With the morning commute gone from a car ride to a walk to the kitchen table, breakfast at restaurants has taken a beating. But these days the beleaguered daypart is on the upswing, with breakfast orders from quick-service restaurants down just 14% in the year ended in December. In April, at the height of the shutdown, QSR concepts saw breakfast orders decline 35%.
One major contributor to the lift are chain and independent operators that have been beefing up breakfast menus with comfort-food favorites, indulgent innovations and dishes that transcend dayparts.
Bringing on breakfast
“[Consumers] are coming back to different dayparts and breakfast is one of them,” said Melissa Friebe, senior vice president insights and analytics at Taco Bell.
To bring customers back following a pandemic-induced breakfast hiatus, Taco Bell is focusing on promoting the return of the morning meal and its line of breakfast burritos, starting at $1.29, and its Breakfast Crunch Wrap, $2.79. The popular portables and other breakfast offerings are currently available at more than 50% of Taco Bell locations.
“It’s important for us to clarify that we have their favorite breakfast,” said Friebe. “When you look at what works well, it’s familiar and known.”
Indeed, breakfast sandwiches remain consumer favorites even amid the pandemic. The No.1 food item ordered at morning meal, breakfast sandwiches are included in 30% of orders, according to market research firm The NPD Group. Next in line are breakfast burritos/wraps, which are included in 5% of orders.
While some are bringing back breakfast, Wendy’s debuted its morning meal menu on March 2, 2020 before COVID restrictions kicked in. The Dublin, Ohio-based burger chain’s breakfast menu include nine items, coffee and drinks. For example, the Breakfast Baconator, similar to the chain’s traditional Baconator with fresh-cracked egg, signature sausage patty and six strips of Applewood smoked bacon, and Frosty-ccinos in chocolate or vanilla.
“We came into the morning daypart as an underdog,” Carl Loredo, Wendy’s chief marketing officer, told NRN in late-January, “and we launched it in the midst of COVID.”
Loredo added that breakfast was driving the Wendy’s business, contributing 6.5% to same-restaurant sales in the third-quarter ended Sept. 27.
Leading with menu mainstays
Full-service breakfast and brunch chains pushed by the pandemic to pivot to takeout and delivery have been finding success with many of the same menu items that were popular pre-pandemic.
At Denver-based Snooze A.M. Eatery, dishes that have remained top-sellers during the pandemic include Juan’s Breakfast Tacos, with corn tortillas, scrambled eggs, hash browns, jack cheese, green chile hollandaise and pico de gallo, $11.25; a flight of three favorite pancake flavors, $11.25; the breakfast burrito, $11.50; and OMG French Toast, brioche stuffed with mascarpone and topped with vanilla crème, caramel, fresh strawberries and toasted coconut, $11.
When pandemic restrictions left most of Orlando, Fla.-based Another Broken Egg Café locations shuttered, the full-service breakfast, brunch and lunch chain pivoted to takeout and delivery and experimented with portable items.
“We pivoted into to-go quickly and that paid off big time,” said Paul Macaluso, Another Broken Egg’s CEO and president. “We did try some things — handhelds, portables — but that didn’t work for us at all.”
What has worked, said Macaluso, is serving up the same high-quality, indulgent breakfast dishes customers craved pre-pandemic, such as shrimp and grits, $14.95; chicken and waffles, $11.29; and classic French toast, $11.59.
But the success of familiar favorites hasn’t stopped Snooze or Another Broken Egg from innovating at the morning meal. For example, Snooze has had success with summer cocktails, such as Rosa Sangria; a Fall pumpkin pecan pie pancake LTO; and newly launched egg white omelet and vegan pancakes.
To complete the experience, Snooze created virtual brunches with 80’s and 90’s music that guests could take home with their order, and hosted a live DJ brunch watch that customers could tune into from home.
Seasonal specials and LTOs have also been a hit for Another Broken Egg, most recently, a citrus, honey and fig pancake and a smoked salmon scrambler.
Adapting to later mornings
“The typical early morning 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. crowd no longer exists,” said Joancarlo Parkhurst, chef and owner of La Famosa in Washington, D.C.
As a result, the Puerto Rican fine-fast restaurant now serves breakfast from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m, with the bulk of visits occurring between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
The mid-morning crowd is coming to La Famosa for breakfast items such as the Mata Hambre with shaved ribeye, egg, queso de papa, potato sticks, sweet pepper aioli, pickled Fresno chilies, $7.50; and the Bocadillo, a grilled ham and Swiss sandwich, $5. Pastries, such as pastelillo de guayaba, a flaky pastry stuffed with guava, $3, and quesito, a flakey pastry stuffed with sweet cheese, $3, are also popular and available throughout the day.
Parkhurst also redesigned the restaurant’s kitchen to support the larger-than-anticipated breakfast business.
“In the beginning, adding breakfast was a way to push revenue centers that were complementary,” said Parkhurst. “It ended up being much more central in making ends meet.”
Also doing its busiest breakfast business between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. weekdays is The Kitchen at Rocky's Market, which opened in July in Oakland’s Brooklyn Basin neighborhood.
Simple and easy to-go items are selling best, including Boichik, bagels with variety of toppings; the Basin Breakfast Burrito with roasted potatoes, scrambled egg, black beans, and cheese in a flour tortilla, $12.50; and the Basin Breakfast Sammy, a croissant or brioche bun with two eggs, lemon aioli, Havarti, caramelized onions, and ham, bacon or a sausage patty, $12.50.
“Now that it’s cooler, we aren’t seeing as many diners, but continue to do take-out and deliveries,” said Corinne Kinczel, The Kitchen’s owner and executive chef. “As the months warm, we will add omelets and other breakfast items like that for diners to sit and enjoy on the [15,000-square-foot-covered] patio.”
To tackle to breakfast behavior shifts, Beatrix, Lettuce Entertain You’s neighborhood coffeehouse and restaurant with five locations in the Chicago area, added new items to the menu, created dishes ideal for takeout and delivery, and experimented with an all-day breakfast menu where breakfast items were available into lunchtime and lunch items were available during breakfast.
“The morning definitely shifted to a later start, as we used to see a coffee bar line form at 6:45 a.m. and now it’s closer to 8:30 a.m.,” said Marc Jacobs, Lettuce Entertain You’s executive partner and divisional president.
Beatrix’s expanded menu, launched in February 17, includes items such as the Prime Burger on whole grain toast or classic bun, Kennebec fries, house-made giardiniera, choice of aged white cheddar, Wisconsin swiss or Havarti, $14.95; Shishito pepper, egg white cheddar and bacon sandwich, $8.95; shakshouka with spicy tomato sauce, poached eggs, kale, feta, warm naan, $12.95; and Greek yogurt and berries, $7.50.
Beatrix has also launched a virtual coffee bar where guests can pre-order coffee and bakery favorites for delivery, as well as an array of new at-home breakfast and brunch kits. Also in development are takeout brunch cocktails.
“They were created to continue to provide our guests what they love most about Beatrix,” said Jacobs. “Fresh-squeezed juice, healthful comfort food and favorites from our coffee bar and bakery counter.”