A few years back, the Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood began selling slices of cinnamon toast for $4. That audacious price for an ostensibly pedestrian product—a phenomenon that has since been replicated at many other hip, urban foodie outlets around the nation—caught the attention of many national food and trend writers, and made for some pretty pointed eye-rolling in certain circles. Critics who’d had just about enough of artisanal everything pointed to the café’s ambitious experiment in upscaling as a kind of object lesson in the ludicrousness of America’s ongoing obsession with food in all its forms.
To me, though, pricey toast was interesting less for its novelty than for what it said about consumers’ evolving perception of value. We’ve all grown accustomed to, and perhaps even comfortable with, the notion of the $5 latte, the $5 artisanal cupcake, and the $8 pint of craft beer. Should a great piece of toast be any different, really? Especially when it’s still possible to get a cup of regular coffee for less than $1, a run-of-the-mill cupcake for a buck or two, and a pint of a decent domestic draft beer for $3?
The lesson here is that even the most basic of products, when rendered with great attention to detail and delivered with a flourish, can merit a loftier price point. The trick is to come up with a product that truly warrants a second look.
Take, for instance, the humble waffle. Superficially, it isn’t much more exciting than toast, though clamping a great batter between the two halves of a waffle iron does generate a product whose taste, texture, form, and functionality are tough to beat. But look closer. Crispy on the outside, warm and chewy on the inside, with a honeycomb-like texture that lends itself to capturing anything from butter and syrup to cheese, sauces, spreads, and preserves, waffles have recently been rediscovered and redeployed by casual and more upscale eateries alike. Last year, the market research firm Datassential reported that waffles had found their way onto fully 10 percent of all U.S. restaurant menus. That’s some batter that matters.
Even so, most quick serves have yet to enter the waffle fray. Only 2 percent of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants had embraced waffles as of last year, according to Datassential. If that sounds like a missed opportunity, well, read on for some ideas on how to catch up.
Get back to basics
Although the history of waffles dates to the ancient Greeks, to be clear, the contemporary waffle Americans have come to regard as their own is really a derivative of the Belgian version, which is said to have debuted at the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962. But the original European model was generally not served on a plate, slathered in maple syrup. Nor was it piled high with chocolate chips and whipped cream. More often, these were handheld items, eaten plain or dusted with a little confectioner’s sugar—fully capable of being eaten on the go, more likely as a snack than a meal.
Somewhere on the way to the modern U.S. table, this simple street food morphed into the heavier, more elaborate meal we know today. But that’s not to say limited-service operators couldn’t recapture the magic of the basic Belgian street food by introducing more stripped-down, handheld versions more analogous to a basic glazed doughnut or a flatter version of a muffin. If you want to get clever, you can always bake anything from fruit to nuts to herbs and spices directly into the waffle without creating something the consumer will likely wear home. The possibilities are many and intriguing.
Enter the waffle flatbread
Thin carriers—from flatbreads to pita to tortillas to pizza crust—being all the rage nowadays, a flatter, lighter waffle that retains the original’s alluring texture and flavor seems like a natural. These could be savory or sweet; rounded, square, or rectangular; plain or infused with fruits and veggies or ethnic spice mixes. In a thinner form, the flatbread waffle could function as a sandwich wrap, a new kind of crêpe, a carrier for a burrito, or even a new way to wrap sushi.
The waffle iron, creatively deployed, is capable of producing some novel and unprecedented treats. Why not try using waffle batter to coat anything from chicken to burgers and steak to hot dogs, then finish in the iron? Or think about using the waffle iron in place of the deep fryer. Waffle tater tots, waffle jalapeño poppers, waffle-ized hash browns—the appliance could have much more to offer than most of us ever consider.
Fight for the crumbs
If the idea of using waffle batter as a coating doesn’t strike your fancy, what about using the crushed-up crumbs of finished waffles as a kind of seasoned breading? Everyone’s heard of waffle fries, but what about french fries with a waffle crumb coating or breading, or a whole line of waffle-coated pastries and other desserts?
Whether or not a $7 hand-held waffle is in the offing at some hip corner bakery, it’s clear from their rising popularity that waffles offer an interesting platform for experimentation, flavor adventure, and novelty. Maybe it’s time to get a few more irons fired up.