's bursting with flavor by caramelizing [the grapefruit's] natural sugars," says Abbie Waite, events and communications manager.


Healthy spins on nontraditional breakfast items sell well, too. At West Los Angeles, Calif.-based family-dining chain Good Stuff, one of the top sellers is Cris' Breakfast Salad, a blend of romaine lettuce, black beans, brown rice, tortilla strips and pico de gallo topped with scrambled eggs and ground turkey. "You don't feel stuffed after eating it, so it's great in the morning," says owner Cris Bennett.

One of the most popular breakfasts at New York City's Wall & Water is turkey breast with steamed vegetables, says Executive Chef Maximo Lopez May. "We have a number of people living and working in the area that have very stressful jobs," he says. "They need brain food and healthful food. Starting off the day with vegetables, eggs, toast, turkey breast and olives hits all the major food groups in a tasty, delightful and nutritious way."

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