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What’s for Breakfast?

Familiar breakfast flavors such as egg, bacon and cheddar get an Asian twist when tucked inside a steamed bun at Wow Bao. Photo courtesy of wow bao. Operators are taking strides to stand out from the tall stack of breakfast choices

By Katie Ayoub

If there is one menu daypart that highlights today’s fickle consumer preferences, it’s breakfast. Conflicted consumers want it fast, but made with care. They look for better-for-you items, yet taste always trumps health. They want something unique, but comforting and familiar. And, of course, diners on the run demand portability. But one trend that’s clear is the overall growth of the breakfast daypart, and more operators are taking advantage of the morning-meal routine.

Indeed, breakfast has grown across all foodservice segments over the past few years. But can one restaurant be all things to all customers?

“We have folks that leave the car running and want to be in and out in 35 seconds and others that like to linger,” says Ric Scicchitano, senior VP of food and beverage for Corner Bakery Cafe. “We need to have choices; we don’t want any veto votes. We have lots of fresh, healthy food, so we’re appealing to that customer base, but we still sell lots of French toast.”

The key to success in the breakfast category is expressing today’s relevant trends in craveable ways, putting flavor at the top of the menu. It’s also about neighborliness. “If you’re selling breakfast, you’re part of someone’s daily routine — hopefully,” says Geoff Alexander, executive vice president of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and managing partner of Wow Bao. “Customer recognition — remembering what they like to order every day — is so valuable here.”

Wow Bao, an Asian bun concept with four units in Chicago, added breakfast to its operation in 2007. “There’s obviously a cost involved in adding a meal period, but there’s great reward,” notes Alexander. “For us, we’re in the restaurant already [during that time], getting ready for lunch. Steaming and holding is easy for us. It was a natural growth.” Wow Bao serves urban customers — commuters and shoppers, mostly. Portability, uniqueness in the marketplace and speed mark the breakfast business here.

Oatmeal warrants its own section because several overarching trends nestle under its warm, comforting cloak. Better-for-you? Check. Portable? Customizable? Familiar? Check, check, check. McDonald’s serves its version all-day long. Caribou Coffee offers a seven-grain version. And it seems everyone is getting in on the steel-cut variety.

Steel-cut (a.k.a. Irish or Scotch oats) are groats that are cut, not rolled. They’re chewier and less processed. Corner Bakery Cafe introduced its steel-cut oatmeal last fall, replacing its rolled-oats version, which had been on the menu for 15 years. “It’s been a success for us operationally,” says Scicchitano. “Rolled oats can get starchy, but steel cut are practically bullet-proof.”

Eggs are the perfect palette for variations in flavor and form. Latin-influenced egg breakfasts, such as this Spanish tortilla, have gained popularity. Photo courtesy of american egg board Steel-cut oatmeal also answers a demand from Corner Bakery Cafe’s core demographic. “It’s less processed, has more fiber and more whole grains, and we can move it with the seasons. All of those elements are important to our customers,” he says. Currently, the cafe tops it with a choice of currants, dried cranberries, brown sugar, toasted walnuts and almonds.

Another concept doing well with steel-cut oatmeal is 148-unit Così. “Oatmeal answers both the customization trend and the better-for-you trend really well,” says Jeff Basalik, corporate chef for this bakery café. Customers can choose from eight toppings: pistachios, brown sugar, granola, bits of Così break bars, strawberries, raisins, dried cranberries and whipped cream.

And at Wow Bao, the old-fashioned steel-cut oatmeal cleverly bends toward the brand’s Asian sensibility with its toppings choices — dried goji berries and Chinese red dates. It also extends its better-for-you qualities with the options of multi-grain rice and white quinoa as add-ins.

“We’ve had great success with oatmeal,” says Alexander. “It’s portable, it’s delicious and it’s healthy. Funnily enough, we tried a yogurt parfait, too, but it didn’t do well. I think people just didn’t want to put it together.”

Although Asian as a global influencer is still mostly foreign to the American breakfast daypart, it is translating well onto some menus. Wow Bao’s concept of steamed Asian buns offers its morning customers breakfast bao. Diners can pick from egg, bacon and cheddar (its most popular option), spicy sausage, barbecue pork or coconut custard. The quick serve offers a familiar “combo meal” of two bao and a coffee for $4. Wow Bao recently introduced breakfast rice bowls, too. Diners can get egg, bacon and cheddar or spicy sausage over rice for $4.

Latin-inspired dishes are pretty comfortable in the breakfast category — from the familiar breakfast burritos to the more “exotic” huevos rancheros. We’re now seeing breakfast tacos making inroads, pushing the Latino influences deeper into the daypart. At The Griddle Café in Hollywood, Calif., Kicking and Screaming Breakfast Tacos find space on an extensive breakfast menu. Chef/owner

Jo Kimberly combines scrambled eggs with Jack cheese, pico de gallo and chipotle cream sauce. She stuffs the mixture into a corn tortilla, then tops it with avocado and serves it with refried beans.

“It’s done really well for us, and has definitely moved up in popularity over the last few years,” she says.

Other beloved breakfast formats also provide a canvas for innovative design at The Griddle Cafe. In her Poached y Papas Benedict, Kimberly replaces the English muffin with seasoned potato skins. She tops it with thick cuts of ham, poached eggs, housemade hollandaise and avocado.

Kimberly also takes creative liberties with classic pancakes, waffles and French toast. She changes up the griddle menu with items like Red Velvet Pancakes topped with swirls of cream-cheese icing, and pancakes with distinct delectables like brown-sugar-baked bananas or Frosted Flakes folded into the batter. For riffs on French toast, Kimberly creates crunch by “crusting” the bread with ingredients like “peanut butter crunch,” or crushed graham crackers or chocolate-chip cookies.

A return to housemade marks another overarching trend in foodservice today, and the morning meal is a venue where expectations of “homemade” run high.

Although we’re seeing housemade charcuterie across the dinner daypart, this level of culinary artistry has been slower to make an appearance at breakfast.

At Nicks on Broadway, in Providence, R.I., chef/owner Derek Wagner brings a very artisan touch to the morning menu, which features his housemade chicken sausage. As he expanded his charcuterie program, Wagner started experimenting with breakfast sausage. “I was looking for a signature flavor — bold and tasty, but approachable and nostalgic,” he says. He started with a blend of mostly pork and a little chicken, playing around with fat content. “By cutting in chicken, I was getting a firmer snap on the sausage, which I liked.” Now, Wagner’s signature sausage is made of chicken thighs, black pepper, sage, cayenne, onions and garlic. “I really liked it, so that became our signature sausage. We have rich things on our menu, but we’re also trying to be mindful of healthfulness. This sausage answers that need,” says Wagner.

Deluxe breakfast ingredients toasted between skinny whole-grain flatbread make up Power Panini Thins, a healthy grab-and-go hit with Corner Bakery Cafe customers. Photo courtesy of corner bakery cafe. He runs an 18 percent food cost, and of course, labor costs move the needle upward a bit, but he says it’s worth it. “Making it in-house really resonates with our customers. It’s an important value to them,” he says. He adds that the chicken sausage is versatile. Apart from links, he also poaches and presses the sausage in a pullman pan, slices them into patties and uses them in sandwiches. He also crumbles the chicken sausage for omelets and pasta dishes.

Wagner’s artisan approach is evident throughout the breakfast menu. Creative savory items include baked Parmesan polenta with two eggs, baby spinach and Parmesan cheese, as well as black beans with two eggs, grilled tortilla, tomato salsa and avocado-cilantro crème. He showcases his commitment to fresh and local with a sauté of local and seasonal vegetables with two poached eggs and grilled bread.

Back at Così, portability is a driving factor in breakfast innovation. The chain has added two new items to its breakfast wraps menu, which serve the grab-and-go customer. The Costa Mesa Wrap sees scrambled eggs, pico de gallo, guacamole and cheddar wrapped in a flour tortilla. “It hits the Latin flavors that so many people like, too,” adds Basalik. Its Steak & Eggs version is a hearty, comfort-with-an-edge wrap of eggs, tender beef medallions, pesto and provolone cheese.

Così is currently testing a new breakfast platform in its Chicago market, hoping to roll it out nationwide later this year. Basalik developed three versions of a strata (which, in essence, is a breakfast casserole) — ham and smoked Gouda; roasted pear and Gorgonzola; and roasted veggie.

“We wanted something portable and delicious that featured eggs,” he says. “Stratas are savory bread puddings. They’re similar to quiche, but more tender and on trend. We were looking for something a bit sophisticated for our customers, but still quick and convenient.”  He starts with a layer of rich, buttery croissant pieces and covers them with a custard mixture (eggs, milk, seasoning) combined with the dish’s profile ingredients. He then finishes with a sprinkling of cheese. Employees bake the strata every morning, hold, and then heat for service.

Meeting demands for on-the-go diners is also a priority for development at Corner Bakery Cafe.

“We always have the need for portable eggs,” says Corner Bakery Cafe’s Scicchitano. “And we always have to keep offering new menu items that are fresh and flavorful.” Last December, the bakery rolled out Power Panini Thins, a toasted platform of three breakfast items served between skinny whole-grain flatbread. “They answered our need for Monday through Friday to-go items that are made to order, but fast,” he says.

Customers can choose between Avocado & Spinach (scrambled eggs, avocado, spinach, Parmesan and cheddar), Smoked Bacon (scrambled eggs, smoked bacon, Parmesan and cheddar) and Chicken Apple Sausage (scrambled eggs, chicken apple sausage, Parmesan and cheddar). And customers are loving them. “They’re doing really well for us,” he says. “They haven’t harmed sales of other breakfast items, so they’ve grown the breakfast category. That’s called a home run — or at least a stand-up triple!”


About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.