For fast casuals accustomed to lunch and dinner, the breakfast journey can be a tightrope act between revenue opportunities and increased operational costs.
“Yes, it’s going to have an impact on labor, and yes, it’s going to have an impact on operational costs,” says Bellagreen CMO Beth Collins. “You have to think about how you can mitigate that as much as possible.”
Bellagreen started testing daily breakfast at a single location this summer to capitalize on the traction it already had with brunch, a longtime offering served systemwide on the weekends. The eight-unit chain typically offers freshly prepared salads, pastas, and sandwiches that cater to a range of dietary needs. It took cues from its existing lunch and dinner menu, along with brunch, to build its breakfast program.
“We wanted to roll out breakfast utilizing our brand DNA,” Collins says. “We looked at what our guests tell us they love about our food, like gluten-free, vegetarian, and protein-focused dishes.”
The key for fast casuals looking to layer on a third daypart is building a well-rounded but not overly extensive menu, she adds. Bellagreen’s lineup includes healthy options like protein power bowls and parfaits, along with standard items like breakfast sandwiches and breakfast plates. It also offers indulgent items like French toast and biscuits and gravy, plus a better-for-you take on pancakes made with Greek yogurt.
“At the end of the day, people are either going to go for the eggs and bacon, or they’re going to go in the more gluttonous direction with pancakes and french toast, so there’s no need to tax your kitchen with a ton of variety,” Collins says. “There’s not a tremendous amount of unique products that we offer at breakfast. We tried to build the menu around things that we already have in-house, but we still have to make sure we’re not pushing the margins on the cost of goods with the additional items that are coming in.”
Bango Bowls takes a similar approach. The seven-unit fast casual has been serving up breakfast, lunch, and dinner since it launched in 2017. Some items, like breakfast “flaninis” (sandwiches served on pressed flatbread) are exclusive to the morning, but for the most part, the chain serves its full lineup of açai bowls, toasts, sandwiches, and smoothies during all three dayparts, except some savory items like salads, poke bowls, and grain bowls, which are prepped in the morning and available starting at lunch.
“In order to execute on lunch that starts at 11 o’clock, we need to be in the restaurant bright and early to get everything going from an operational perspective,” says co-founder and CEO Ryan Thorman. “Our thought process was, ‘We’re going to have a team in the store already, so we might as well open the doors and try to make some money before lunch actually kicks off.”
Most menu items are assembled in as little as three steps, and the company has invested in cooking tools to keep the kitchens easy to operate. Combi ovens are the sole piece of equipment used to cook all of its bowls, toasts, and flaninis, which eliminates many of the labor-intensive tasks typically completed by chefs and line cooks. That means the team members who are preparing the food are the same ones serving and interacting with customers.
“We’re able to leverage the same person as both back-of-house and front-of-house to keep our labor bottle pretty tight, but still open early and get those extra sales,” Thorman says. “We’re not adding labor to execute on breakfast. I think that’s the key differentiator. If you have to add labor, then you have to understand what type of investment you’re willing to make to get that daypart going … The majority of our folks are already there working, so it’s really just about making sure we have enough time to get ready for the rest of the day while we still serve breakfast.”
The kitchen staff at Bellagreen also clocks in during the morning hours to gear up for lunch. Collins says that’s part of the reason the company decided to venture into breakfast service. And while it’s managed to capitalize on that existing labor, expanding into a new daypart still entails some extra training, along with the addition of one back-of-house employee and two front-of-house employees.
“We’ve learned through this process that making an egg isn’t the easiest thing in the world, so that required a lot of hands-on training from the culinary team,” Collins says. “Getting the kitchen staff isn’t the risky part, though. It’s getting the cashier and having a couple front-of-house people coming in earlier than usual. The biggest concern is the impact on labor and making sure that we’re not busting the seams on those numbers by having these three additional people come in at 6:30 or 7 in the morning.”
Bellagreen expanded its test to two additional stores in November following several months of steady week-over-week increases in traffic and sales at the initial test site in Plano, Texas. It will continue testing and monitoring the daypart with an eye toward rolling out breakfast across its entire footprint down the line.
“It’s a slow build,” Collins says. “It isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. You’re going to see shifting behaviors, so you have to be patient and understand that it takes time for breakfast to take off. It’s not going to be a four-week process and then you’re done.”
Six years into the breakfast game, the majority of Bango Bowls’ volume still comes through lunch, but Thorman says those early hours offer an unmatched opportunity to drive loyalty and frequency. Mornings are highly ritualistic, and if a restaurant can work its way into a consumer’s daily routine, the habit tends to stick.
“It’s part of the opportunity, but it’s also part of the risk,” he says. “It’s hard to get people to break habits and to come to your restaurant instead of going to the bagel shop or the coffee shop. From a marketing perspective, we’d spend more on a customer acquisition target in the morning, because we know that if we can get them, we can probably create a habit with them, and the lifetime value of that customer is going to be greater.”
His advice for fast casuals eyeing the breakfast market? Approach it with the same dedication and focus as you do for the lunch and dinner dayparts. “Just because our labor was already in place, it’s not like we opened the doors and expected people to come in,” Thorman says. “We put a lot of attention and detail into breakfast to make sure we provided m