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Sweetly Satisfying – US Food Trends

25 April 2008
Sweetly Satisfying – US Food Trends

Sweet bakery treats are simple indulgences that play dual menu roles as quick, easy-to-eat breakfasts and grab-and-go snacks.

This article first appeared in the 1 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 Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

"There's a little bit of guilty pleasure in having what's perceived as a dessert for breakfast, but it's actually a really great breakfast," says Pinkney, who fuels temptations by displaying the cakes under glass covers on the counter. "It becomes sort of a one-dish meal. When you look at the contents of some of those giant muffins, it can be healthier, too."

Whether the offering is carrot cake or more-traditional treats such as muffins and doughnuts, satisfying morning sweet tooths remains a key component of daybreak sales strategies, even as savory handheld fare such as sandwiches, wraps and burritos makes headway in the burgeoning breakfast segment. More than 25% of consumers choose sweet baked goods such as muffins, cinnamon rolls and scones when buying weekday breakfasts from restaurants, according to R&I's 2008 New American Diner Study; among some demographic groups, including Gen X (ages 27-41) consumers, Asians and blacks, that figure rises to more than one in three diners.

Even more so than their savory counterparts, breakfast baked goods also boast the benefit of all-day appeal. At Ina's, Pinkney garnishes the carrot cake with ice cream and berries to accompany lunch and dinner meals, and slices are available for takeout as well.

Robin Campbell, Sodexo executive chef at Plymouth University in Plymouth, N.H., says that keeping up with students' daylong demand for muffins and Danishes is a daily challenge for campus kitchens, while at Ontario-based quick-service chain Tim Hortons, signature doughnut holes called Timbits now sell more as snacks than as a breakfast item, says company spokeswoman Rachel Douglas.

Sweet tooths aside, perhaps the biggest points working in baked treats' favor are the speed with which they can be delivered, their portability and-not of small significance-the natural balance they provide to morning coffee, purchased by nearly half of consumers with their breakfasts away from home, according to the New American Diner Study.

"Eggs can feel too rich to eat with coffee, but something sweet cuts through the acidity," says Ellen Yin, owner of Fork restaurant and its adjoining bakery-cafe in Philadelphia. "Also, you don't have to wait for it; it's fast; and it tastes good."

Even Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks is taking note. The chain is debuting doughnuts and apple fritters from Seattle-based Top Pot Doughnuts in all U.S. company-owned stores this month to complement Starbucks' current pastry lineup. Meanwhile, the company says it will discontinue selling savory breakfast sandwiches, explaining that the aroma from the warmed products detracts from the stores' coffee aroma.

RECIPES Rustic Almond Breakfast Cake >> Apple-Walnut Muffins >> Ina's Carrot Cake >> Orange-Spice Coffee Cake >>

Sweet Specialties

Despite breakfast customers' notoriously habit-driven ways, standard blueberry muffins and cinnamon rolls aren't the only strong performers on the sweet side.

Apple-walnut and blackberry-sour-cream rank as the top-selling muffins at Karen's Bakery Café in Folsom, Calif. The apple-walnut recipe is particularly unusual in that it calls for no eggs or dairy, says Chef-owner Karen Holmes. She theorizes that in addition to canola oil, the relatively high amount of sugar may help bind the muffins, which are spiced with cinnamon and studded with toasted walnuts and firm, tart Granny Smith apples that hold up well during baking. This summer, she plans to experiment with peaches in the recipe when they come into season.

"People will pick up things like muffins and scones all day long," Holmes says. "The apple-walnuts would sell all day if we had any left, but we sell out every morning."

At new-American bistro Fork, sweet breakfast breads and pastries are a popular add-on at Sunday brunch, but cus-tomers also buy the house-made treats for weekday breakfasts at the adjacent cafe, Fork:etc. Muffins sell most, but diners also go for specialties such as pillowy brioche buns decorated with honey and nuts or fruit, or coffee cakes in rotating flavors.

"When you walk in looking for something to eat, the smell of the baked goods pervades the cafe, especially if they just came out of the oven, so they're pretty hard to resist," Yin says.

One winter coffee cake celebrates seasonal citrus, boasting the warm, fragrant trio of orange zest, cinnamon and allspice. The recipe relies on plain yogurt instead of sour cream to provide moisture and calls for a topping of either confectioners sugar or vanilla or orange glaze.

Time for a Treat

For diners, the chance to indulge in treats they might deny themselves later in the day is likely an incentive to buy baked goods in the morning.

"Breakfast is one of those few meals where having something that would be considered dessert any other time of day is appropriate as an entrée," says Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based Hardee's, where iced blueberry biscuits introduced last July have proved so popular at breakfast that the company is testing additional fruit flavors.

Biscuits baked daily on-site from scratch have long been central to the chain's savory breakfast sandwiches, and the blueberry version capitalizes on the same dough. Once baked, the biscuits are hollowed out, filled with a purchased blend of blueberries in syrup, and drizzled with white icing.

The new option added incremental sales rather than cannibalizing business from the cinnamon-raisin biscuits that are a longtime Hardee's fixture, Haley says. The cinnamon-raisin version has a dedicated recipe that calls for a sweeter base dough mixed with cinnamon, sugar and raisins.

Despite their success across multiple foodservice venues, sweet baked goods aren't guaranteed strong morning sellers for every concept. At J. Christopher's, a 19-unit breakfast, brunch and lunch chain based in Atlanta, the majority of morning sales come from entrées such as omelets and pancakes. The company is phasing out the bake-and-serve blueberry scones now offered as an Á la carte choice because of weak sales, though cinnamon rolls will remain on the menu.

"For someone wanting something quick, something sweet, the cinnamon rolls give us that opportunity," says J. Christopher's President Dick Holbrook. "The scone isn't really that sweet of a product, and it's just not seen as a sweet breakfast pastry item to our guests. That could be a geographic thing."

Window of Opportunity

For operators who can make baked goods available throughout prime afternoon and evening snacking hours, consumers' increasing tendency to graze throughout the day helps keep sales steady even if such sweet choices are losing ground to savory options in the morning.

"At breakfast we're doing more bagels, more breakfast sandwiches-things with an egg, a protein and cheese," says Rachel Douglas at Tim Hortons. "Doughnuts are popular, but more as a snack."

It helps that customers can buy the chain's Timbits doughnut holes individually or in boxes of 10, 20 or 40, and also that the bite-size treats are small enough for customers to pop in their mouth in the car or on the go. Made in yeast or cake varieties, they come in standard flavors such as chocolate, plain and honey-glazed as well as raspberry-, strawberry- or lemon-filled. When the chain promotes additional seasonal flavors, sales typically rise, Douglas says.

"Our customers are regulars, so when they see something new, they go for it," she says.

At Plymouth University, students also are just as likely to grab baked goods such as Danishes or turnovers between meals as in the morning, says Campbell. Muffin tops, which Campbell added after noticing that students were throwing away the less-crisp bottom portion of muffins, are baked in specially shaped pans from a traditional batter that includes vanilla beans and fresh blueberries.

Other recipes are easily simplified through the use of convenience items. For cranberry-cheese turnovers, cream cheese and canned cranberry sauce are folded into triangles of purchased puff pastry, sprinkled with sugar and baked.

At breakfast, sales typically are split 50-50 between savory and sweet items, but for those who go the latter route, says Campbell, "It's definitely about the sweet tooth-the sweeter, the better."

Nuts or Not?

Toasted nuts are integral to Karen Holmes' baking repertoire at Karen's Bakery Cafe in Folsom, Calif., where they lend rich, toasty flavor to recipes such as apple-walnut muffins.

With allergies on the rise, however, some kitchens are shying away from nuts. That's why diners won't find any in the carrot cake at Ina's in Chicago, even though they're a common component in many similar recipes.

"There are too many nut allergies out there," says Chef-owner Ina Pinkney. "I ssell a lot more cake when people ask if it has nuts and I can say no." but even Ina's kitchen isn't entirely nut-free - pecans are still part of the crunchy topping on her sour-cream coffee cake.

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