Morning Rush

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THERE WAS A time when breakfast options in restaurants consisted of two eggs over easy at the local greasy spoon, apork sandwich at the drive thru window or a weekend extravaganza at a luxurious hotel, complete with shrimp cocktail, ice sculptures and roast beef.

These days, breakfast offerings at Canadian restaurants have expanded to meet a variety of evolving customer needs. And, whether customers are throwing back food on-the-go, eating decadently or enjoying healthy fresh fare, operators across industry segments are more devoted than ever to the morning’s hungry diners.

And, hungry they are. According to the 2010 Canadian Breakfast Consumer Trend Report, produced by the Chicago-based, Technomic Inc., nearly 50 per cent of Canadians can’t start their day without breakfast — a stat reflected in industry trends. “Growth and expansion of breakfast is actually one of the top trends Technomic identified for the Canadian market in our 2011 trends list,” says the firm’s consumer research manager, Kelly Weikel. “The breakfast daypart is growing fast in Canada, as limited- and full-service operators revamp their morning menus and roll out new items.”

While the largest number of Canadians report visiting fast-food restaurants for weekday breakfasts, with one-third pointing to low prices and convenient location as major factors, the breakfast daypart is also growing in fast-casual restaurants.

These days choice seems to be the determining factor when it comes to serving breakfast today, with Technomic’s Top 200 fast-casual operators surveyed offering 40 breakfast items in 2009, up from just 15 items two years earlier. “The QSR breakfast segment has also experienced growth at breakfast,” notes Weikel, “expanding from 60 items in 2007 to 373 items in 2009.”

The selection is certainly big at Calgary’s new Overeasy Breakfast, a chic café sporting a fun, funky vibe and a big following. There are more than 70 inventive dishes on chef Mauro Martina’s whimsical menu, ranging from breakfast panino on handmade brioche ($8.49) to the Bennie Upstream with smoked Steelhead trout and spinach ($11.89), the Full Monty, Cristo Crêpe with grilled chicken, Black Forest ham, spinach and hollandaise ($11.99) and the unique Soul in a Bowl comprised of breakfast poutine of herbed roast potatoes, topped with Quebec cheese curds, poached eggs, bacon and hollandaise, served in a traditional Chinese take-out box ($9.99).

Before opening the popular spot, Martina asked himself: “What is breakfast in 2010?” His response: “It’s the most important meal of the day, but not each egg is an egg. How can I take breakfast, the meal that everyone plays safe, and push the envelope?

The German-born Italian chef, who cooked at Michelin-star restaurants in Europe and ran Mövenpick’s successful Toronto operations, has an eye for efficiency. His small space is perpetually crowded, but the six staff on the floor each have a specific task, and it all works like a well-choreographed dance. The chef even uses the kind of cutting- edge, web-based computer system employed by large corporate operations to keep his business organized.

But, it’s the food that brings diners back. For example, he has products such as local Highwood Crossing organic granola, Frog Friendly organic coffee, sausages custom-made to his specifications by a local butcher and a large egg distributor with a personalized product. “It’s about giving a superior product,” says Martina. “I buy eggs from Sparks [a local egg supplier] but they have a special farm, a specific flock, for me; they are free-run, dark-yolk, Omega 3s — you can’t buy these eggs anywhere else.”

Martina’s eggs are so unique his customers beg him to sell them by the dozen. And, on his website, where you can hear the sounds of short-order cooking instead of music, a counter tallies the “number of eggs cracked,” with a running total of more than 110,000, with between 2,100 and 2,700 sold every week.

Cooking breakfast allows him to enjoy quality time with his young family while making a good living. “Live, love, dream,” he says, pointing to his motto scrawled across the wall alongside other cheery morning maxims. Even though he closes his doors at 3 p.m., Martina routinely serves 200 covers daily (287 is the record), in the 38-seat café, where young couples, families, hipsters, girlfriends and retirees wait outside on the busy street for a table.

It’s the same at nearby Diner Deluxe, the first restaurant on this busy city thoroughfare to attract big breakfast crowds. “Calgary has a real breakfast culture,” says chef Dwayne Ennest, whose cool, 1950s retro diner raised the breakfast bar when it opened in 2000, featuring local ingredients and artisan breads from the Urban Baker, their next door bakery. “It’s funny, we just wanted a cool little place, but breakfast just took off; it’s now 65 per cent of the business,” says Ennest, who along with his wife, Alberta, runs the Open Range v steakhouse and Big Fish seafood and oyster bar, further up the street. “On Sundays we do 300 or 400 covers at the diner — even at night, 25 per cent of our customers order breakfast.”

Customers line up outside Diner Deluxe for favourites such as maple-fried oatmeal with lemon curd and heavy cream ($6.75), meat loaf hash with soft-poached egg, spinach and red pepper jelly ($12.50) or buckwheat müesli pancakes with maple-squash butter ($9.50).

And with Overeasy Breakfast, the trendy AKA Wine Bar and a local pub all serving breakfast in close quarters, it’s no wonder local food bloggers have dubbed the area “the bacon belt.”

Even Ennest has boosted his breakfast offerings, with weekend brunches at Big Fish, featuring upscale items such as white mushroom, truffle, basil, white Cheddar scramble on duck confit hash ($15) or Cunningham’s candied trout and chive omelette with Sylvan Star Gouda ($14).

“The cooks are there anyway, and it adds money to the coffers,” Ennest says, noting that even in tough economic times and lean months (such as January and August), breakfast business remains strong.

As the independent side of the popular breakfast category continues to grow, so too does morning business at chains. McDonald’s, which introduced Canadians to the breakfast sandwich with the launch of the McMuffin in 1976, has seen double- digit growth in breakfast traffic in the last two years, says Ailene MacDougall, breakfast business lead for McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada.

“Breakfast is our fastest-growing daypart and a major reason why McDonald’s Canada posted its best results in 25 years,” says MacDougall. In fact, at Mickey D’s, breakfast traffic surged 20 per cent in 2010. The introduction of McCafé premium

coffee, cappuccino and latte — McDonald’s aggressive plan to capture some of Starbucks’ morning business — has brought more Canadians back to the golden arches for breakfast. “A lot of Canadians got re-acquainted with our brand and were surprised and delighted by what they experienced,” says MacDougall.

In response to growing demand, McDonald’s breakfast hours were extended to 11 a.m. and the morning menu was expanded. In January, the buttermilk biscuit was added to its breakfast sandwich roster, along with the original McMuffins, the Breakfast Bagel and the McGriddle.

QSR’s such as McDonald’s have what the Technomic’s breakfast study shows Canadians want most in morning food — speed, convenience and low price. The study found more consumers visit fast-food restaurants for breakfast during the week than any other type of restaurant. But on weekends, consumers prefer family style restaurants for leisurely breakfasts where they say taste trumps convenience.

The rapid growth of restaurant concepts such as Ontario’s Sunset Grill is evidence of the growing trend. Founder, Angelo Christou, opened his first casual breakfast and burger restaurant in 1985 to long line-ups and a big following. The peameal Canadian bacon and three-egg, all-day breakfast is a Sunset trademark, although the menu includes classics from eggs Florentine and French toast to omelettes and waffles. By 2003, Sunset Grill had four corporate stores, a growing franchise business; today there’s more than 20 stores and counting.

So what are Canadians eating? While everyone seems to serve standards, innovation is everywhere. “You can be innovative, but you have to have the basics,” says Ennest. But, Vancouver’s, Medina Café, which churns out a soft-boiled egg with cucumber tomato salad, baba ganoush and taboule with fried pita bread ($12), proves almost anything is possible, even a little hair of the dog morning cocktail or spiked coffee can accompany a gourmet brekkie.

At Medina Café — sister to evening hotspot and former F&H bar of the month, Chambar — chef Nico Schuermans poaches eggs in a spicy tagine of tomatoes, merguez sausage and sundried olives ($14) and serves a sparkling Moroccan Mimosa ($8) made with fresh orange juice infused with Sumac, star anise and fig, alongside.

Despite the range of innovation, breakfast sandwiches remain a top choice, especially with young consumers, even though 78 per cent of those surveyed order eggs on weekends. Healthy breakfast choices are important, especially for business travellers forced to have breakfast away from home. So cereal, low-fat yogurt and fruit are often on offer. But almost every breakfast menu includes eggs benedict — with bacon, salmon, spinach or even avocado — drenched in decadent hollandaise sauce.

“Nowadays a lot of people watch what they eat and care about where the food comes from,” says Ray Nolan, executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Calgary, “but we sell a lot of sticky bun French toast ($14), too.”

Major hotels are synonymous with expansive buffet brunches — the fancier the hotel, the bigger the buffet and the higher the price tag — but fast, portable and à la carte breakfast is also available to hotel guests.

At Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront, chef Patrick Dore’s house-made cinnamon buns attract customers off the street, and its Herons-on-the-Fly program features on-the-go breakfast items for hotel guests, including baked goods, yogurt parfaits, coffee, juice and more.

Meanwhile, down the street at the newly opened Fairmont Pacific Rim, there’s a daily breakfast buffet ($29) featuring classic breakfast items and an à la carte breakfast menu in the hotel’s Pan-Asian bistro, Oru. Chef David Wong’s signature dishes include smoked sablefish Benedict with lobster hollandaise ($23), seared albacore tuna on sushi rice ($21) or golden waffles with guava cream cheese and mango maple syrup ($19).

Giovane, the sleek, stand-alone Italian-style coffee bar is the hotel’s other breakfast spot. With a street side entrance, and no obvious attachment to the hotel, it’s designed to compete with chains such as Starbucks and local Café Artigiano — drawing the downtown crowd with its cappuccino, cream-filled sugar buns, organic egg sandwiches with sopressata, chocolate cherry scones and custom-roasted 49th Parallel coffee.

“Giovane is branded to be a stand-alone facility,” says Pacific Rim sales coordinator, Kaylyn Trott. “We own it and run it, but the baristas don’t even wear hotel name tags. It’s a little unique for Fairmont.”

At the Four Seasons Hotel’s chic Yew restaurant, half of the breakfast customers are hotel guests and half are drawn from outside the hotel. The Coffee Culture Bar, featuring 49th Parallel artisanal coffee, attracts local customers. There’s Yew-to-go with smoothies and a selection of breakfast bagels, and on weekends the Full Event Brunch menu gives diners the choice between three courses from the “To Start,” “To Follow” and “Dessert Tapas” menu. “It’s three courses for $27

— and with our Sunday half-price wine promotion — it’s something fun to do without feeling it in the wallet,” says chef Oliver Beckert. Beckert has also introduced innovations such as hot minidoughnuts and Yew Signature Sodas, including rhubarb, mint and lime or cinnamon, apple and lemon. “The bread basket wasn’t right, so we bought a doughnut machine and now have baskets of mini-doughnuts with chocolate ganache or cinnamon sugar on the table,” he says. “People get so excited.”

“It attracts additional business and lets people know that Yew is not a boring hotel restaurant.”

Perhaps that’s a mantra breakfast restaurants across the country have also been repeating. While breakfast used to mean the skimpiest of menus, including eggs, bacon and home fries, today’s inventive chefs have carved out a high-end breakfast niche, mid-scale operators have serious breakfast bona fides, and the QSR scene, with its coffee war, expanded menu and constant innovation is anything but boring. What’s next remains to be seen, but if consumer research provides any indication, breakfast offerings will continue to be convenient, fast and delicious.

For more promotional ideas, merchandising tips, new product announcements, recipes and expanded breakfast offerings, visit foodserviceandhospitality.com and click FoodPlus.

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