Restaurant and onsite operators reopening after COVID-19 restrictions have a big challenge — recapturing consumers who stopped eating breakfast out during the quarantine.
It may be because they now work at home, are unemployed or are wary of virus transmission in a dining room. The health crisis has also put the brakes on weekend brunch, a beloved social ritual for many consumers and a vital profit center for many restaurants.
The way forward for some operators is to ramp up customer enthusiasm by creating innovative new breakfast and brunch specialties and tweaking old favorites. Often, they borrow global flavors and ingredients that are on-trend in the lunch and dinner dayparts.
Snooze an AM Eatery, a Denver-based breakfast-and-brunch specialist, was one of the many brands that out of necessity emphasized takeout and delivery when the lockdown hampered its on-premise dining business.
“We’ve been surprisingly optimistic about how we've been able to bounce back since,” said Andrew Jaffe, Snooze’s chief marketing officer.
Unchanged is the brand’s commitment to serving the global food experiences and bold flavors that Millennial and Gen Z consumers seek in restaurants.
“Those two cohorts really identify with restaurants that are pushing the envelope from a culinary perspective,” said Jaffe. “And they’re seeking out unique experiences.”
The boldly flavored Habanero Pork Belly Benny, featuring seared, cider-braised habanero pork belly, is one of Snooze’s most popular benedicts. “I think it also speaks to the experiential aspect that guests are looking for,” said Jaffe.
Menu development at Snooze balances dishes that are familiar to guests and those that are eye openers. “We like to have some culinary leadership-type items to give a halo to the brand and our menu,” said Jaffe.
Snooze’s Morning Shakshuka features the North African-inspired tomato ragout made with harissa, Italian sausage and goat cheese, topped with two sunny side up eggs, served atop za’atar-oil-brushed flatbread.
“It’s absolutely in the wheelhouse of Middle Eastern and African flavors,” said Jaffe. “Having the za’atar oil on the flatbread that you dip into the shakshuka was very intentional in terms of the shifting landscape of more multi-ethnic dishes. We also tested kimchi fried rice not long ago.”
Snooze’s Breakfast Pot Pie presents flaky puff pastry topped with homemade rosemary sausage gravy and a sunny side up egg. “Pot pies certainly strike a chord in terms of being familiar,” said Jaffe. “But the twist we put on with our sausage gravy is not something that a guest would expect.”
In addition, Snooze interprets an increasingly popular dish with Bravocado Toast, its own take on avocado toast. It is made with rustic bread, garlic oil, smashed avocado, red onion honey jam and roasted tomato, citronette and parmesan-dressed greens and sunny side up eggs.
Avocado toast as blank canvas
Also seeing an increasing role for global ingredient tweaks is Gabriel Caliendo, vice president of R&D at Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar.
In fact, Caliendo sees breakfast avocado toast increasingly being a platform for innovation.
“I think you will see more versions that have some kind of a twist,” said Caliendo. “I think it still has legs and it will continue to develop.”
Lazy Dog’s Cheesy Eggs and Avocado Toast features the latter item in the form of grilled French bread topped with crushed avocado, red pepper flakes and sea salt, served with scrambled eggs and cheese.
He also sees a future for dishes that bask in Americana, such as “lumberjack” breakfasts — hearty combo platters of traditional fare like eggs, pancakes and breakfast meats — as well as homestyle quiches. An example of the latter is Lazy Dog’s Country Quiche, filled with artisanal ham, bell peppers, onions and cheese, a veritable “Denver omelet quiche,” Caliendo said.
One of the items with the most innovation potential is chilaquiles, the Mexican dish of fried corn tortilla shards cooked in salsa and topped with cheese and often eggs. “It’s in our country’s DNA for breakfast and brunch now,” said Caliendo. “It’s going to grow and spread across the country.”
In fact, chilaquiles has become so well known now that chefs feel license to riff on it, switching from the classic tomato base to green sauce, for example. “It gives me as an operator an opportunity to do, say, a mole chilaquiles with pork belly, or take other fun, innovative approaches,” said Caliendo.
Using chilaquiles as a launching pad is FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel Chicago. Prime Rib Chilaquiles on the brunch menu features slices of juicy prime rib over scrambled eggs, house-made tortilla chips, guajillo sauce, queso fresco and avocado. “We had chilaquiles before and it sold, but now that we put the prime rib on it, it’s really selling,” said executive chef Leonard Ventura.
Also gaining popularity at brunch is honey-and-garlic-roasted pork belly with jalapeño creamed corn. Charred Roasted Corn Salad, featuring fresh Midwestern corn, is enlivened with pico de gallo, avocado, cucumber, queso fresco, crispy tortilla chips and chipotle ranch.
Brunch specialties like those are influenced by the diverse environment in the city and the kitchen. “We’re fortunate to be in Chicago, a melting pot of nationalities,” said Ventura. “In the kitchen we all bounce around flavors from different countries and work out the menu that way.”
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, campus dining chefs and managers have been perfecting operational procedures for serving cooked to-order food in takeout containers. The goal is less contact and more social distancing than in conventional dining hall service. That is important for the largest college and university feeding program in the nation, which in a normal year serves about 8 million meals.
“We’re going to serve food hot and fresh, not have it all packed up and sitting around,” said Alex Ong, director of culinary excellence at UMass. “The only difference is that before we put it on a plate. Now we put it in a container.”
Despite COVID’s disruptions, the award-winning UMass Dining Services is maintaining a brisk pace of culinary innovation. “We came to the realization as chefs, there is nothing we can do except focus on what we do best, which is to put our heads down and cook,” said Ong.
Ong sees vast potential for introducing global ingredients and flavors, particularly
Asian ones, on breakfast menus. Breakfast is “a blank canvas waiting to be painted,” he said. “There is so much opportunity there.”
A familiar starting point is eggs. “The whole world eats eggs, everybody in every culture and country,” said Ong.
At UMass, which has a large international student population, the enthusiasm Asian students have for specialties like congee and jianbing have helped them catch on with the wider student body.
Congee, Chinese savory rice porridge, is enjoyed in Asia throughout the day, topped with an egg and a few vegetables in the morning, later in the day with more robust accompaniments like barbecue pork or duck. UMass has a good congee following. “This is a typical comfort food for a lot of our students,” said Ong.
Another idea that has taken off is jianbing, a handheld, folded crepe made with millet-flour batter. It is a popular quick, street-food breakfast that originated in Beijing.
“It’s very much like a French crepe, but a little crispier,” said Ong. To make it, a thin layer of batter is poured into a hot pan. An egg is cracked and spread over the batter. Toppings such as sweet bean paste, chili sauce, morsels of meat, crisp pastry shards and pickles are added. “Then it is folded up into a little envelope that you can munch on as you walk,” said Ong. “When we first made them, we couldn't keep up with all the orders.”
In Chicago, long months of quarantine gave executive chef Ross Henke and sous chef Chris Schwellenbach plenty of time to sketch out brunch ideas for Mundano. The Latin-inspired restaurant opened in Chicago in late February only to close three weeks later when Illinois went into lockdown. Now they are back in action serving patrons mainly on Mundano’s 100-seat patio, weather permitting.
“I think just being in quarantine gave us more insight into the food we actually want to do,” said Schwellenbach.
One of the brunch signatures is Pork Tartine, a hearty reengineering of avocado toast, topped with roasted pork, dandelion greens salad, Tajin hollandaise, sweet onions and soft-cooked eggs.
Elote Grits, with house-made lamb chorizo, cotija, smoked salsa, peanuts, kale, sunny side up egg and crema, typifies a brunch specialty that combines recognizable ingredients and imaginative twists. Green Shakshuka turns the tables on the common tomato-based ragout for poaching eggs with Latin-inspired green tomatillo salsa plus the novel addition of meaty maitake mushrooms.
“We wanted to make a menu that was very technique driven for our sake, because we're pushing ourselves to be better every day, but also one that came across to the diner as non-fussy and craveable,” said Schwellenbach.