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Early birds get breakfast as corporate chefs wake up to the lucrative morning daypart


For a long time breakfast has been a kind of menu stepchild, a slow growth category that often lacked the excitement of high-profile categories like sandwiches and salads. But last year revealed a change in breakfast's status as corporate chefs have directed their creative energy toward the morning daypart and added luster to the segment.

They make a good cup of coffee.Quick-service chains have been engaged in confrontations over caffeine as coffee wars have broken out across the segment. Regional heavyweight Chick-fil-A jumped in early with its Caf? Blends coffee line featuring three offerings, and other major chains followed suit. Burger King's BK Joe and McDonald's premium roast have captured headlines. McDonald's, which sells 500 million cups of coffee each year in the United States, represents nearly 10 percent of coffee purchased outside

the home, according to the company. McDonald's executives point to the improved product as a major factor in the operation's continuing domestic sales growth. Not content to sit on the sidelines, Dunkin' Donuts, a major coffee competitor, introduced Turbo Hot, which combines a shot of espresso with hot coffee to give patrons an extra boost. Fast-casual chains like Corner Bakery also have debuted their own enhanced brews.

They make it good to go. The convenience factor and the importance of portability have made sandwiches the go-to product for breakfast on the run. The stakes are high: According to the NPD Group, morning customers generate 10 percent of restaurant traffic. Eager to create a point of differentiation, many chefs have turned their attention to the bread, experimenting with a wide range of unconventional carriers. McDonald's McGriddles rely on syrup-infused griddlecakes, while Burger King uses cinnamon- and maple-flavored French toast. Jazzman's Cafe boasts a breakfast melt on pita-style flat bread. Jack in the Box features a ciabatta offering.

These innovations haven't completely eclipsed more standard breakfast breads. Jack in the Box also recently debuted two buttermilk biscuit sandwiches, and in a highly publicized move, Starbucks introduced a breakfast sandwich on an English muffin. Tortillas also loom large in the morning. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's have created breakfast burritos that parlay the product's popularity at lunchtime into the morning drive time.

They make it good to eat in, too. The midscale family-dining chains, which have made on-premise breakfast a specialty, haven't taken this new competition sitting down. Instead, they've redoubled their efforts, especially in the kind of stick-to-your-ribs fare that is their strong suit. For some chains, breakfast is a numbers game focused on hearty meals like Bob Evans' three-egg and three-cheese omelet, Friendly's four-cheese-and-bacon omelet, IHOP's Five Star breakfast with five silver-dollar pancakes, and Perkins' Tremendous 12 with multiple eggs, pancakes and meats sharing the plate.

Some breakfast specialties go in and out of favor, cycling back onto chain bills of fare every few years. Benedicts are a case in point. Several chains have launched new varieties, notably a promotional Bevy of Benedicts at Perkins.

Crepes are another example. Bakers Square, Bob Evans and IHOP have reintroduced them for breakfast.

Finally, sandwiches aren't just for quick-service customers. They are represented in this segment with the new breakfast burger topped with bacon, eggs and cheese at Ruby's Diner and the Belgian waffle sandwich at Village Inn.

They don't skimp on the creativity. Some chains make a statement with new and unusual items, such as Cosi's blueberry kefir made with organic blueberry puree or Panera Bread's baked egg souffle with Asiago cheese. Other operators take advantage of patrons' familiarity with a product. That's the case with breakfast pizzas that have been appearing around the country. The California Pizza Kitchen ASAP unit in Chicago prepares pizza with omelet toppings. They include the Florentine pizza, with eggs, bacon, spinach, garlic and mozzarella, and the Denver pizza, with eggs, bacon, bell peppers, onions and Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses.

Happy Joe's Pizza, a 63-unit Midwestern operation, is rolling out a create-your-own omelet pizza, and Papa John's is testing 6-inch omelet pizzas in five cities. It's been a couple of decades since Domino's unsuccessfully tested morning pizzas, and it will be interesting to see whether the concept is a hit or a miss with consumers this time around.

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