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Quick-service operators herd beef onto breakfast menus

Where's the beef, you ask?

Alot of it is showing up on breakfast menus at chain and independent quick-service restaurants determined to appeal to value-conscious customers at the daypart that kick starts their day.

Long the domain of sausage, bacon and ham, an increasing number of breakfast wraps, burritos, biscuits and omelets are coming over the counter studded with strips and shreds of steak. At burger-centered chains like Carl's Jr. and Steak 'n' Shake, hamburgers are now among the A.M. offerings — delivered capped with a fluffy portion of scrambled eggs rather than lettuce and tomato.

Jack in the Box's steak-and-egg burrito was launched successfully two years ago as a part of that chain's increasingly successful breakfast effort, and such results may have prompted California competitor Del Taco to roll out its own version in July: a steak-and-egg burrito bearing marinated steak, hashbrowns, cheese and salsa. Sale price: $2.39. Del Taco declined to comment for the story, but said in a release that the new item is aimed squarely at value-oriented customers.

Some will tell you, however, that beef at breakfast is nothing new. Modesta Nava-Bailey, owner of Burrito Loco in Warren, Mich., said her Mexican ancestors served beef with breakfast in a commoner's dish called machca con huevos, essentially scrambled eggs with seasoned beef, peppers and vegetables. Her family Americanized the dish decades ago when they moved to California and made it a burrito filling.

"Our place is located near a lot of factories in Warren, so we sell a lot of these to those people," said Nava-Bailey, who also sells from a food truck in the parking lots of neighboring factories two days a week. Her loaded steak and egg burritos sell for around $6. "We keep our prices affordable on things like this because times are tough in Michigan, as you can imagine."

Nava-Bailey insists that steak at breakfast is a "guy thing because men aren't afraid of meat, but women think that it's going to kill them." Data on the purchases of beefy breakfasts at Carl's Jr. support Nava-Bailey’s belief. Beth Mansfield, a spokeswoman for the chain, a division of Carpinteria, Calif.-based CKE Restaurants Inc., said that when it comes to morning steak sales, the guys have it.

"Our target market for those kinds of breakfast sandwiches is 18- to 34-year-old guys — young, hungry guys, we call them," she said. "They want one large sandwich that fills them up instead of two egg-McSomethings."

The key to that attraction, she said, is piling plenty of proteins, such as steak and eggs, into tortilla skins. Carl’s Jr. is also now testing a new product that proved successful at its sister chain, Hardee's.

"Hardee's has done well with steak-and-egg biscuits, so we're testing them in a few Carl's Jr. stores," Mansfield said.

Hardee's success in its southern markets with other sturdy meat-and-biscuit combos, such as pork chops and chicken breasts, led it to wonder if a beef offshoot would appeal to customers out west, she explained. "We had a steak sandwich years ago that we sold in the morning, so we know there's potential here for steak at breakfast," she added.

That Carl's Jr.'s steak-and-egg burritos sell best in its West Coast markets could be because such foods are part of the Mexican meal tradition. But where that logic fails is in the chain’s Texas markets, also home to many Hispanic immigrants, who, for whatever reason, appear cooler toward carne before lunch. "Those sales just aren't there yet," Mansfield said.

Sharp declines in beef prices since 2007 have made it sensible to experiment with beef breakfast options at Carl's Jr., Mansfield said, yet she stressed that prices remain high enough to ensure such offerings will remain on the pricier end of the menu.

Nava-Bailey agrees.

"I'd not call it cheap at all,” she says. “I have suppliers who are working with me, but prices aren't that low."

When it comes to steak at breakfast, customer profiling appears impossible at Malone's Bakery and Deli, where owner Paul Malone said he sells "tons of steak-and-egg burritos to everybody, and all ages. … Race, color, where you're from, it doesn't matter, everybody loves them."

Originally started as a quick-service bakery, the Flagstaff, Ariz., shop added breakfast burritos eight years ago. Sales were so strong that sweet baked goods have taken a backseat to savory items, such as Malone’s chili- and salsa-laced 1-pound burritos. Malone's breakfast menu also features beef quesadillas and beef and egg scrambles.

"We sell our beef burritos for $6.50, and that's for Angus beef," Malone said. To prepare the beef, he trims it, pounds it thinly and then marinates and grills it.

"And when you're getting 14 to 16 ounces of food, that carries a lot of our customers through breakfast and lunch,” he said. “You see a lot of kids just splitting them. We know we have to give our customers value or they won't come back."

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