There can’t be much waffling when it comes to waffles.
The well-known batter cake is a popular dish at home and on menus at full-service, family-style restaurants known for breakfast; some even feature the item in their names. But waffles have a smaller presence among quick serves and fast casuals. That’s because a good waffle can be difficult to execute, takes more time to produce fresh than many other menu items, and requires an extra piece of equipment: the waffle iron.
Waffle menu items at limited-service restaurants have been flat for the two years that ended in June of this year, according to data from Technomic Inc.’s MenuMonitor, which tracks thousands of menus of both chain and independent eateries. The number of operators offering some type of waffle dish is down 3 percent over those two years, and a major issue holding back growth is execution, says Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at the Chicago-based market research firm.
“Anyone can cook a good-quality frozen waffle at home, so a restaurant version has to be a quality notch above that,” she says. But that requires time, equipment, and space, which many limited-service restaurants don’t have, she adds.
Waffles need to be an experience, Chapman says. A frozen pancake can be heated and still be pancake-like, “but waffles are not that easy. They have different textures, soft inside and crunchy outside, so just throwing them in the microwave doesn’t do the trick.”
Breakfast is by far the meal that has the most waffle menu items—more than 70 percent of the limited-service restaurant mentions, according to Food Genius, a foodservice data provider. Entrées are next at 16 percent, with desserts at 5 percent.
While regular American-style waffles are the most popular choice for breakfast at home and in full-service restaurants, the Belgian waffle has made some inroads during not only the morning meal, but also in its original form: as a dessert item. These waffles, made with a lighter batter, are typically larger, with bigger squares and deeper grid pockets. They became popular in the U.S. during the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, served with strawberries and whipped cream.
At Denver-based Modmarket, the Belgian waffles provide options for the largely egg-centric breakfast menu. “When you start looking at breakfast items that are not egg-based, waffles are at a good crossroads of complexity with a lot of appeal,” says Nate Weir, director of culinary operations for the 16-unit brand.
Modmarket’s rectangular waffles are cooked from scratch daily using a batter made with two types of flour, cage-free eggs, a hint of turbinado sugar, sea salt, baking powder, GMO-free canola oil, clarified butter, and 2 percent milk. The batter has both stone-ground whole-wheat flour—providing a dense, nutty flavor—and high-gluten organic flour to help provide the best texture. It also includes two oils: canola, which helps provide the crispy exterior, and butter to give rich, deep flavor.
There are several challenges in making a great batter, Weir says. “For one, it’s at its best when it’s made fresh,” he says. Other challenges are choosing the right waffle iron to create the best texture and a short cook time, and deciding how many waffle makers to put in each store—most Modmarkets have one, but others have two—so there aren’t any logjams at breakfast.
There are three varieties: plain, organic cinnamon with pecans, and apple pear, which features caramelized apple and pear compote. All are served with whipped butter and pure maple syrup.
Several quick-service restaurants have tried using waffles with varying degrees of success. Taco Bell’s Waffle Taco—a waffle shaped like a taco, stuffed with eggs and sausage or bacon—drew considerable attention when the company launched its breakfast program last year. The item was replaced earlier this year by a biscuit taco.
Others have featured waffles as part of a limited-time offer. White Castle found that breakfast sandwiches using waffles as the carrier were popular with customers. The company began its first breakfast waffle sandwich LTO in spring 2014. The sandwiches featured bacon or sausage, with egg and cheese or with chicken and gravy. They also could be served alone with maple syrup.
The items were popular and were brought back this spring—along with a dessert option that featured strawberries and whipped cream—for a limited time. The slider-sized waffles, which are sweet with a hint of vanilla, were imported from Belgium, says Kim Bartley, vice president of marketing and menu development. They arrived frozen and were heated to order in a toaster.
An even more limited-time offer was the Southbound and Down from the 10-unit, Pasadena, California–based fast casual Dog Haus. The LTO, which was served for two days in June, featured a chicken-fried sausage on a King’s Hawaiian bun put into a waffle iron. The sandwich was created by company sausage maker Adam Gertler and culinary director Michael Brown for a video program created by the popular online media company Buzzfeed.
“It was really fun and worked out really well,” Brown says. “We took the King’s Hawaiian we already use and put them in a waffle iron. They caramelized wonderfully.” It did take time to create, however. Unlike a chicken thigh or breast, the sausage is in a natural casing, so marinating isn’t an option. The solution: Buttermilk and spices became part of the wurst, which was butterflied, hand-breaded, and then deep fried. The sausage was served with a maple and buttermilk coleslaw dressing and chestnut honey drizzle.
Sweet and savory chicken and waffles have roots in soul food and Amish cooking, the former with fried chicken, butter, and syrup, and the latter with stewed chicken and gravy. The soul food version has been a hit at Slim Chickens since joining the menu last year, soon after Sam Rothschild arrived at the Fayetteville, Arkansas–based chain as chief operating officer. “There were some things I thought we could add to our portfolio and freshen things up,” he says. “Chicken and waffles was one of the things we tested out and found there was interest.”
The Slim Chickens version begins with a batter that is dense with a hint of malted flavor, he says. The Belgian-style waffles are cooked to order in a couple of minutes and are topped with the company’s chicken tenders, whipped butter, and syrup. “We really contemplated whether to use butter on it or not, but it turned out that customers loved the butter, hands down,” says the industry veteran and Johnson & Wales alum. “Waffles are a comfort food, so the butter debate was over.”
One Southern California chain, Bruxie, has taken Belgian waffles a step further, creating an entire menu of sandwiches that use the cakes as the carrier. It not only has chicken as part of a waffle sandwich, but also burgers, pastrami, pulled pork, tuna, and more.
Cofounder Dean Simon, who is dubbed “the chief waffler,” became fascinated with waffles in 1999 when he was in Belgium. “To me, a waffle was always something like a pancake, but it was nothing like a real Brussels-style waffle,” he says.
The founders came up with the idea to use a waffle—not the thick ones people often equate with a Belgian waffle—folded over with ingredients inside. They had several ideas in mind, but went the savory sandwich route after setting up the original shop in a former burger stand. The 7-inch waffle is “light, airy, crispy, and not sweet, with only 250 calories,” Simon says. “The biggest thing at first was the misconception of what a waffle should be. We get people who come in and say they never thought a waffle could taste like that.” In addition to the waffle’s flavor and texture, its aroma is significant, he adds.
The buttermilk-marinated fried chicken breast sandwich, served with chile honey and cider slaw, has been the most popular item since opening, Simon says. Burgers are next, and the other menu items use a combination of recognized and unique ingredients. “We are just a couple of culinary guys thinking outside the box,” he adds.
There is also a line of breakfast waffle sandwiches, ranging from Bacon, Egg, and Cheddar to Green Eggs and Ham, as well as sweet dessert waffle sandwiches, like Lemon Cream and Berries, all using the same waffle. Bruxie also serves original Brussels and Liège waffles.
Even when a company may want to add waffles, it doesn’t necessarily work out. Sloan’s Ice Cream, based in West Palm Beach, Florida, planned to add Belgian waffles to the menu to both boost the morning business—“Waffles are perfect then,” says David Wild, director of franchising—and create a late-night treat.
“They pair well with any kind of ice cream, especially when the waffles are fresh,” Wild says. “The texture of a fresh waffle is different than something prepared ahead of time.”
During a test, Sloan’s placed the waffle irons in the front of the stores, where “people can see it, smell it, and that has helped with sales.” But though the trial had gone well and the company was planning to add the cakes, the supplier boosted the cost of the mix and machines, so Sloan’s discontinued the waffles.