Health & Wellness | October 2017 | By Maggie Hennessy

How to Take a Health-Minded Approach to Brunch

Health-minded operators and chefs take aim at the most indulgent daypart.
The Chelsea Lo-Cal is the signature health-conscious menu item at BEC in New York City. BEC / Liz Clayman
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For many consumers, weekdays are for choosing salads over burgers, getting up early for spin class, and laying off the alcohol. But as the weekend approaches, the tendency to say yes to all things deep-fried and boozy goes up, and nothing embodies this devil-may-care mentality quite like brunch. Health-minded operators facing contradictory consumer preferences are striking a balance by boosting the health profile of richer dishes.

With its bottomless mimosas, eggs Benedict capped in rich sauce, and caramelized French toast drowned in maple syrup, brunch is the antidote to the week’s dietary and workout regimens—and often a literal antidote to the previous night’s indulgences. It’s also a leisurely chance to catch up with friends and family.

“I think people certainly look at food as a reward and as something to look forward to, something that comes even more so with Friday and the weekends,” says Leslie Silverglide, CEO of San Francisco–based café Split American Kitchen. “People feel like they’ve worked hard all week [and] tried to be good about getting to the gym and making good food choices. The weekend is for letting loose.”

Data from Google Trends shows that search interest in brunch has been rising steadily since 2004, with curiosity particularly high on the coasts (Chicago is the exception to the less-brunch-keen Midwest), according to The Washington Post.

Moreover, a July survey from Mintel found that consumers, especially those in the younger generations, most often consider brunch a time to socialize and unwind. Nearly half (49 percent) of iGens (also known as Generation Z) say they go to brunch to hang out with friends and family, while 39 percent go to relax. These numbers decline generationally, with 45 percent of millennials going to brunch to socialize and 39 percent to relax; 40 percent of Gen Xers to socialize and 30 percent to relax; and 32 percent of baby boomers to socialize and 22 percent to relax.

Give me healthy—no, indulgent

In a (decidedly human) contradiction relating to brunch attitudes, 38 percent of consumers say they’d like to see more-healthful brunch entrées at restaurants, per Mintel, yet 48 percent agree that going out to breakfast/brunch is an opportunity to indulge, with 31 percent saying they’d like to see more indulgent brunch offerings. And because brunchers often skip breakfast, they’re more in the mood to treat themselves with a big midday meal, Silverglide says.

So what’s a health-minded operator to do? Offer a mix of both, to satisfy consumers’ oft-fickle moods. Split takes a balanced approach, offering gut busters like the Lumberjack (two pancakes, two eggs, and potatoes with sausage or bacon). Leaner dishes include veg-packed, build-your-own scrambles served with a green salad, avocado toast with poached egg and microgreens, and grilled little gems with sunny-side-up eggs, sriracha ranch, and breadcrumbs.

“You’re still getting a little indulgence, because it has bits of bacon, eggs, and avocado, but those ingredients are very healthy, and it’s served on a bed of grilled lettuce instead of an English muffin,” Silverglide says. “It’s a little different, so people are like, ‘What am I going to get with this?’ But we have such diehard fans, too.”

The chorizo hash similarly packs lots of spicy and fatty Mexican pork sausage, balanced out with verdant kale, seasonal squash, roasted sweet potatoes, poblano peppers, red onion, and sundried tomatoes. “Plus, we poach the eggs, which is the healthiest way to prepare them,” she adds.

These two dishes exemplify a similar refrain among health-minded operators: offsetting indulgent yet high-quality ingredients with lots of cooked and raw vegetables, fresh herbs, and lean proteins. Oftentimes, customers will do their own balancing by ordering a rich dish and healthier item like a salad to share, Silverglide says.

A dash of richness

Fox Restaurant Group’s healthy fast-casual chain Flower Child only serves weekend brunch at three of its seven locations, which it selected based on individual consumer needs in those markets, says chief culinary officer Clint Woods. Items like the Early Riser, with scrambled eggs, quinoa, heirloom beans, roasted chile salsa, and Greek yogurt, appeal to Santa Monica consumers who spent their morning at the beach. Hungry yogis fresh off a morning class in the Del Mar, California, market will drop in for organic coffee and crushed avocado toast, while business guests in central Phoenix stop in for nourishing fresh juices like the Liquid Sunshine, with coconut water, carrot, orange, and turmeric.

“Unfortunately, breakfast food isn’t always very good for you,” Woods says. “Our breakfast menu is built around cage-free eggs, seasonal vegetables, and lots of seasoning and spices for bold, memorable breakfast choices.”

His favorite is the “you’d-never-know-it’s-vegan” hash, where crumbled smoked tofu is substituted for eggs and tossed with organic potato, charred vegetables, and fresh turmeric. Yet items like crushed avocado toast with a soft egg and protein scramble with eggs, smoked turkey, aged gouda, potatoes, charred onion, arugula, and maple Dijon represent approachable choices for guests who want a healthier version of something they are more familiar with, Woods says.

Punctuating health-minded dishes with richer ingredients like cheese and grass-fed beef is also the name of the game at Flower Child’s sibling, full-service healthy chain True Food Kitchen. There, quinoa-laced johnny cakes are dolloped with rich Greek yogurt and drizzled with real maple syrup, and oh-so-trendy smashed avocado toast gets topped with a sunny-side egg, smoked gouda, thyme leaves, and black sesame.

“It’s picking that one indulgent item and mixing with something that isn’t indulgent so people get satisfied and satiated,” says Chandon Clenard, corporate brand chef for True Food Kitchen. “They feel like, ‘I got what I needed, and now I can move on.’ It’s a good way to balance cravings without ending up filled with guilt.”

BYOBrunch

New York City breakfast sandwich hotspot BEC only offers one explicitly health-conscious item: the Chelsea Lo-Cal, with two eggs, turkey bacon, roasted red peppers, broccoli rabe, Greek yogurt, and walnut pesto on multigrain toast.

Other popular light-ish items include a simple avocado toast with chile flakes and a hearty staple of salads, such as the Shaved Broccoli & Cauliflower with dried cherries and cranberries, nuts, seeds, and sundried tomato vinaigrette. The brand favors more of a build-your-own approach.

“The menu … offers quite a bit of flexibility,” says owner Jessica Bologna. “We offer healthy, hungry, full-size, and junior-size options.”

That means those looking to indulge can opt for the namesake BEC—with eggs, bacon, and cheddar on cheese-crusted brioche bun—or a “Mammoth” with bacon, sausage, caramelized onions, jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, and homemade tomato compote. Wellness-minded customers can customize items by adding avocado, substituting in egg whites, or asking for the “no bread” option atop spinach and kale.

Despite their oft-conflicting attitudes and behaviors, consumers appear to be trending toward healthier dining at all dayparts. Silverglide notes that despite being in a more health-conscious market like San Francisco, she’s seen a marked shift toward more mindful eating.

“We started [sister chain] Mixt in 2005, which doesn’t seem that long ago, but at the time salads were considered a side, not a meal. It’s been unbelievable to see how quickly mentality around that has shifted,” she says.