Fast Starts

21 March 2006
Fast Starts

Handheld and easy to eat are key attributes on the breakfast front as operators look for ways to attract the attention of fast-moving targets: busy consumers.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2006 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

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Relaxed and slow-going aren't how most people would describe weekday mornings, and neither are their breakfast stops.

"This isn't a social event for people heading to the office," says Carla Lalli Music, general manager of New York City's Shake Shack, situated just steps from where thousands of people a day stream from a nearby subway exit. "It's ‘I want my food and my coffee and I've got to get to work.'"

In growing numbers, diners are skipping breakfast at home, opting instead for restaurant fare. It's not always a leisurely meal, though. Just over a decade has passed since takeout surpassed on-premise dining in annual per-person breakfast purchases at restaurants, and while on-premise numbers remain steady, takeout occasions have nearly doubled, according to Rosemont, Ill.-based NPD Foodworld's CREST service.

With the right menu mix, operators in all segments can optimize this opportunity-rich market. That was the impetus behind a recent breakfast push at 132-unit, Atlanta-based Planet Smoothie, which introduced several portable a.m. additions in 2005. Among the options: Oatmeal Sunrise, a blend of cinnamon-spice oatmeal with strawberries and honey that marries the convenience of drinkable meals with what Vice President of Operations Randy Hollingsworth calls "the chew factor" customers seek.

"The great thing about breakfast is that it brings in the most-loyal customers," he says. "They're the easiest to get back every day because they get into a routine. You can become part of that routine with the right menu."

The Shake Shack, a Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant, made its foray into the morning daypart last October with just such a lineup.

In addition to breakfast shakes and smoothies made with organic yogurt, menu stars include fried-to-order apple fritters made with local heirloom apples, and the Breakfast Shack with scrambled eggs, American cheese, sausage, lettuce and tomato on a griddled potato bun with Wake-Up Sauce-tomato-mayonnaise spiked with puréed jalapeÁ±os.

One Hand on the Wheel

On sourdough bread, bagels, muffins, griddle cakes or biscuits, breakfast sandwiches continue to dominate new product introductions in the grab-and-go arena. They also account for 49% of restaurant breakfasts eaten in cars, according to NPD Foodworld's CREST service.

Besides standard choices served on white, wheat or ciabatta, Denver-based Quiznos Sub has added a sweet component to the equation, layering egg with honey-smoked ham or crisp bacon between two glazed pancakes, an option that takes a cue from Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's hot-selling McGriddles.

Convenience-store chain Sheetz, based in Altoona, Pa., differentiates its sandwiches on the inside, offering less-common components such as capicolla, peppered ham and salami and the option to double meat, egg and cheese in any sandwich. Distinction through fillings also works for Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, whose recent introductions include a Chicken, Egg and Cheese Bagel Sandwich and Chick-n-Minis (bite-size chicken nuggets on small rolls brushed with honey butter and served in three- or four-pack orders). During a three-month trial, some 60 test restaurants reported morning sales gains from 35% to 100%.

At Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International, consumers' growing taste for more-healthful choices drives breakfast R&D, says Brad Nelson, vice president of culinary and corporate chef.

For breakfast panini, built on sourdough or challah bread that provides a sturdy structure, customers often opt for egg whites or three whites blended with one yolk as a base for toppings that include portobello mushrooms, chicken sausage, spinach and tomatoes.

"Travelers often come to hotels looking for healthy, quick options so they can get out on the road as soon as possible," says Nelson, noting these factors are especially important for guests at business-focused and city-center locations. "Panini fit that profile, and they're served hot-that gives the sense of a full breakfast."

The vegan dining room at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., is not open for breakfast, so diners seeking meat- and dairy-free options head to Hubbard House, a grab-and-go facility near one of the 2,500-student campus' classroom buildings. Daily selections range from lemon scones, date-nut bread and blueberry muffins in vegan and non-vegan varieties to soy milk and soy yogurt. Other standard choices include house-made fruit compote and self-serve cereal and granola in takeout-friendly bowls.

"The healthier options sell really well, but when we offer chocolate-filled croissants, they love those. Sometimes it's all about flavor," Residence and Dining Services Area Manager Pat Mahar says of her clientele's split decisions.

Echoing Miami-based Burger King's Enormous Omelet Sandwich and Carl's Jr.'s Breakfast Burger, San Diego-based Jack in the Box targeted hearty appetites last year with the Meaty Breakfast Burrito, packed with ham, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, Cheddar and pepper-Jack cheeses, and the Ciabatta Breakfast Sandwich, featuring higher-end ingredients such as Black Forest ham and hollandaise sauce with eggs, bacon and American cheese.

The latest menu addition, French Toast Sticks in original and blueberry flavors dusted with confectioners' sugar, targets customers who hunger for nonsavory portable options.

"In our analysis of the segment we found a rising incidence of sweeter items on menus," says Michelle Vespa, Jack in the Box director of menu marketing and innovation. "There was a demand for something other than traditional sandwiches."

Chick-fil-A's recently introduced Cinnamon Cluster, a warm pastry topped with vanilla icing, speaks to diners' continued interest in bread-based favorites, a coffee-friendly class of portable fare that includes doughnuts, sweet rolls, muffins, Danishes and bagels. Such choices remain popular with Marriott's on-the-go travelers, Nelson says.

"We sell a lot of muffins. Pastries are still big too. We also do great croissants," he says.

Creative Concoctions

The most in-demand a.m. dish on the menu at Bettendorf, Iowa-based Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream is Omelet Pizza, available in 6-inch pies sold for on-premise and drive-thru occasions. Half-inch pan-pizza crusts are brushed with herb butter rather than tomato sauce and topped with a blend of Cheddar, American and provolone cheeses and options such as ham, Canadian bacon, green peppers and mushrooms.

Packaged in octagonal plastic containers that seal tightly to protect against condensation that turns crisp crusts soggy, the pizzas are served with utensils but eaten out of hand by most customers, says Corporate Chef Robert Lewis.

At Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Ariba Inc., a business-and-industry account of Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., a calzone-like dish dubbed Rolletto combines the appeal of breakfast pizzas and burritos in an easy-to-eat package. Fillings such as linguiÁ§a sausage, ham and eggs are placed with mozzarella cheese and roasted-tomato sauce in the middle of par-baked pizza dough and then rolled into open-ended cylinders that are then baked.

Beyond Rollettos, made-to-order and self-service menu items that encourage customer interaction also have helped Ariba Foodservice Director Kyle Wiens boost nearly nonexistent breakfast sales to as many as 150 customers per day. A yogurt-parfait bar provides six varieties of low-fat and nonfat yogurt, fresh berries, chopped melons, raspberry preserves and granola. Customers layer ingredients in clear-plastic cups with domed lids open in the center for simple spooning.

Sit and Stay?

Is on-the-go a growing concern for family-dining companies, the foodservice's longtime breakfast bastions? While many leading chains including Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's; Madison, Wis.-based Country Kitchen; and Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans offer carryout options, most haven't tailored breakfast product development to fit the grab-and-go market.

The idea is on the radar at Bob Evans, where carryout has grown to about 6% of sales in the past five years, says Senior Vice President of Marketing Mary Cusick. For spring, the company is exploring breakfast-sandwich choices to augment popular to-go items such as specialty breakfast breads.

Other operators anticipate sticking with the sit-down strategies that serve them well. Lebanon, Tenn.-based Cracker Barrel Old Country Store views the dining-in experience as part of its core identity, a perspective shared by others in the segment.

"[Carryout] is not who we are," says Donette Beattie, vice president of purchasing and product development at Country Kitchen. "Unless you're in that kind of business and developing products meant to be carried out, the food doesn't transport well."

Class Act

Prepackaged, portable breakfasts in a box are earning high marks from foodservice directors at elementary, middle and high schools. Packaged in colorful containers that are stamped with punch-out coupons students can save to earn prizes, each meal includes a cereal bowl, bread/grain snack and 100% fruit juice. Schools provide milk separately.

"As we push for more physical activity and try to increase awareness in our wellness policies, [the breakfasts] are an excellent fit," says Julie Wessling, foodservice director at Montgomery County Schools in Mt. Sterling, Ky. She notes that prizes such as soccer balls, jump ropes that calculate calories and sports duffle bags also promote exercise among students.

  • 34% of Americans say they or members of their household purchase at least one breakfast meal from a restaurant or other foodservice establishment in an average week. (R&I Tastes of America 2005)
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