Breaking findings from Sense360 show that early morning hours are important across sub-categories of quick-serve restaurants for the most loyal customers.

Nutritionists have long hailed breakfast as the most important meal of the day and USA today recently highlighted the growing importance of breakfast for many fast food chains. Industry wonks debate possible explanations for this phenomenon. Now, analysis of 5 million restaurant visits from Sense360 adds credence to one hypothesis in particular: breakfast is when the most loyal customers come out to eat.

When a restaurant can work its way into a consumer’s morning routine, the habit tends to stick. In fact, the morning hours receive the highest proportion of traffic from frequent quick-service restaurant consumers. This insight is critical for brands looking to attract repeat customers and increase the lifetime value of a customer. Businesses understand that the easiest way to grow is to get their existing customer base to come back more often rather than acquiring new guests. Given the habitual nature of breakfast and the clear frequency and loyalty it drives, the earliest meal may play a more important role in building a restaurant business than previously thought. Breakfast is more about winning a habit than a visit.

Mealtime Distribution for Frequent and Casual Quick-Service Restaurant Customers

Click here to see an interactive chart, showing when frequent and casual customers choose to eat. Strikingly, each of the 12 categories demonstrated a morning preference for frequent visitors. The data is based on 4.9 million quick-service restaurant visits in February 2017, analyzed by Sense360.

Impact of Consumer Behavior for Frequent Customers

Sense360’s findings are most noticeable in coffee shops, but are evident across all categories. Naturally, coffee shops will have their busiest hours in the morning. The compelling insight is who comes in the morning hours and who doesn’t. Afternoon customers are not as likely to return nearly as often as those who come in the morning. Sense360 found that this pattern holds true for Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Peet’s Coffee, Tim Horton’s, Krispy Kreme, and Einstein Bros Bagels.

The importance of breakfast extends beyond coffee and throughout each subcategory in the quick-service industry. Consumers in the burger category, for example, are almost twice as likely to visit in the early morning hours than casual or infrequent customers. This holds true for categories such as chicken, Mexican, Asian, sandwich and others. Chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Bojangles, and others, serve their most loyal customers in the morning.

That said, it is worthwhile to note that not every company sees frequent customers come in the morning. Frequent and casual customers eat at the same time of day at places such as Wendy’s and Noodles & Company. Some restaurants have unique patterns of their own. For example, some frequent Sonic Drive-In customers prefer the mid-afternoon hours, and regulars at Cafe Rio choose to come in the evening.

Regardless of when key guests choose to eat, brands that use tech-enabled solutions to understand and intelligently respond to consumer behavior will be the ones best suited to succeed in ever-turbulent market conditions.

Eli Portnoy is the co-founder and CEO of Sense360, a real-time research and intelligence company that enables continuous optimization of business strategies and tactics. Previously, Eli was the co-founder and CEO of Thinknear, a location-based mobile ad network, which was acquired within 19 months of inception by Telenav (NASDAQ: TNAV).
Breakfast, Consumer Trends, Outside Insights, Story