Dr. John Harvey Kellogg promised cornflakes were a quick and healthy start to the day when he launched the revolutionary breakfast food in 1895. Years later, in 1975, McDonald’s rolled out the Egg McMuffin and breakfast changed.
Perhaps it was its portability that catapulted the breakfast sandwich into the culinary stratosphere. After all, busy commuters often eschewed breakfast for grab-and-go coffee. Suddenly they could grab a seemingly healthy meal on the go. Nutritionists pushed the message — breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The breakfast sandwich was born.
“Breakfast sandwiches and coffee are both on the CRFA’s ‘What’s Growing’ list,” says Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant & Foodservices Association (CRFA). “It appeals to two ends of the spectrum — the time pressed and those who want a good breakfast.”
Not surprisingly, sandwiches are the top-selling breakfast item at Tim Hortons. “Mornings are a very busy time for many people. QSR breakfast guests are looking for convenient locations, fast and accurate service, delicious and portable food and beverage offerings,” acknowledges Julie Unsworth, director, Category Brand, Food, for Tim Hortons. “We also know many guests are trying to eat healthier. We provide a wide variety of breakfast options, including many better-for-you choices like our new Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich ($3.29). All of our breakfast sandwiches are always made fresh to order.”
But, breakfast is evolving across dayparts. Since 2007, annual breakfast/brunch occasions have grown by 159.7-million visits. And, although breakfast/brunch accounts for only 15 per cent of total restaurant traffic, it has been responsible for 56 per cent of visit growth in the foodservice industry during the past six years, (growing every year). “QSR chains have been the most impactful driver of the breakfast growth trend. Their share has grown from 62 per cent to 71 per cent from 2007 to 2013,” explains Robert Carter, executive director, Foodservice, with NPD Group Canada. “While motivators for breakfast are convenience, habit and time crunch, it seems loyalty, craveable items and quality have been a strength for FSR.”
Cora Mussely Tsouflidou figured that out 26 years ago. “Place a good breakfast in front of people, and they love it,” she has said. At Cora, there are more than 100 offerings, so there’s something for everyone, and most come with beautifully cut fresh fruit.
“We have some decadence of course, but we focus on health. It’s top of mind for our customers,” says David Polny, EVP of Cora Breakfast & Lunch, a chain with 130 locations across Canada. And loyalty continues to drive sales.
But as breakfast thrives, other dayparts are losing customers. The breakfast meeting seems to be replacing lunch and dinner — it’s cheaper, faster and perceived as less self-indulgent. According to NPD, lunch and supper together contribute to only 10 per cent of incremental traffic gains, and FSR traffic is still trending down this year. The solution for many operators has been to begin serving breakfast. The CRFA’s Whyte points to a number of restaurants and pubs that are now serving weekend brunch, daily breakfast and even all-day breakfast. For example, Toronto’s Barque Smokehouse serves a breakfast Benny with brisket or trout from their smoker, barbecue hollandaise and cornbread ($14).
This upsets operators such as Tony Cappellano, an owner and major stakeholder of the thriving Boom Breakfast & Co., a 10-year-old chain with four corporate locations in Toronto. “Everybody’s jumping on the breakfast bandwagon,” he says, pointing to coffee shops and even pizzerias that have joined this daypart. “We’re successful, but we have to constantly rethink what we’re doing. Some of the chains are offering a price point and speed that is hard to beat. But, we offer more personable service than most chains. Our focus is local, freshly made food — and we’re working on speed.”
While speed is patently important, it seems Cappellano is right about the food. Freshly made pancakes and waffles, handmade hollandaise and Canadian maple syrup are helping to sell breakfast.
Two years ago, Steve Ewing started Yolks, a food truck in Vancouver, which serves 80 to 150 breakfasts daily during the week, and 120 to 300 breakfasts on weekends. More recently, he opened a much-anticipated 36-seat restaurant, which served 200 covers on opening day. That quickly expanded to 42 seats and now averages 300 covers on a Sunday. His simple menu takes the breakfast sandwich to the next level. Free-range eggs are the base for a build-your-own sandwich that could include double-smoked bacon and real, homemade hollandaise sauce. Daily specials might include anything from pork belly to duck confit served atop eggs. Yolks’ version of hash browns are made with potatoes soaked in fresh lemon juice and served with homemade ketchup for dipping. The waffles are made from scratch. “Our food is healthy, organic and approachably upscale,” says Ewing. “I think that’s the real breakfast trend.”
At the other end of the country, Mark Giffin’s Coastal Café in Halifax follows the same formula. While the restaurant only has 20 seats, the team manages to serve up to 190 covers in one shift. And, Coastal consistently wins Best Breakfast accolades.
The McCoastal Sandwich (no points for guessing the origin of this name) is a top seller and while it rings in at a considerably higher price than the average breakfast sandwich, $12 buys you two fried eggs, house-made cured maple sausage or locally cured maple bacon, Havarti and red wine onion compote in an English muffin, served with homemade hash or salad. “High quality ingredients and attention to detail is what brings people back,” says Giffin, who saw a niche in the breakfast market about six years ago and used his fine-dining training to create an upscale offering.
Nonetheless, he recognizes the need for indulgence, even at breakfast. Another top seller is the Durty Bird — two fried eggs, Habanero Buffalo chicken, bacon and guacamole in an English muffin served with hash or salad ($13).
Nataliya Babenko will tell you indulgence is the reason for her success. The chef/owner of Sweet Life in Calgary did a careful analysis of what people want. “Bacon and eggs,” she asserts. “But they want a backsplash of something sweet, like a waffle or maple syrup. I couldn’t believe the success of our Bacon’eh’tor.” Her top seller combines smoked maple bacon, double vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, chocolate sauce and maple syrup on a hand-made Belgian waffle ($11.95).
The only challenger for top spot on her menu comes from Regular Joe: a Belgian waffle topped with two scrambled eggs, and smoked maple bacon or all beef breakfast sausage, served with warm maple syrup ($11.95). These sell better on weekends, but Sweet Life is busy daily with sales growing exponentially.
While NPD’s Carter suggests most people are really looking for healthy breakfast offerings, anomalies abound. One need only look at the current craze for ‘cronuts’ in their various incarnations. Croissants deep fried and sugar-coated are hardly healthy fare. And, at Yolks, the line-ups for the Friday breakfast special — fried chicken and waffles with maple syrup — are legendary.
This Southern U.S. classic might seem supremely unhealthy, but Yolks’ Ewing brines and adds panko crust to boneless, organic chicken then fries at a very high temperature so little oil is absorbed ($11.75). “We serve real maple syrup, too,” he adds, “so we take the trashiness out of it.” While it isn’t low calorie, perhaps it has enough redeeming features to make it appealing to those who want to indulge.
In fact, this particular Southern specialty is making its way on to many Canadian menus. At Montreal’s SuWu, a breakfast of French toast and blueberry sauce comes with fried chicken ($12). And, at Toronto’s Drake Hotel, chicken with herb waffles, maple syrup, crème fraîche and Niagara cherry jam ($15.95) gets raves.
And, what about price? “We offer a $5.99, two-egg breakfast that includes coffee,” says Boom’s Cappellano. “It brings people in and keeps us top of mind.” And, of course, customers might decide to get Boom’s top-selling Bennies ($10.49 to $11.89) instead.
“There’s a perception that breakfast is a cheap meal,” says Cora’s Polny. “Our clientele comes back, because we offer value on the plate, and there’s no compromise on quality.” Quality and service brings customers back despite an average price of about $10 a plate.
In fact, while that QSR take-away breakfast sandwich costs under $5, in the FSR breakfast market the full plate price seems to have settled around $10 to $15 across Canada. How much will Canadians pay? At The Coastal, says Giffin, “We served butter-poached lobster with our eggs for $30, and we sold out.”
So, while Canadians are cutting back their restaurant spending, they may see breakfast as a lower priced dining-out alternative, especially on weekends. “They might not go out for dinner on Sunday night, but they’ll go for brunch,” says the CRFA’s Whyte. “It can be a family occasion, too.” At brunch, speed and price are replaced with upscaling and top-notch service.
But whether it’s for breakfast or brunch, offering customers something unique and freshly made seems to be the mark of success across the country. Yolks’ Ewing sums it up: “The one trend that will keep growing is that customers want real food made by humans, not machines. Adding water to powdered mixes just doesn’t cut it anymore.” l