When I was growing up in the early 1950s, the oft-heard mantra about breakfast was that it was the most important meal of the day from a nutritional standpoint. Parents were encouraged to feed their kids before school to promote longer attention spans, better cognitive function, overall mental alertness, and healthy physical development.
This idea of a “most important meal” has since been called into question by innumerable studies and dubious dieticians, but even if breakfast no longer qualifies as Meal Numero Uno, it has nonetheless become an important source of revenue for quick-serve restaurants nationwide. Market research firm The NPD Group noted last year that between February 2015 and February 2016, morning meal visits to quick-service restaurants increased by 5 percent. Those visits had already increased 3 percent during the preceding 12 months. That, friends, is an awful lot of bacon.
While weekday mornings are all about routine, convenience, and predictability, Saturday and Sunday mornings offer something of a different opportunity. Specifically, they offer the freedom and flexibility that allows diners to luxuriate in that most leisurely of weekend pastimes: brunch. At CCD Innovation, we predict 2017 will be the year when brunch really hits its stride. The daypart between breakfast and lunch has become so popular that Jack in the Box even gave it its own name and menu: “Brunchfast.”
There are three principal trends driving brunch’s popularity, and all are instructive for operators interested in exploiting consumers’ cravings for a mid- to late-morning/early afternoon meal.
The first is global flavor adventure. Millennials’ interest in authentic, exotic culinary experiences argues for a brunch menu that draws upon various global cuisines and cuisine combinations. By incorporating, mixing, and remixing signature elements of specific ethnic foods—herbs, spices, sauces, condiments, and so on—it’s possible to come up with a broad range of intriguing dishes that satisfy and inspire cravings. Witness the high-concept Korean chicken and waffle taco at Brooklyn’s Kimchi Grill, consisting of an organic mung-bean waffle with fried chicken coated in spiced rice flour, all served with a blue agave nectar butter and a fried egg. Oakland, California’s Juhu Beach Club takes an equally creative approach to the classic Southern breakfast with its fried chicken and “doswaffles,” a gluten-free hybrid of the south Indian dosa and the Belgian waffle. With turmeric-marinated fried chicken, sweet-and-spicy syrup, and black pepper butter, it’s worldlier than the traditional brunch staple, and at least as delicious. Meanwhile, at Talde in Brooklyn, you can order breakfast ramen featuring buttered toast broth, honey-glazed bacon, and a six-minute egg—a decidedly creative twist on the old dorm-room favorite.
The second avenue worth exploring when it comes to brunch is the realm of sharable comfort foods. These are nostalgic dishes that warm the soul as well as the stomach, and are served family style. Fast-food and fast-casual restaurants don’t tend to promote the sharing of multiple plates, but with a meal occasion like brunch, which is inherently social, this could be a missed opportunity. Take Chicago’s Mortar & Pestle, which taps into its customers’ comfort cravings with the ultimate Midwest comfort food: fried Wisconsin cheese curds with beer batter, Romesco aioli, and house-made ketchup. As if that weren’t enough creative homespun comfort, the local favorite also offers house-made biscuits and lamb sausage gravy. And Seven Point Espresso in Brooklyn is taking comfort seriously with its almond-and-oat porridge served alongside a house-made apple-cinnamon compote, as well as pastrami toast with coriander aioli and pickled red onion.
A third way to entice brunch-eaters is through pure indulgence, tapping into our collective sweet tooth with the likes of Tarte Tatin pancakes, cereal-filled doughnut muffins, fresh pop tarts, and other explicitly decadent fare. Yardbird in Las Vegas is getting the job done with cinnamon-apple hand pies, while Abigaile in Hermosa Beach, California, is scoring big-time with an “ooey gooey” cinnamon roll that involves apricots, bacon crumbles, and spiced walnuts with a golden toast crunch topped with peanut butter and caramelized banana. Snooze in Denver also betrays a gift for sweet brunch treats with its pineapple upside-down pancakes and sweet potato buttermilk pancakes with homemade caramel, candied pecans, and ginger butter.
The takeaway here is that brunch, long the exclusive province of sit-down restaurants, is now a thoroughly viable option for quick-service and fast-casual chains. By playing to consumers’ increasing interest in bold ethnic flavors, comfort fare, and over-the-top indulgence, I believe, enterprising concepts can create destination-worthy menu items that speak to the brunch fan in all of us. As the lovechild of breakfast and lunch, brunch has a lot in common with its parents, who can swap concepts and ingredients back and forth to create ever-new dining experiences.
This story originally appeared in QSR's May 2017 issue with the title "The Big Brunch Crunch."