Some ideas about breakfast are rooted in tradition.

One is that it’s the most important meal of the day. Your mother may have said it, but researchers aren’t so sure. Another idea about breakfast, that it’s a matter of routine, has more validation. Whether it’s a bagel with cream cheese, corn flakes, yogurt, fruit, or eggs and bacon, our morning meals tend to be the same or similar day after day.

“Many people don’t look to breakfast for experimentation,” says John Howeth, senior vice president for foodservice and egg product marketing at the American Egg Board. “It’s a very traditional, very loyal business.”

Quick-service executives observe that regularly.

“Breakfast is something guests see as a daily routine,” says Heywood McGuffee, category leader for the breakfast and “Brunchfast” menus at Jack in the Box. “Most breakfast consumers are in a hurry to get somewhere, usually in a car.”

That’s echoed by Brad Haley, chief marketing officer at CKE Restaurants, parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. “People [often] eat the same thing every day for breakfast, and the range of items and ingredients is narrow,” he says, adding that this phenomenon makes for “an interesting challenge when it comes to product development.”

Eggs and bacon are still the No. 1 choice for breakfast among consumers, says Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager at market research firm Datassential. But a variety of proteins, carriers, and other ingredients are starting to shake up traditional breakfast, while food with a health halo, like egg whites, is also taking root in the morning.

In many cases, breakfast inspiration is coming from other dayparts. “The p.m. flavors are being mixed with the a.m. flavors—it’s sort of a mash-up,” Rodriguez says. “This probably won’t surprise anyone, but millennials are driving the growth of new breakfast options and expanded breakfast. They’re more likely to identify with breakfast later in the day, and they’re driving ethnic additions to the menu.”

Companies like Jack in the Box have had all-day breakfast for years, while McDonald’s decision to feature many breakfast items all day brought a spotlight to the morning menu.

According to a recent Datassential report, half of all American breakfast menus feature sandwiches. The variety of carriers has soared, including some off-the-wall ideas like pancakes (McDonald’s Griddlers) or waffles (Taco Bell’s limited-time Waffle Taco). Burritos have become so ubiquitous at breakfast that they aren’t considered ethnic.

Ninety percent of a.m. items include eggs, and the American Egg Board has worked with many quick-service restaurant companies on new product ideas. “Innovation and new ideas drive the breakfast category,” Howeth says. “Leveraging the popularity of breakfast, there really are no rules and no borders.”

While portability is important to the morning menu, there are other options available, including bowls, which are a growing trend in other dayparts, too. Normally associating bowls with breakfast means cereal or oatmeal, but these more modern bowl creations can be convenient and comforting while offering limitless combinations.

“You can switch up the egg preparation—scrambled or fried, whole egg or just whites—and pair that with all sorts of veggies, grains, meats, and cheeses,” Howeth says. “Then it can be spiced up with a sauce.”

A number of national chains have egg-white breakfast bowls in test, and regional player Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits recently launched a Bo-Tato Breakfast Bowl that uses the chain’s signature hash brown potato Bo-Tato Rounds, then adds a folded egg, sausage gravy, bacon crumbles, and shredded cheese.

“It is really great from a portability standpoint,” says Grant Springer, senior director of research and development. “We wanted it to stay hot, so in the car or taking it to the office, the blanket of sausage gravy keeps it warm.”

While the Bo-Tato Bowl is a way to reach out to a younger demographic, the brand’s core focus is the house-made buttermilk biscuit made into breakfast sandwiches. There are nearly a dozen offerings, some with proteins like fried chicken, bacon, and country ham; several with eggs; and some with neither.

Unlike many breakfast carriers in quick service, these biscuits are made from scratch, requiring specialized biscuit makers in each restaurant. The most popular sandwich is the breaded Cajun chicken fillet using the chain’s proprietary fried chicken seasoning. Biscuits and gravy is also a favorite, particularly for those customers who dine in.

CKE also has scratch-made buttermilk biscuits, which were created years ago by Southeast-bred Hardee’s and expanded to west-centric Carl’s Jr. beginning in 2009.

“The Southeast is ground zero for biscuits, like the Northeast is ground zero for bagels,” Haley says. Hardee’s has 10 biscuit sandwiches on its menu, twice as many as Carl’s Jr.; the latter has more breakfast burrito items, plus LTO versions like huevos rancheros.

“It’s highly unusual in [quick service] to invest time and labor and training to make and bake biscuits from scratch,” he says. “You can really tell the difference in texture and in taste, and it separates us from our competitors in a big way.”

While several proteins are featured on breakfast carriers at CKE’s chains, Carl’s Jr. was a leader in bringing hamburgers to the morning meal. Its Breakfast Burger—a cheeseburger topped with bacon, egg, and a hashbrown—rolled out more than a decade ago, and earlier this year was added to the all-day menu.

Breakfast has been an important part of Jack in the Box’s menu for years, with a variety of carriers, proteins, sauces, and other ingredients serving as differentiators. There are 10 breakfast sandwiches and burritos that headline the a.m. menu.

Last fall, the chain added the adventurous “Brunchfast,” a premium-priced menu that, despite its name, is also available all day. It features a pair of sandwiches, as well as French toast and Southwest scrambler plates.

“I call it the taste of brunch anytime you want it,” McGuffee says. “It’s that combination of breakfast and lunch, mixing those flavors together.” He adds that some guests had been doing that on their own with their orders.

The Brunch Burger’s beef patty is topped with bacon, egg, cheese, and mayonnaise on a croissant bun, and the Bacon and Egg Chicken Sandwich has fried chicken, a fried egg, cheddar cheese, bacon, and bacon mayo sauce on a toasted English muffin. The scrambler—eggs, peppers, chilies, potatoes, and cheese—with a side of bacon was part of the initial rollout; the grilled French toast with bacon plate was added for a sweet option.

Coffee is obviously a huge part of breakfast, and some coffee-centric places are making an increased splash in the morning. Segment leader Starbucks this year launched two varieties of sous vide egg bites.

Dunkin’ Donuts is recognized for its coffee, but 40 percent of its morning sales are food, led by breakfast sandwiches. The company has been trend-forward with ingredients, including carriers like pretzel croissants, ciabatta, and its namesake doughnuts. These often appear as limited-time offers—something Dunkin’s guests appreciate “because it is a little adventure or it translates a trend that is more approachable to the consumer,” says Jeff Miller, executive chef and vice president of product development.

While trying to figure out what consumers want is key to product development, acceptance is never a guarantee. Some items didn’t last, while others, like Texas toast, turkey sausage, and the taco-like Wake-Up Wrap, became so popular they joined the regular menu.

Focusing on the trend of melding sweet and savory, Dunkin’ found success with a Sweet Black Pepper Bacon croissant breakfast sandwich LTO, featuring egg, cheese, and four strips of bacon coated in a seasoning that included brown sugar and black pepper. “When the bacon is cooked, it gets this sugary, crackly texture and taste that just takes it to the next level,” Miller says. 
One way to add breakfast innovation is to start from scratch. That’s what Taco Bell did three years ago, offering such creative items as the short-term Waffle Taco and Breakfast Crunchwrap, a grilled, hexagon-shaped tortilla wrap filled with eggs, bacon, cheese, hashbrowns, and a jalapeño sauce.

The Crunchwrap continues to lead the Mexican-style quick-service chain’s morning menu, which also features quesadillas, tacos, and burritos with various breakfast ingredients. There’s also a bowl with eggs, cheese sauce, potatoes, and pico de gallo.

Creating unusual items throughout the menu “is part of our brand DNA,” says Melissa Friebe, senior vice president of insight and marketing. “We are looking to not be like everyone else for the brand overall and apply that to breakfast, as well.”

While consumers in the morning seek familiar items and ingredients, she says, Taco Bell looks at “how you make sense of that” in a nontraditional breakfast format. “One of the things we want to do is do forms that are unique to Taco Bell,” she says. Items like tacos make sense, but with a twist in that the shells may be waffles or biscuits.

One quick-service segment that turns out numerous innovations is the food-truck space, and that extends to breakfast, with a range of unusual items, from pepperoni pizza pancakes and peach doughnuts to morning tacos with ingredients like kimchi or grits.

Chicago’s The Eastman Egg Company began as a food truck and now has three brick-and-mortar units. Its ingredients include house-made sausages.

“We source from some of the same places as some of the best restaurants,” says chief executive Hunter Swartz. “We are just building them in a simpler way, because you don’t have time to wait in the morning. But you don’t need to compromise, either.”

Cage-free eggs and ground turkey and ground pork for sausage and chorizo are from Slagel Family Farms in Illinois, while bacon and ham are from Beeler’s in Iowa. The breakfast sandwich, on local ciabatta bread, includes egg, a protein, and white cheddar cheese, with toppings options like wilted spinach and sautéed red peppers.

Sliders on house-made biscuits offer the same ingredient options. A recent menu addition was avocado toast—a big piece of toasted, hand-made multigrain bread with a spread of avocado, tomato, and basil. “It is very light, very fresh,” Swartz says.

Sometimes in the quick-service business, necessity is the mother of invention. A number of restaurants that typically don’t have breakfast have been forced to develop those options for nontradtional units, such as those at airports and travel centers. That means adapting what they do the rest of the day to the morning, and sometimes with interesting results.

Cinnabon, known for its decadent cinnamon rolls, has stores largely in malls, which aren’t typically open in the morning. Some guests buy the rolls to have for breakfast the following day. “It’s the ultimate delicious escape,” says executive chef Jennifer Holwill.

For stores open earlier, the company has its own take on the morning meal, like breakfast sandwiches on cheese rolls. “We use our same dough, but instead of brown sugar and cinnamon inside, we layer it with cheese,” she says. These smaller rolls “have a beautiful swirl of cheese,” and are sliced and filled with sausage, egg, and cheese.

The company has branched out even further, offering branded items in supermarkets and teaming up with other quick-service chains. That includes Taco Bell, which has Cinnabon Delights—bite-sized warm pastries filled with Cinnabon frosting—at breakfast.

“There are many ways to enjoy Cinnabon,” Holwill says

Breakfast, Menu Innovations, Story, Bojangles, Carl's Jr., Cinnabon, Dunkin' Donuts, Eastman Egg Company, Hardee's, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell