Top 400 chains: Morning, Light – US Food Trends

25 July 2008
Top 400 chains: Morning, Light – US Food Trends

Operators prove that health and indulgence can coexist on breakfast menus.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 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. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Christine LaFave, Associate Editor

Russell Bry, chef culinary officer of San Francisco-based Boudin SF, knew something had changed at breakfast when he saw that multigrain toast was outselling sourdough toast at his bakery-cafes in the morning.

"People are more conscious of what they're eating," says Bry. And although customers are heading to Boudin SF "first and foremost for things that taste good," he says, they're also increasingly asking to customize breakfast items to make them more healthful or taking advantage of built-in healthful options, such as the multigrain toast.

Chain operators, in turn, are increasing the number and variety of options they offer that allow their customers to have their eggs and eat them, too.

It's the Little Things

At Boudin SF, traditional ham, bacon or sausage breakfast sandwiches are complemented on the breakfast menu by turkey-and-broccoli and vegetable "Scrambles" and a vegetable breakfast pizza. Diners also can substitute egg whites in any dish for 75 cents.

Breakfast is something that people "relish and look forward to" on weekends, Bry says, but during the week, "it's a meal that doesn't exist anymore for many Americans." Those who do grab something often find themselves developing a coffee-and-a-muffin habit, he adds. Warm, savory breakfast offerings made with eggs suggest a weekend indulgence, but guests who opt for an item made with turkey and fresh vegetables or whole-grain bread can take heart that they're not going overboard in the morning.

"It's, ‘Can we offer something with whole-grain, cut back on the cheese, offer no cheese?'" Bry says.

Boston-based Au Bon Pain also seeks to combine "healthful" and "indulgent" by menuing more vegetarian but protein-packed breakfast items. Among the selections: a portobello, egg and Cheddar sandwich on ciabatta bread and six varieties of yogurt parfaits.

"Our research tells us that there's a lot of vegetarians out there," says Au Bon Pain Senior Vice President of Marketing Ed Frechette. Even among the majority of Americans who enjoy eating meat, many say they are reducing their meat consumption, particularly at breakfast and lunch. According to R&I's 2008 New American Diner Study, nearly 1 in 5 (24.2%) of diners say they sometimes order a meatless entrée at a restaurant.

The growing interest in meatless options helped inspire the creation of Au Bon Pain's spinach, feta and red-pepper-hummus breakfast bagel sandwich, which is set to debut this month. Those who prefer a more traditional but also freshly made breakfast have options, too: "We have a homemade muesli that we've seen grow tremendously over the past several years," Frechette says.

Stock Options

Au Bon Pain also is set to roll out breakfast-appropriate selections as part of its Au Bon Portions line of smaller-serving items. The move allows the company to make the most out of existing stock-fruits, breads and more-and present lower-calorie, lower-fat choices for those who desire them in the morning. "The portions are all made with ingredients that are already at the café," Frechette says.

A similarly resourceful spirit led to the creation of a unique breakfast option at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hobee's. In the morning, rather than covering the family-dining chain's popular salad bar with a plastic tarp or leaving it empty until lunch arrives, employees stock the unit with nuts, fruits and other treats and repurpose the space as an all-you-can-eat oatmeal bar.

"It's something we can do in the morning that just allows people to customize their own dish," says Hobee's President Edward Fike. Toppings include the classic brown sugar, raisins and milk as well as less-common accents such as coconut flakes and chocolate chips.

At Pittsburgh-based Eat'n Park, oatmeal plays the role of often-overlooked overachiever at breakfast. "It's something we never really paid a lot of attention to," says Senior Vice President of Marketing Kevin O'Connell, "but we noticed it was actually our second-best-selling item from 5 to 11 a.m."

Eat'n Park also has rolled out Smaller Portion versions of three of its most popular breakfast dishes-Buttermilk Pancakes, French Toast and Eggs Benedict-at lower prices. Breakfast being a less doggie-bag-friendly meal than lunch or dinner, menuing smaller portions gives diners who have smaller appetites the sense that they're getting more bang for their breakfast buck.

Fresh Focus

One key in developing more-healthful options that will be both attractive to consumers and cost-effective is to "deal with the main attraction," Boudin SF's Bry says. Rather than adding to the side of a plate a few fanned slices of cantaloupe and honeydew "that may or may not get eaten," Bry says, innovative operators build interest by creating dedicated healthful main-plate items.

The "Healthier Side" menu at Bradenton, Fla.-based First Watch boasts such appealing options as fresh-fruit crÁªpes (wrapped around fresh fruit and topped with low-fat organic strawberry yogurt, cinnamon and sugar) and a Power Wrap of egg whites, smoked turkey, spinach and mushrooms wrapped in a tomato-basil tortilla with Swiss cheese.

The latter selection, says First Watch Marketing Manager Abby Albaum, attracts guest interest partly on its visual appeal. "You've got the tomato-basil tortilla, which is bright and vibrant in color," Albaum says. "You put that on a plate and it really is a beautiful presentation … It's kind of when they say you shop the perimeter of the grocery store [to find more-healthful foods], that's what we put into it."

No operator is going to go broke menuing purely indulgent breakfast items. But as consumers begin to look for more-healthful items more often, making choices available for the occasions when guests are looking for something a bit lighter helps prevent veto votes in breakfast-dining parties and encourages diners to keep an establishment part of their weekday or weekend breakfast routine.

"The teenage boys do the [oversized breakfast sandwiches] thing," says David Rutkauskas, president of Tulsa, Okla.-based Camille's Sidewalk Cafe. "The soccer moms don't want that stuff. I think most people are trying to drop those last 10 pounds."

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