Menu Innovations | December 2010 | By Barney Wolf

Wake Up Breakfast Proteins

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Shortly after McDonald’s move, Hardee’s expanded its breakfast chicken biscuit throughout its entire system. But other major quick serves have not rushed to add their own breakfast chicken items.

“We expected there would be a lot of movement after McDonald’s launched its chicken biscuit, because a lot of people like to note McDonald’s success,” Mintel’s Giandelone says. “That hasn’t happened. It’s more difficult for operators to introduce an item using a protein that many consumers aren’t used to in the morning.”

Americans have increased chicken consumption at other meals, so they may not be as inclined to have it in the morning, too. Additionally, individuals looking for more healthful options may not want chicken that is fried or mixed in with eggs.

Still, NPD Group estimates that 1.2 billion biscuit sandwiches were served at restaurants for the year ending 2010—about one-third of all the breakfast sandwiches sold. Some have estimated that upward of 10 percent, or 120 million, were chicken biscuits.

And the number of other breakfast chicken choices is growing. Chick-fil-A’s breakfast menu has expanded beyond the biscuit.

The Chicken Breakfast Burrito includes chicken, scrambled eggs, roasted onions and peppers, cheese, and salsa on a tortilla, while the Chicken Egg and Cheese Bagel features a toasted multigrain bagel. Chick-n-Minis offer chicken nuggets on small yeast rolls.

Grilled chicken is served with eggs and other ingredients in Breakfast Quesadillas and Scrambler Burritos at a number of Qdoba Mexican Grill restaurants.

Pita Pit’s Chicken Classic—with chicken breast, scrambled eggs, hash-brown potatoes, peppers, mushrooms, onions, and a choice of toppings, cheeses, and sauces—has become one of the Idaho-based chain’s most popular breakfast items.

And the Early Bird at Tropical Smoothie Café has been a menu favorite for some time.

“We already served chicken in our wraps for lunch, dinner, and catering, so this allowed us to expand it to breakfast,” says Barbara Valentino, marketing and communications director for the Destin, Florida, company.

The breakfast wrap is also filled with eggs, cheese, tomato, and a slightly spicy bistro sauce before being toasted. It is offered all day, as is the entire morning menu.

Fried chicken is the key ingredient in the Country Fried Chicken & Gravy Go Bowl at Farmer Boys, a Riverside, California–based fast-casual chain with nearly 70 units in California and Nevada. The company’s line of Go Bowls features containers that help keep breakfast offerings fresh and hot when customers take them to work, home, or school.

“The Country Fried Chicken & Gravy was totally new—we didn’t offer anything like that before,” says Ken Clark, Farmer Boys’ president and chief operating officer. “It is kind of a Southern thing, with fried chicken, hash browns, gravy, and eggs.”

When it comes to healthier, more nutritious fare, turkey has been the predominant morning choice, whether sliced, ground into sausage, or processed as a bacon substitute.

“It fills today’s consumers’ desire for something they feel good about for their diet without losing taste,” says Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation. “It has fit perfectly into quick-service breakfasts.”

In 2008, Dunkin’ Donuts began offering the Egg White Turkey Sausage Flatbread Sandwich, part of the DDSMART menu. The sandwich—a turkey sausage patty, egg whites, spinach, and melted reduced-fat cheddar on multigrain flatbread—checks in at less than 300 calories, with fewer than nine grams of fat.

“The turkey sausage became really critical, because our customer loves that savoriness and the flavor the sausage delivers,” says company chef Stan Frankenthaler. “It became a key building block, because we knew it was going to deliver on that better-for-you virtue.”

Turkey lends itself to sausage more than chicken because of its bountiful, flavorful dark meat, he says. The sausage used by Dunkin’ Donuts has a distinct hint of sage, “so it is very familiar and comforting to our customers.”

Turkey sausage is Einstein Noah Restaurant Group’s second-best-selling breakfast meat, says Chad Thompson, senior director of research and development.

Einstein Bros. serves the protein with eggs and cheese on a bagel; in the Southwestern Turkey Sausage panini, with green chile and cheese on ciabatta bread; and with eggs, ancho lime salsa, cheese, and jalapeño cream cheese in the Santa Fe wrap.

Similar offerings are on the menu at sister chains Noah’s Bagels and Manhattan Bagels. Turkey bacon is another meat option.

“Our customers are demanding lighter and healthier options,” Thompson says.

When Eggfast, a 24-hour quick-service breakfast restaurant, opened in Columbus, Ohio, last year, founder and chief operating officer Pete Nowak wanted to offer a nonpork protein along with the normal meats for health and dietary reasons.

“I had a hard time sourcing a good chicken breakfast meat,” he says. “I don’t know why that is, but the market is not there. But we have found a good turkey sausage.”

As a result, the protein is available in many of Eggfast’s breakfast classics, sandwiches, and flatbreads.

“About 20 percent of the orders include turkey sausage,” Nowak says.

Roly Poly opted for smoked turkey breast in its Cristo Melt breakfast sandwich, which also has Swiss and brie cheeses, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, and scrambled eggs wrapped in a tortilla, dusted with powdered sugar and served with salsa.

“It’s our version of the Monte Cristo sandwich, with a twist,” says Linda Wolf, cofounder and president of the 120-store system. The chain’s units that are open in the morning also serve traditional nonbreakfast sandwiches, many of which contain chicken or turkey.

The same is true at Subway, which didn’t include chicken or turkey in the breakfast menu it launched this year, but sells those meats in its regular sandwiches during morning hours.

“Chicken and turkey have been among our most popular items, and customers seem to like them [on subs] in the morning, too,” says spokesman Rob Wilson.

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