Menu Innovations | December 2010 | By Barney Wolf

Wake Up Breakfast Proteins

Brands across the country see success in adding chicken and turkey to breakfast menus.

There is an answer to the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

It’s definitely the egg—at least when it comes to breakfast. Few morning menus are without them. But these days, chicken and another popular poultry protein, turkey, are increasingly popping up on a.m. menuboards at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants.

“Chicken and turkey are gradually making inroads, although change is going to take time,” says Dave Mulholland, director of brand sales for U.S. Foodservice, a Chicago-based national food distributor. “Breakfast is more habitual than any other meal.”

Breakfasts served at most quick serves generally feature eggs—usually scrambled or fried—along with pork products (bacon, sausage, and ham), and, typically, some type of carrier, such as a bun or English muffin.

“A lot of menu development is copycat when it comes to breakfast,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research with Mintel International, a Chicago-based consumer product and market research firm. “The traditional notion of breakfast is pork-centric and egg-centric, so not too many chains have risked going beyond that.”

Fast feeders generally lagged behind in breakfast development during the recent economic slump, but 2010 has been a year for breakfast innovations.

“A lot of operators are getting up to speed with menu offerings,” Giandelone says, “so in a couple years, when they are more comfortable with their menus, they will look to alternatives such as chicken or turkey.”

Most customers already view chicken and turkey as better for you, Mulholland says.

“Any time you incorporate turkey or chicken, it is going to be perceived as a healthier dish,” he says, “and that is something an increasing percentage of the public is seeking.”

One region of the country where chicken has not been a stranger to breakfast is the South, where chicken and biscuits and chicken and waffles have long been favorites. Fried chicken on a biscuit has been available for years.

“Chicken biscuits are grab-and-go, packaged versions of traditional Southern Sunday suppers,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

“Long before McDonald’s started stuffing McMuffins, we were stuffing biscuits with patty sausage, bacon—and yes, sometimes fried chicken—wrapping those bundles in tin foil, and selling them from country store counters,” he says.

The roots of quick-service breakfast biscuits date to 1972, when two Hardee’s franchisees, Jack Fulk of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mayo Boddie of Norfolk, Virginia, began baking made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits to sell to morning commuters.

There is some debate whether Hardee’s officials were pleased or not with this unauthorized move, but the idea caught on and eventually spread to other franchisees.

“It has been served continuously in Southeast markets since then,” says Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing for Hardee’s parent, CKE Restaurants Inc.

By the mid-70s, some small, Southern quick-service concepts had started experimenting with the tradition of putting meat in a biscuit. The chain now known as Biscuitville was serving biscuits stuffed with country ham before 1975.

In 1977, Fulk and former KFC president Richard Thomas launched Bojangles’ Chicken ’n Biscuits, which featured Cajun-spiced fried chicken and Fulk’s recipe for biscuits, making breakfast important from day one.

Then Bojangles’ decided to place the chicken in a biscuit, and the quick-service breakfast chicken biscuit was born.

“I don’t know the exact year, probably in the late ’70s, but the Cajun chicken filet biscuit was already on the menu when I arrived in 1984,” says Eric Newman, executive vice president at the company. “It is by far the highest-selling biscuit we have.”

The Bojangles’ chicken biscuit uses a marinated chicken filet that is breaded and fried.

Making biscuits from scratch requires skill from early rising employees.

“Baking biscuits is a very specialized job for a fast food chain,” Haley says. “It is not like dumping fries in a fryer. There is real baking going on, and people are hard to find and train to do it right. A great biscuit just enhances the chicken.”

It took another chain born in the South, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, to bring breakfast chicken biscuits to other regions of the country. The chain, which began its growth in malls, started serving breakfast after its first freestanding store opened in 1986.

Today, Chick-fil-A is in 38 states.

But the fried chicken biscuit truly became a national breakfast item in early 2008 when McDonald’s rolled out its Southern Style Chicken Biscuit.

The entrée featured an all-white-meat chicken breast patty served on a biscuit that is par baked or, in some markets, made daily from a mix.

“We are interested in other protein options for breakfast, and this was a good fit,” says Ashlee Yingling, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp.

The suggestion for the biscuit came from an operator in Atlanta.

“It started as a regional idea, but as with many ideas, like sweet tea, we looked at the bigger picture,” Yingling says. The chicken biscuit went into tests in several markets, and it did well with all demographics, leading to its addition to the national menu.

The biscuit has added “significantly” to McDonald’s breakfast menu, which accounts for about a quarter of restaurants’ total sales.

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.