Move over, basic breakfast sandwich. Fast-casual 2.0 concepts are leading the morning revolution in limited service with better buns, bowls, scrambles, and other more innovative—and in many cases, healthier—options meant to change the breakfast status quo.
For these chains, introducing breakfast, or just bumping it up a notch, has morphed into a deliberate strategy meant to build revenue outside an already busy lunch—and in some cases dinner—business. By cross-utilizing existing ingredients in later dayparts and making minor staff reassignments, some of the more progressive fast-casual chains have been able to add alternative revenue streams without a lot of added costs.
For 25-unit Modern Market, adding breakfast was a no-brainer. “We had staff coming in at 6 a.m. to prep for lunch, so we just redirected one or two people to serve people coming in,” says chef Nate Weir, adding that the breakfast crowd tends to include college students, suburban moms, and workers heading to the office.
When developing the menu, Weir also redirected many of the ingredients already on hand to create items such as the veggie-loaded Scrambles, with charred broccoli, caramelized onions, aged white cheddar cheese, and pastured eggs. The only equipment change was the addition of a toaster and some dedicated coolers for breakfast.
“At the same time, you have to balance operational complexity,” Weir says. “We’re not training short-order cooks who can bang things out, so we start our eggs right away and then just add the other elements, so our customers can pop in and get an amazing egg dish or sandwich and be out the door in five minutes.”
While grab-n-go, highly customizable dishes are important for weekday a.m. service, fast-casual and fast-casual 2.0 chains have become stomping grounds for a more leisurely breakfast enjoyed by remote workers on their laptops, business colleagues meeting over a meal, and moms getting together for a social experience.
This was the case at Split American Kitchen, a three-unit chain in San Francisco.
“We wanted to create a breakfast menu where you could come in and grab something to eat and a latte on your way to work, but also offer a wide enough menu for guests to be able to come in and enjoy a more leisurely breakfast or meeting,” says Split cofounder Leslie Silverglide, adding that sales have improved overall since adding breakfast. “You can get brunch in a lot of places, but we feel like weekday breakfast is a very overlooked meal part for restaurants. We’re trying to balance menu items that are quick and easy with healthier options, as well as original dishes.”
Split’s not alone in this thinking. New York City–based farm-to-counter chain Dig Inn offers breakfast at three of its 15 locations.
“Breakfast is a big component to all of our new restaurants opening up,” says culinary director Matt Weingarten, who says the company plans to open four or five more locations this year. “We think it is a meal period that is underserved at the moment in the healthy, clean, locally sourced, sustainable segment. Our breakfast crowd tends to linger, and we love that, so we have also added charging outlets and WiFi access as part of our design plan.
“We view weekday breakfast as becoming a more prevalent part of our current working society as more people work from home or take meetings outside the office,” he adds.
Of course, menu innovation remains the key driver in attracting breakfast customers who might otherwise nosh at home or grab something quick from their favorite coffeeshop or drive thru. Breakfast options at emerging fast-casual concepts run the gamut, from better sandwiches to veggie-packed bowls, lettuce wraps, fruit smoothies, and more. Here’s a look at some of the more innovative options out there.
Premium sandwiches and toasts
Fast casuals are moving the breakfast sandwich beyond the basic muffin-egg-meat combination, using higher-quality breads, fillings, and dressings.
At Split, the Fried Egg Sandwich comes with not one but two free-range, pastured eggs for a more substantial meal. It’s topped with applewood-smoked bacon, homemade pork or chicken apple sausage, cheddar, and arugula on a brioche bun from local bakery Firebrand Artisan Breads.
Dig Inn’s signature egg sandwiches feature a light and creamy house-made lemon ricotta in place of a cheese slice. There’s also a fried egg, breakfast meats, and avocado, and it’s all served on a brioche bun from local bakeries in New York and Boston, including Iggy’s Bread in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“We feel like this version is still rich and satisfying but without all the grease, and it won’t weigh you down like many other breakfast sandwiches out there,” Weingarten says.
Then there is the ubiquitous Avocado Toast—an open-faced sandwich friendly to vegetarians looking for a heart-healthy and filling option. Split’s version features a smashed avocado and herb mix on toasted Firebrand Pullman bread, topped with poached eggs, microgreens, and sea salt.
Dig Inn adds more of its lemon ricotta and a dried ground kale–sea salt seasoning to its rendition of avocado toast, which uses thick-cut 7-grain bread from Iggy’s. For another vegan-friendly and slightly sweeter option, the chain offers a toast with almond butter, banana, and flax seeds.
Scrambles and hash
Many chains have dropped bread all together at breakfast in favor of scrambles and hash for an increasingly health-conscious, gluten- and carb-averse consumer.
At Split, sunny-side-up pastured eggs come atop grilled little gem lettuce and avocado, with optional applewood-smoked bacon bits and sriracha ranch, for a lighter yet protein-forward option.
Along the same lines, the Soft Scramble includes three eggs with a choice of bacon, homemade pork or chicken-apple sausage, or Mexican chorizo; a variety of vegetables, including roasted red pepper, sautéed onion, kale, avocado, and cherry tomatoes; and aged cheddar, parmesan, or goat cheese, served with a mixed-greens side salad. The Chorizo Hash has two poached pasture eggs with Mexican chorizo, kale, winter squash, roasted sweet potatoes, poblano peppers, red onion, sundried tomatoes, and a drizzle of aioli.
Grabbagreen, the growing franchise chain founded by two health-focused moms, likewise uses its hash bowls as vehicles for vegetables and protein. The Veggie Hash Bowl comes with black beans, egg, kale, red onion, red pepper, yams, and creamy avocado sauce, while a heartier Steak Hash Bowl also features egg, green onion, kale, yams, and a harissa sauce.
Egg, protein, and veggie bowls
Dig Inn, like other growing fast-casual chains, has revolutionized the foodservice landscape with its vegetable-forward bowls at lunch. Now it’s doing the same for breakfast. That includes a smaller version of its Market Bowl, with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, roasted kale, and other seasonal veggies, along with soft-boiled eggs, avocado, and optional meats, like house-made breakfast sausage and Niman Ranch bacon. The concept also offers some of its lunchtime quinoa bowls, but with an egg on top for breakfast.
At the Toronto-based, health-focused franchise Freshii, customers can choose between two egg bowls: a Mexican-inspired Huevos Bowl, with scrambled egg, kale, avocado, aged cheddar cheese, black beans, house-made salsa fresca, and a fiery barbecue sauce, and the Green Eggs and Kale Bowl, with scrambled eggs, kale, feta cheese, tomatoes, broccoli, and house-made pesto.
“Since we introduced our new line of breakfast bowls last October, we’ve seen a huge rise in morning-daypart sales,” says Andie Shapira, Freshii’s in-house nutritionist and lead menu developer. “Bowls were already our best-selling category on our lunch and dinner menu, so it made sense to offer it at breakfast, as well.”
Yogurt and smoothie bowls
Yogurt and smoothie bowls are riding the better-for-you and gluten-free waves at fast-casual chains.
“People seem to be trading in their straws for spoons,” Shapira says. Freshii offers an “energizing” Cali Smoothie Bowl using a thickened version of its green smoothie with kale, spinach, and avocado as its base. Customers can choose from fresh fruit, coconut, and granola as toppers.
Dig Inn offers both sweet and savory yogurt-based bowls, with various customizable toppings. The Pumpkin Bowl comes with roasted pumpkin seeds, dates, bananas, toasted buckwheat groats, and chia seeds atop a base of local maple yogurt. A sweeter option has raw kale folded into plain yogurt and a coconut curry smashed with rosemary, olive oil, chickpeas, and a six-minute egg for a twist on hummus.
“We have found that a lot of our guests are looking for something more savory in the morning, but not always in the form of eggs and meat,” Weingarten says.
In a riff on the more indulgent quick-service breakfast burrito, Grabbagreen swaps tortillas for collard greens to make breakfast wraps that are stuffed with vegetables, beans, and meat.
“We are a gluten-free concept, so breakfast was initially a challenge for us because a lot of breakfast foods include bread,” says Keely Newman, cofounder and CEO. The collard wraps come in three options: the Steak Collard Wrap with egg, red onion, red pepper, yam, and harissa sauce; the Chicken Collard Wrap with carrot, egg, green onion, yam, and spicy almond sauce; and the Veggie Collard Wrap with black beans, brown rice, corn, red pepper, yam, and chimichurri sauce.
Even during the week, some customers prefer heartier breakfast items, as Houston-based Dish Society can attest.
One of the most popular items among the company’s growing dine-in breakfast crowd is the Pork Belly Hash with chunks of meat, skillet potatoes, onions, jalapeños, red peppers, Serrano sauce, and two sunny-side-up eggs, says founder Aaron Lyons. Even the Nutella French Toast Sandwich does well during the week.
“When we opened weekday breakfast in 2014, it accounted for less than 5 percent of our sales, but in year two, it jumped to 8 percent,” he says. “Now weekday breakfast accounts for 12 percent of sales and continues to grow. We also introduced UberEats and Door Dash to increase delivery and to-go business in the morning.”
Among the non-bowl options, Dig Inn offers a Quinoa Waffle for a hearty but healthy option made with quinoa flakes, egg, and dairy milk and served with local maple syrup and lemon ricotta.
Modern Market also serves a waffle but made with stone-ground whole wheat and topped with Greek yogurt, pure maple syrup, and a caramelized apple-pear or other seasonal fruit compote.
Grabbagreen skips the waffle concept for a Quinoa Cake instead. A sweet version has banana, chia seeds, cinnamon, honey, and strawberry as toppers, while the more savory option comes topped with hemp seeds, spinach, tomato, feta, and a Mediterranean pomegranate sauce.
Coffee and other beverages play an important role in weekday breakfast offerings at progressive fast-casual chains.
Dish Society brought on board trained baristas to serve lattes with Instagram-worthy foamed-milk art as a way to compete with other coffeeshops in the area. The restaurant also serves cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices. “No one wants to drink sub-par, generic coffee with a nice breakfast,” Lyons says.
In San Francisco, where coffeeshops are ubiquitous, Split has partnered with Four Barrel, a local coffee roaster, to offer specialty coffee drinks. “We spent a lot of time experimenting with different coffee roasters and wanted to offer something not available elsewhere in our immediate neighborhood,” Silverglide says.
Dig Inn also believes in the importance of a strong coffee program, partnering with Counter Culture coffee for its main roast. Modern Market, meanwhile, recently added cold-brew coffee on nitro tap as a chilled option.
This story originally appeared in QSR's May 2017 issue with the title "Raising the Breakfast Bar."