Coffee and a doughnut is a legitimate fast-breaker at 6 a.m., but as celebrated chef Thomas Keller saw clearly when he introduced his own version at the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley about 16 years ago, it’s also a viable crossover treat.
Keller’s decidedly upscale version of the morning ritual consisted of a tiny cappuccino pot de crème accompanied by perfect little doughnut holes that worked beautifully as a post-dinner temptation. Of course, the price tag ran a bit higher than that of most quick-serve combo meals, but the effect was at once indulgent, nostalgic, and highly flavorful. Most importantly, the dish was an instant hit.
As it turns out, those same qualities—nostalgia, big flavor, and indulgence—were also evidenced in a dessert introduced a couple of years ago by a restaurant with a slightly higher profile and a slightly broader clientele—Carl’s Jr. The chain’s Cap’n Crunch shake set the Internet food world aflutter in 2008 with the same basic formula favored by Thomas Keller: childhood favorite + imaginative twist + clever presentation = delighted guest.
What follow are a handful of suggestions for applying this same formula in other quick-serve contexts:
Take the (Pan)cake: A pancake, as it turns out, is really just a thicker version of the hearty French crêpe. Wouldn’t it be interesting to come up with either a thicker crêpe or a thinner pancake that’s large, foldable, and handheld? Imagine it filled with the chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella or some sort of jam, fruit, or cream.
Griddle me this: A Portland, Oregon, street cart called Flavourspot serves a handheld waffle (they’ve dubbed it a Dutch Taco) that functions almost as a large tortilla that’s been slathered with a maple spread and stuffed with roasted, salted pecans. But quick-serve menu developers could tinker with this basic formula to arrive at a crispier, waffle-cone-like carrier rather than the traditional doughy incarnation. And adding fresh fruit and preserves, whipped cream, and caramel or hot fudge sauces could make for endless variations on an already-impressive theme.
Re-envisioning oatmeal: We can’t expect consumers craving cake or a cookie to take a liking to a bowl of hot cereal at 8 p.m., but if the breakfast staple were reworked and reconfigured as a warm cinnamon-oatmeal cookie, strudel, dessert bar, or oatmeal cake, you could almost smell the appeal to quick-serve treat-cravers. In San Francisco, Beautifull!, a prepared-foods shop, has found success with a room-temperature oatmeal soufflé that presents as a puffier, creamier version of the morning engine-starter we know and love.
Customizable breakfast cookies: In Toronto, the Sweet Flour bake shop developed a way to offer freshly baked cookies and muffins made to order in just a few minutes. The process, reminiscent of what Cold Stone Creamery has done so successfully with ice cream, begins with a handful of standard dough options, including peanut butter and oatmeal. Guests then choose from more than 20 mix-ins, such as chocolate chunks, dried sweet fruit, and crunchy nuts. The shop proceeds to mix the works together and deliver a customized cookie in two minutes through its “signature baking process.”
Offering cookies-made-to-order, perhaps made with whole-wheat, high-fiber doughs and healthy mix-ins, would likely present challenges for most large quick-serve chains. But what about offering packets of drizzle icing or dipping sauces that could turn warm cookies into an interactive dessert?
Cold cereal with a cool twist: If customized cookies aren’t in the cards, some enterprising establishment could try something similar with that favorite cereal-dessert crossover, the Rice Krispies treat. If a chain could devise a few variations on the basic marshmallow “glue” that binds the treat together, customers could choose which cereal they want to be included in the sticky concoction. The low-tech preparation could be shoveled into a single-serving mold, pressed, and popped out warm, crunchy, chewy, and irresistibly sweet.
The list goes on: three-layer cappuccino or latte milkshakes, dessert-flavored sweet rolls or coffee cakes, sticky pecan buns, doughnut ice-cream sandwiches, fresh doughnuts with yogurt filling. Transferring sweet breakfast favorites from their morning point of origin to the after-dinner decadence category opens a world of options to chains intent on appealing to customers with a hankering for a post-meal reward. Good morning, and good night!