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Cold (and Hot) Comfort

Cold (and Hot) Comfort

Foodservice operators are offering healthy and indulgent breakfasts to satisfy consumers’ changing definition of comfort food.

Comfort food at breakfast can mean eggs, pancakes, and bacon, and increasingly, whole grains, plant proteins, and kale. Consumers are looking for healthy and indulgent foods for their morning meal, and foodservice establishments are menuing some updated favorites.

The definition of comfort food is evolving. “It’s food that is well thought out and served with a purpose,” says Robert Maynard, CEO and founder of Davidson, North Carolina-based Famous Toastery For example, he says, the Huevos Rancheros are two eggs, black beans, cheddar and feta cheese, crispy tortilla strips, cilantro, pico de gallo and avocado slices. The chicken on the Chicken and Waffles is pan fried, not deep fried. “The food is a lot cleaner than what you would get somewhere else.” 

High quality, local ingredients play a role in breakfast at Bubby’s, with locations in New York City and Japan. The eggs, milk, trout and other ingredients come from New York State.  One big seller is Bubby’s Breakfast, with two Brey’s Farm eggs, bacon, home fries, and sourdough toast. Sourdough pancakes with caramelized bananas and toasted walnuts are also popular. “Breakfast is the absolute perfect vehicle for comfort food,” says owner Ron Silver. “It’s the time that people are just ready for things that they already know about. There is a familiarity to it.”

Another familiar food is breakfast sandwiches. At Great Harvest Bread Co., the breakfast sandwiches feature bread that is made from fresh-milled whole wheat flour. Some sandwiches feature all-natural eggs and bacon from local farmers. “Our fresh ingredients cater to the healthy food trend that we are seeing right now,” says CEO Mike Ferretti. “But at the same time, the breakfast sandwiches at Great Harvest are also cheesy, meaty, savory and delicious, catering to the trend in indulgent food, and most importantly, tasty comfort food.”

Customization is still a trend, and consumers want choices. Earlier this year Pitzer College in Claremont, California, installed a second exhibition station during breakfast once a week. It features items such as made-to-order breakfast sandwiches, pancakes and waffles with an assortment of toppings, customizable breakfast bowls and other items. “Guests have the ability to be as healthy or indulgent as they want to be on a given day,” says Cindy Bennington, general manager, Pitzer College, Bon Appetit Management Company.

One section that has been a big hit is plain oatmeal or yogurt with a selection of toppings such as house-made fruit and nut granola, toasted nuts and seeds, dried fruits, and shakers of plain cocoa and ground cinnamon.

At Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the newest breakfast station is vegetarian and vegan. The selections include acai bowls and other on-trend items. Also available at breakfast are global foods such as Japanese soba noodles with vegetables, tofu, broth, herbs, and pickled vegetables, and congee, a Chinese variation of warm rice, with or without Sriracha.

“People are enjoying southeast Asian flavor profiles right now,” says Chris Studtmann, Sodexo district executive chef for Northwestern Dining. “It’s comforting, and kind of different, and it surprises people in the morning.”

At the campus’s retail locations, there are portable comfort foods such as overnight oats layered with Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, and seeds or nuts for an energy boost. There are also breakfast sandwiches with house-made sausage patties which are made with turkey and quinoa or millet.

Even breakfast bowls can be comforting. “Our guests take comfort in knowing that they’re eating a meal that is loaded with nutrients and is good for the earth,” says Melissa Gallagher, vice president of marketing for Freshii, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “This is an evolution of what was previously considered comfort food, often associated with high caloric value or high carbohydrate content.” Three of the most popular items on the breakfast menu are Cali Smoothie Bowl with banana, mango, strawberries, granola, coconut; Huevos Bowl with scrambled egg and kale, avocado, aged cheddar, black beans, salsa fresca, and barbecue sauce; and Green Eggs and Kale with feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and roasted red pepper sauce.

At Boulder, Colorado-based Rush Bowls, one Comfort Bowl is the Peanut Butter and Jelly bowl, which includes banana, strawberry, peanut butter, fat-free frozen yogurt (which is optional), vanilla soy or fat-free milk, topped with organic granola, jelly and peanut butter. “We grind our own peanut butter and make our own jam,” says Andrew Pudalov, president and founder. “You are eating a hearty and healthy breakfast, and it’s 16 ounces, so you are full.”

Others say indulgence is still the main goal of breakfast comfort food. “Our guests love the decadent biscuit dishes that we have been cooking up since 2009,” says Drew Shader, owner of Denver-based Atomic Provisions, a restaurant group that includes Denver Biscuit Company. “Biscuits, fried chicken, gravy, sausage are all very popular.” The most popular item is a sandwich called the Dahlia, which features biscuit French toast, house-made sausage patty and apple butter plus an over-easy egg, smothered in maple syrup.

Decadence is also the theme at Atlanta-based Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits. Two of the best sellers are the Super Cinnamon Swirl, which is a doughy cinnamon roll topped with sweet vanilla icing, and the Breakfast Biscuits with sausage, chicken, bacon, or steak. “People are more health conscious, but they’re still looking to indulge in hearty comfort food,” says John Buttolph, CEO, “especially at breakfast.”

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