Breakfast accounts for 22% of all restaurant visits in the United States, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group, and it’s the only daypart enjoying consistent growth, with the number of visits during the morning meal increasing by 1% annually over the past three years.
But breakfast is a delicate time of day. Most consumers are in a hurry, and they don’t want surprises before having finished their first cup of coffee. So restaurants that want their business need to satisfy their needs with as little friction as possible.
“People at breakfast don’t have a lot of time, and they’re on the go, likely in a car,” said Anne Albertine, research and development director of quick-service chain Del Taco, based in Lake Forest, Calif. “They’re also very ritualized: They don’t like to change their breakfast, so you have to give them what they want and make it even more portable.”
To that end, Albertine said the chain of nearly 600 restaurants did away with its breakfast tacos some time ago, because no one wants taco filling falling into their lap while they’re driving. Instead, they’ve focused on breakfast burritos, with both ends folded in and with ingredients designed to deliver a lot of flavor without dripping. For example, Del Taco’s Huevos Rancheros Epic Burrito combines chorizo, sliced avocado, beans, cheddar, roasted chile salsa and sour cream with eggs that are scrambled to order. Those are double-wrapped in two corn tortillas and then in an oversized flour tortilla.
Less portable than burritos, but more portable than a plate of food, is the bowl, which is the vessel that quick-service chain Hardee’s plans to use to drive morning traffic, according to Owen Klein, vice president of global culinary innovation at Hardee’s parent company, CKE.
“Our consumers have talked about and requested all of their favorites in one spot,” he said. “You get the breakfast platter experience, but it’s way more convenient.”
The first in the 1,900-unit chain’s bowl line is the Loaded Hash Round Bowl, made with fried hash brown balls, scrambled egg, sausage gravy, shredded cheddar cheese and bacon bits.
“It’s cheesy, it’s crispy, it’s meaty, it hits on a lot of core tenets that we offer at breakfast,” Klein said.
The bowl went through four level of testing, from conceptual tests — asking consumers if a bowl with hash browns, eggs, gravy, cheese and bacon sounds like something they’d like to eat — through taste tests and on to operational and market tests.
“It’s all their favorite foods in one bowl,” Klein said.
Other chains have added bowls recently, too. Dallas- based fast-casual chain Corner Bakery Café introduced bowls for late winter and early spring at its nearly 200 locations. The Carved Ham & Swiss Bowl had scrambled eggs topped with pecan wood smoked ham, roasted red peppers, green onions, Swiss cheese and garlic cream sauce, and the Bacon Avocado Egg Bowl had scrambled eggs topped with applewood smoked bacon, diced tomato, chopped baby spinach, cheddar and avocado. Both were available from February through April.
In May, Dunkin’ introduced two high-protein bowls for an unspecified limited time: The Egg White Bowl with egg whites, spinach, roasted potatoes, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions, and the Sausage Scramble Bowl that, along with sausage and scrambled eggs, has melted cheddar Jack cheese, pepper and onions.
Even for people willing to get out of their cars and enjoy table service during breakfast, speed is key, said Ricky Richardson, CEO of Eggs Up Grill, a 32-unit breakfast-and-lunch restaurant chain based in Spartanburg, S.C.
“It plays differently across different days of the week,” he said, noting that on weekends people are more willing to linger. But during the week, “convenience makes a huge difference” in terms of where customers decide to eat,” he added.
The chain recently revamped its menu, partly with speed in mind, significantly reducing the number of menu items so the staff could focus on the most popular dishes “and also do them better and faster,” he said.
“Reducing ticket time by a minute and a half to two minutes can make a huge difference in the guest experience,” he said.
Eggs Up Grill also added some items, including the Chorizo Home Fry Bowl, which is a blend of fried potatoes and chorizo with onions, bell peppers and jalapeños, all covered with pepper Jack cheese and two eggs.
At Eggs Up Grill’s latest location, slated to open in its home market of Spartanburg in late June, the chain plans to experiment with a grab-and-go counter with a wide range of coffees as well as fruit and yogurt, plus sandwiches that will be assembled in advance and heated to order.
In April, Panera Bread announced new breakfast wraps at its more than 2,300 restaurants with a focus on health as well as convenience.
“People are compromising between convenience and quality in the morning, and we know that’s a problem Panera can help solve,” Panera CEO Blaine Hurst said in a statement when the new menu was announced.
The new items are wrapped in whole-grain lavash. Guests can stuff them with bacon, scrambled egg and gouda; egg whites, roasted tomatoes, spinach and feta; or chipotle- spiced chicken, scrambled egg, avocado and peppadew peppers.
In announcing the new items, Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of wellness and food policy, said the new wraps were introduced in response to consumer demand.
“We’ve long set the standard for an elevated morning experience from bagels to brioche breakfast sandwiches and craft bakery,” she said in the release. “But we recognize our guest is looking for new breakfast offerings for their busy lives.”
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