The modern brunch revolution takes its pick from a buffet of foodservice trends. The casualization of American menus has infiltrated this daypart, and has moved stuffy, formal brunch service to a hip, edgy brunch scene. What was once an elegant Eggs Benedict at a prix fixe buffet is now Deconstructed Lobster Roll Benedict with lobster-roll filling, poached eggs and Green Goddess hollandaise at The Bongo Room in Chicago. A steam table stacked with buttermilk pancakes is now made-to-order Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with Michigan maple and house preserves at The Root in White Lake, Mich.
Another driver here, and one that walks in step with casualization, is the snackification of menus. Today’s modern brunch trend takes the grazing and socializing aspect of its new culture very seriously. “The growth of all-day snacking has unintentionally expanded the traditional hours of breakfast and lunch, increasing the attraction of brunch,” says chef-consultant Rob Corliss. “Chefs have broken down the pre-existing formal barriers of brunch into a modern, social, experiential happening. Culinary vision and ingenuity are poised to make brunch a force to be reckoned with.”
That social aspect of brunch cannot be understated. Hard-charging weekday workers looking to blow off steam, catch up with friends, and drink and eat affordably are driving this brunch revival. Indeed, for Millennials, it’s less of a renaissance and more of an introduction to the bolder and better brunch—formal Easter-style brunches are not part of that demographic’s food culture. “Folks that want to go out for brunch don’t want to go out for lunch,” says Jeffrey Tenner, executive chef of Not Your Average Joe’s, which is deep in the discovery phase of a brunch strategy before testing it at four units early this year. “We’re looking at adding six brunch items that will capture that audience. But to get into the brunch business, you need to define that you’re in the game. There’s a halo meaning to brunch that’s more than eating—behind the word is the social and the drinking. It’s celebratory without being formal.”
Successful menu development here goes beyond adding or extending hours on a Sunday. It even goes beyond balancing a sweet with a savory menu mix. The modern brunch is a seriously cool subculture, steeped in exciting food and memorable cocktails.
The Brunch Bunch
Who is brunching? Urban hotspots light the way for innovation, so city dwellers make up the first wave of brunch connoisseurs—Millennials, young families, urban professionals. They’re looking for social adventure that doesn’t pack a wallop to their wallet.
“Brunch is an especially beloved meal and activity among the food-curious and value-driven Millennial set,” says Rachel Kalt, senior strategist at The Culinary Edge. “Brunch is synonymous with leisure, offers a chance to dip one’s toe in both the sweet and savory waters, and provides an excuse to imbibe cocktails before noon. Brunch is also a chance for many to visit a hip new restaurant without the reservation that might be required for dinner and at a price point that’s significantly lower.”
Savvy operators are incorporating the brunch culture into the experience. While waiting for dishes like Chicken Chilaquiles at Atlanta’s West Egg Cafe, brunch-goers can pose with friends in the restaurant’s vintage photo booth. To add anticipation and a sense of community among the brunch crowd, the Great Maple in San Diego flashes a red blinking light when a batch of freshly fried maple-bacon donuts is available. “While nearly a religion for Manhattanites, the gospel of Sunday brunch has spread across the nation and extended beyond the day of rest,” says Kalt. “So pervasive is this heyday that brunch is no longer just a meal, it is an experience. One brunches in the manner of a culinary sporting event, and waiting in line for upwards of an hour for the main event is a natural and anticipated occurrence.”
Of course, diners aren’t the only drivers of the brunch trend. Looking at the success of breakfast and all-day breakfast, operators are seeing huge opportunity in this daypart. “Brunch is really driven by operators looking to get into breakfast, but not being able to compete during the week or find effective ways to offer breakfast within their menu concept,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “Consumers overall, not just Millennials, enjoy breakfast and want to eat out and well without spending as much money.”
The big question for those wanting to ride the brunch wave is how to create a brunch culture within your standing concept. Certainly, menu innovation is key—modern brunches are global, fun, comfort-driven, snack-sized, booze-heavy, or a combination of all of those. “We knew it was a missed opportunity for us,” says Not Your Average Joe’s Tenner. “The alcohol piece is huge, and although our Sunday lunch is a good daypart, it’s not the strongest. There’s a large brunching community that we want in our restaurant.” But it’s not just about a big stack of pancakes, he says. A few of the brunch items that Tenner is tinkering with include a duck confit hash with poached eggs and a breakfast pizza with prosciutto, fried egg, scallion and cheddar, pulled from the concept’s brick ovens.
“Brunch is breakfast with no rules,” says Webster. “People seem willing to try almost anything at brunch—from breakfast-lunch hybrids and insane indulgence to ethnic options that may not do as well during the week in the morning daypart.” Innovation looks like Café Castagna’s menu in Portland, Ore.: lamb ham on the eggs Benedict, cardamom doughnuts, or a breakfast board sporting Venus grapes, chèvre, pita and honey. Or take a look at Scion’s brunch menu, with two locations in Washington, D.C.: a starter of fried pickles with a side of ranch or potato nachos—breakfast potatoes smothered with bacon, cheese, tomatoes and fried jalapeños.
Creativity steers the ship here, but well-loved breakfast staples keep it familiar and friendly to most diners. Breakfast mainstays include eggs, breads and potatoes—items that are traditionally lower in food cost. “Brunch opens up new sales avenues for both food and beverage,” says Corliss. “It has more of an anything-goes mentality compared with breakfast and lunch. There still needs to be strategic focus, but creativity can abound.”
Strategically, brunch can also serve as a test market for experimental menu items. Unlike the comfort confinements of breakfast, this is a meal period in which diners are in it for the experience, menu innovations included. “This is a good opportunity to drive trial in items that may not be on the lunch or dinner menu,” says John Csukor, chef/founder of KOR Food Innovations. “Brunch is also a great time to consider featuring special, small-batch, or local ingredients that may be too small to sustain your restaurant in other dayparts.”
With any opportunity comes challenge. “The operational implications of doing a separate menu for just one day a week is significant,” says Tenner. At Fountainhead in Chicago, the brunch menu runs on both Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays here it’s “blunch,” and brunch on Sundays. “The Saturday crowd is different—a lot more lunch-y than Sundays,” says Cleetus Friedman, executive chef. To staff the weekend brunch, he makes sure he schedules the team so they don’t stay late on Friday and Saturday evening shifts. Diners at Fountainhead can find items like the Brunch Bagel, a half-pound burger with bacon, Hook’s cheddar and a fried farm egg on a housemade everything bagel.
At Gemini Bistro in Chicago, with items like a Mexican chorizo hash and a vegetable frittata, owner Ryan O’Donnell decided to only feature the restaurant’s very successful brunch during warmer months. “We ran the numbers,” he says. “Ninety percent sat on the patio. If the day was rainy or cold, our numbers went down a lot. It’s not that easy to staff and a lot of prep goes into it. We just know that traffic won’t be there if we run it in the dead of winter.” That speaks directly to a brand’s brunch culture. This one aligns pretty tightly with its al fresco, casual vibe.
Inventive Bloody Marys are the flagship brunch beverage—from make-your-own custom Bloody Mary bars, like the one found at Winston’s in Louisville, Ky., to fun riffs on the classic, such as the Tomatillo Bloody Maria at South Water Kitchen in Chicago. But there’s a cocktail world beyond the Bloody Mary that’s finding a profitable home with brunch. Beverage innovation here is tied to the trend of session drinking, where consumers seek out sippable lower-alcohol cocktails that allow them to extend beyond one or two well-crafted cocktails. Punches, Micheladas, mimosas—all find their way onto brunch menus. “Take the opportunity to craft a new line of brunch-inspired drink specials served only during these hours as a way to drive traffic and interest,” says Corliss.
How else to tap into this trend? “Get creative with your Bloody Mary offerings,” says chef-mixologist Kathy Casey. “Consider adding an edible food component pulled from your menu, such as a little barbecue sauce in your Bloody Mary and a chunk of brisket garnish. Or think about an ‘add-on’ to your signature Mary, like housemade charcuterie skewer, beef jerky, fried cheese curds, etc.” Having a “stir-in” offered on the side is also appealing, adds Casey, such as a selection of hot sauces or flavored salts.
The key, then, with both the food and beverage sides of the brunch menu, is flavor innovation. “Once a catch-all meal period sandwiched between its more popular breakfast and lunch counterparts, brunch is now enjoying its rightful time in the spotlight,” says Kalt. “It’s providing diners with a host of new flavors and forms to sample.”