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Marc Wuenschel might never have become the king of Chicago’s brunch scene if he hadn’t run afoul of the law.
Very early in his history of serving brunch, he was fined for offering bottomless mimosas at his first restaurant, Hutch American Bistro. The offer was a violation of an Illinois state statute, even though, as Wuenschel explains, “Everybody was doing it.”
“I had to go revamp,” he says. “I had to think about what I could do to get people to come in.”
The answer Wuenschel came up with — an innovative menu of fun, unique foods and drinks, including low-priced (but not bottomless) mimosas — turned Hutch American Bistro into one of Chicago’s most acclaimed brunch destinations. His success spawned the opening of a second Chicago restaurant, Hutch American Cafe, where he now offers brunch seven days a week.
Wuenschel and other operators who have joined the current brunch boom are finding success with a mix of comfort food favorites and dishes with exotic ingredients and bold flavor profiles which appeal to the palates of millennials. These innovative menu items are accompanied by creative concoctions on the beverage menu, from specialty cocktails and mocktails to cutting-edge coffees, flavored iced teas and house-made fruit beverages.
“Brunch has become very competitive,” says Larry Johnson, CEO of Fogo de Chão, the Dallas-based Brazilian steakhouse. “To attract guests today you need to have a fun atmosphere with unique, craveable menu items that get people excited. Additionally, there has to be real value.”
1. Specialty cocktails
Offering a signature bloody mary cocktail can generate buzz and drive sales during the brunch daypart, operators say. At Fogo de Chão, the Fogo Bloody Mary includes the restaurant’s own cachaça — a spirit from Brazil — and is garnished with candied red pepper bacon and manchego cheese.
“We’ve taken brunch cocktail favorites and given them a Brazilian twist,” says Johnson.
Other beverage options at Fogo de Chão include a Passion Fruit Mimosa and a line of craft cocktails, such as the Caipirinha, which is made with cachaça, muddled lime and sugar.
At Hutch, Wuenschel took mimosas to the extreme with a line of eight different fruit juice flavors.
“A lot of people have written on social media that they love it because they can get a different mimosa every time, or can try two different flavors when they’re there,” says Wuenschel.
Other unique creations at Hutch include a beer-mosa, which is made by adding a splash of orange juice to a beer (“A lot of guys don’t like champagne,” says Wuenschel); a screwdriver made with pineapple-infused vodka, and the Hutch’s own signature Bloody Mary, dubbed “The Starsky.” It includes jalapeno-and-garlic-infused Hutch brand vodka, pickle juice, olive juice, Worcestershire sauce, beef stock and the company’s own signature vodka, garnished with pickle, olive, sausage and cheese.
For vegetarians, Hutch offers a “green” bloody mary made with Hutch brand vodka, cucumbers, green apples, avocado, tomatillo and green Tabasco sauce, garnished with a celery salt rim and a veggie skewer.
At El Techo in San Francisco, chef/partner Alejandro Morgan says offering a good bloody mary is essential to the brunch experience — and he should know, as his restaurant was recently named one of the top brunch destinations in America by online reservation service Open Table.
“If you have a great bloody mary, chances are people are booking your restaurant because they know you have a great bloody mary, which then gives them the opportunity to check out the rest of your menu,” Morgan says.
2. Specialty coffees and teas
Specialty coffees and flavored iced teas are also an important component of the brunch menu, both with and without alcohol.
At Hutch American Cafe, the specialty cocktail menu includes an Iced Macchiato, made with espresso, milk, vanilla vodka and caramel vodka, and a Mexican Iced Macchiato, which includes tequila and cayenne simple syrup instead of the vodkas.
Morgan of El Techo notes that nonalcoholic drinks, while not as closely scrutinized as alcoholic drinks on the brunch menu, can still delight patrons and enhance the experience for all guests.
“At Flores [one of Morgan’s other restaurants] we have a cold brew drink with coconut milk which makes your heart pound and your soul smile,” he says.
Flavored teas can also be at home on brunch menus, and can be made with or without alcohol. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay cites a chamomile and cognac iced tea as one of his favorite brunch beverages on his “Brunch at Bobby’s” TV show. The drink also includes apple cider, with a splash of simple syrup, lemon juice and orange juice, as needed.
3. Fruit juice drinks
Brunch presents an opportunity to get creative with nonalcoholic fruit juice drinks as well.
Nonalcoholic beverages at Fogo de Chão include seasonal Pineapple Mint Lemonade, Watermelon Fresca and Brazilian Lemonade.
At Hutch American Cafe, the drink menu includes both straight and blended fruit juice choices. Traditional combinations include a strawberry, pineapple and orange blend, while a more exotic combo is the coconut, jalapeño and pineapple juice blend.
The Hutch menu also includes a roster of creative smoothies, an extension of the variety and intriguing flavor combinations that extend throughout the food menu.