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Off to a healthy start: Operators scramble to satisfy nutrition-hungry consumers

Off to a healthy start: Operators scramble to satisfy nutrition-hungry consumers


As the breakfast daypart's popularity continues to grow, restaurant chains continue to seek out new ways to feed consumer demand. At the same time they're discovering they must add a new ingredient to their breakfast mix: more healthful morning menu offerings.

According to Chicago-based food research firm Technomic Inc., U.S. breakfast sales are a $40 billion-a-year industry. And because of the daypart's increasing popularity, everyone — from quick-service operators to coffeehouse chains to family restaurants to hotel operators to fast-casual bagel outlets — is jumping on the bandwagon in an attempt to cash in on the lucrative market share.

Still, with more and more attention being paid to the perceived obesity crisis in this country as well as the continuing uproar over trans fats in foods, an increased emphasis is being placed on providing guests with more healthful fare, including the addition of more cereal options, egg whites or egg substitutes served up in omelet offerings, whole wheat breads and bagels and yogurt parfaits. In some cases, the healthful approach even has translated into smaller portion sizes.

And while the most sought after breakfast items continue to be coffee and cereal, with yogurt consumption also climbing up the ranks, operators also must make sure newer items meet the criteria for convenience and portability, too, said Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. For example, he noted, when offering breakfast sandwiches, it's important for operators to make sure the customer knows the sandwiches are freshly made and that the ingredients are fresh.

He also said that since consumers' tastes for more healthful foods are changing constantly, it is beneficial to make available alternative products so diners can switch to something new when they tire of one thing or another. In other words, when one item begins to wane, the operator should have another one ready to take its place immediately.

"Every food and beverage category has a healthy counterpart, but these have never overtaken the regular varieties," Balzer said. "In my opinion, manufacturers should offer healthier products within their product lines, but they should realize that healthy for the most part is about new."

Even restaurants at hotel chains are getting into the healthful breakfast act. For example, the upscale Loews Hotels offers its guests the choice of using tofu as an omelet ingredient, provides turkey-based breakfast meats and serves martini-style juice drinks that are shaken tableside. In addition, guests seeking healthful breakfast items also can choose from such items as vegetable frittatas or fresh fruit bowls for their morning meals.

The 430-unit Huddle House, the Atlanta-based family-restaurant chain, is trying to attract more female customers by offering more healthful items on its breakfast menu in addition to the traditional offerings usually sought by its 25-plus, male consumer base. To do this, the chain, whose average breakfast check is $5.28, is selling lower-calorie options that are made to order.

"For those looking at the healthier side of things, which does skew more toward females, we have grilled chicken sandwiches and we do offer cholesterol-free egg substitute," said Robyn Bailey, director of marketing for the company. "And since we cook to order, you can get omelets with vegetables only or egg substitute scrambled with our picante sauce and served with dry whole wheat toast. It's very low calorie and healthy. Basically, whatever a customer wants, we'll make it [for them]."

Even for bakery café and bagel chains, providing guests with more healthful options seems to be the order of the day.

For example, Burlington, Vt.- based Bruegger's Bagels, the 260-unit fast-casual bagel concept, this year implemented three new initiatives: it's using eggs produced by cage-free chickens; it removed the trans fat from its dessert items; and it's developing more lower-calorie and lower fat selections, including more whole wheat bagel and wrap sandwiches.

"As an industry, we must do more to take calories and fat out of our products," said James J. Greco, Bruegger's chief executive. "If we don't do it [voluntarily], it's going to be forced on us."

To that end, he added, the company is working hard to remove trans fats from all of its menu items.

"We will be trans-fat free by next month," Greco said. "It's something we've been working on since last year. Now everyone is removing trans fat [from their menus], and that's something we should be doing with calories, too."

Greco also notes that portion sizes are out of whack as well. "They really are ridiculous," he said. "Some people say our bagels are too small, but I'm adamantly opposed to [an increase], because it would just be adding more calories." According to Greco, a plain Bruegger's bagel consists of about 300 calories. And he said he eats them three or four times a week.

But ultimately, the bagel company's chief executive said, it's really up to the consumer how much he or she is prepared to eat at a given meal.

"Breakfast is the most important meal," he said. "My own philosophy is [to] eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper." At Bruegger's the typical customer profile is female, aged from 21 to 49 years old and earning more than $50,000 a year annually.

"About 63 percent of our guests are female," Greco said, "and most have a college education." He added that those customers always are seeking out more healthful items on the menu.

"We've always been a more healthful choice, and a lot of our growth has been because of the more healthful items we offer. Every year since we introduced them [in 2005], demand for our whole-wheat bagels has grown. Those things do resonate."

In the contract foodservice arena, operators observed that they are seeing a definite shift toward more healthful choices for breakfast. In addition, they said they're more than happy to provide those items for not only their clients but also their clients' customers.

"It's very important to us that we share the same values as our clients," said chef Mike Esquenazi, a Plano, Texas-based executive chef at a B&I account operated by Philadelphia- based contract feeder Aramark Corp. "We're definitely seeing a trend here going toward healthier items. We're serving a huge variety of organic items — from breads to whole and sliced fruit to oatmeal, either flavored or plain. In addition, we offer breakfast sandwiches that feature egg substitute, pico de gallo and low-fat Swiss cheese as alternatives to the usual ingredients found in [those items]. We also serve breakfast burritos that can be customized by choosing egg whites, egg substitute and low-fat cheese."

In addition, Esquenazi said the dining facility's new smoothie bar is a huge draw.

"The smoothie bar is something we just started a few weeks ago," he noted. "We've decided to keep it going year-round even though we believe it will perform better during the warmer months. Basically, we make the drinks using fresh fruit puree and a yogurt base. We also have protein powders and all types of extracts we can add if asked, such as chromium piccolate and fat burners. They're definitely a good meal substitute."

Mostly, Esquenazi said, the focus is on providing fresh foods served in a healthful presentation.

"We're serving high-quality, healthy items that all of our chefs take a lot of pride in preparing. We wouldn't want to serve anything to these folks that we wouldn't serve to our own families."

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