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Global breakfast trend: how restaurants can win big

Global influence on breakfast makes popular flavors a morning affair

The National Restaurant Association put global breakfast in the spotlight, naming it the fourth top trend in its What’s Hot 2019 Culinary Forecast. Chefs from the American Culinary Federation are surveyed annually to develop a barometer of what’s hot and what’s not in food and culinary trends. Shakshuka for breakfast, banh mi for lunch, bao for a late-afternoon snack, and congee for dinner. That might be a foodie’s ideal menu for a day, but what if all those dishes could easily be ordered at restaurants for morning breakfast? Well, that’s today’s reality based on what’s trending and what consumers are demanding.

Why the emphasis on breakfast now, and how have consumers so quickly turned to experimenting with non-familiar flavors from across the globe? We posed that question to Suzy Badaracco, a top forensic trendologist and president of Culinary Tides, a menu development and innovation firm. She explains that the United States is in an emotional stall right now, and consumers are looking to experiment, but with some safety in mind.

Consumers seek unique, ‘comforting’ breakfast experiences

That’s a logic behind the global breakfast trend. And there’s a reason these items appearing on restaurant menus resemble comfort food, and also why these foods also have regional characteristics, whether global or American. “Consumers are not grounded or confident,”says Badaracco. “They revert back to comfort food—partially. So, we see retreat to historical and region-specific cuisines.”

Take, for example, the rise of chilaquiles, a Mexican dish made with fried eggs and softened tortilla strips that are bathed in red or green salsa or sauce, and shakshuka, a Mediterranean dish comprising poached eggs simmered in a tomato broth with cumin and chili pepper.

As restaurant chains continue to explore the adoption of global flavors and dishes, they also need to strike a balance between experimentation and comfort. “Right now, consumers are pulling back to the familiar, not all the way back to comfort, but they are not in an all-out experimental mood right now,” adds Badaracco. “They are looking for safe experimentation, trusted sources, authentic recipes, ingredients they recognize, and ease with pleasing entire family, and transparency.”

What is driving interest in breakfast now?

Breakfast occasions have been on the rise, and breakfast is transforming the foodservice landscape. Quick-service restaurants have been responding to consumers’ increased desire for breakfast, which has transitioned away from the home. Through the end of this year, breakfast occasions are projected to grow by five percent, according to research firm NPD.

Additionally, a report from the National Restaurant Association indicates 52 percent of consumers would like restaurant operators to offer breakfast throughout the day. Restaurant chains like McDonald’s have made it possible to get breakfast items at any time, responding to this opportunity, but there’s still a long way to go before we see this become common practice.

For restaurants, there is a strong economic driver to offer breakfast all day. Leveraging the global breakfast trend, restaurants can focus on building incremental sales in the morning hours, and additionally across afternoon and evening hours. Over the past five years, fast-casual chains have toiled to expand their breakfast menus, as well as improve coffee and other morning beverages.

When Taco Rock, a new, fast-casual concept from Chef Mike Cordero, opens up in Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., this summer, its owners plan to serve breakfast tacos. This will be a strong morning sales driver, as the restaurant is located near major transit points in a busy workplace district known as Rosslyn.

Breakfast as functional, promoting good health

Media has picked up on the importance of breakfast, sharing clinical studies connecting breakfast with healthier living and augmenting its importance, notes Badaracco. The data driving home this message is fairly robust, so breakfast has a new place on the table, so to speak.

“The University of Missouri found skipping breakfast could lead to an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” she says, “And Columbia University found that skipping breakfast leads to elevated cholesterol compared with consuming daily breakfasts of oat porridge or frosted corn flakes.” Badaracco posits that these studies have helped drive interest in breakfast, particularly as they trickle throughout various newscasts and published media and journals.

At the same time, consumers enjoy a greater number of breakfast occasions away from home, thanks in part to an economic recovery. Badaracco says, “Breakfast traffic research is also an indicator of economic conditions. The playground is shifting as traditional breakfast fair is joined by global dishes, which are newer to Americans.” Moreover, the strength of the economy will also spur interest in breakfast, meaning that as more consumers are working (or working longer hours), breakfast will continue to transition from the home to foodservice.

Adventurous takes on Asian cuisine

Chef Erik Hopfinger of Bamboo Asia in San Francisco believes we’re just at the beginning of the global breakfast trend, so it’s definitely ripe for the picking. Hopfinger is a “Top Chef” alumnus who has worked at Backflip, Butterfly, Spoon, Circa, and the Cooperage in Califronia,so he’s seen many trends throughout his culinary career.

He says, “Customers are increasingly becoming more interested in Asian flavors because these cuisines offer so much diversity in dishes… Using traditional flavors and cooking techniques that are specific to different regions allows us to get more creative in the dishes we make [at Bamboo Asia].”

Bamboo Asia offers a full menu of Pan Asian cuisine, including Indian food. As with traditional Indian restaurants, Hopfinger uses an authentic tandoor oven, which originated in the Punjab region. He’s also keen on the growth and adoption of cuisines from the Philippines and the Korean Peninsula.

“I think something we don’t see too much of in America is breakfast rice bowls, like bibimbap with eggs.” Hopfinger also points to spamsilog, a Filipino dish of fried garlic rice with eggs and Spam, as an opportunity to introduce new palettes to this type of cuisine.

He expects that interest in these types of dishes, which satisfy a craving for comforting breakfast foods, will continue to grow. Khao tom, a rice soup, and its thicker, more porridge-like variation, johk, are on Badaracco’s radar. Given the need for portability and convenience in the QSR segment, certain dishes and adaptations, however, can be more easily deployed in the fine-dining scene, polished fast-casual concepts or the casual dining segment.

Asian influence on breakfast dishes served at restaurants opens up a world of opportunity for increased business on-premises and off.
Asian influence on breakfast dishes served at restaurants opens up a world of opportunity for increased business on-premises and off. Photo by Anna Sullivan.

However, there are ingredients and flavor profiles that can be adopted more universally. This is to say, all popular global foods have a profile that can inspire more adventurous and worldly breakfast dishes.

Mediterranean influence

“Gen Z consumers are more on the forefront of trends and may be thinking more of those adventurous foods than the standard staples,” said Jenny Zegler, associate director of Mintel Food & Drink to Food Business News last year. Being on the front lines of the trend will result in a big win with Gen Z and Millennials.

Julia Stamberger, CEO of Spinning Wheel Brands, a menu innovation incubator and producer, observes that American breakfast is quite constrained currently. Consumers in the U.S. can adopt breakfast items that are quite common around the world, and move away from breakfast that is traditionally high in fat and carbohydrates.

“Japanese consume rice, miso soup and fish at breakfast,” she says.In the Middle East, beans and cooked grains like couscous or pita bread, glazed with olive oil, and za’atar spice are not uncommon at the breakfast table.”

Stamberger notes that Mediterranean breakfast features wholesome ingredients, including whole grains, seeds, healthy fats like olives/olive oil, and legumes, like chickpeas and fava beans. Mediterranean influence at breakfast time is evolving and rising, and provides inspiration to increase intake in more health-centric meals.

Elements of the Mediterranean diet have become popular, and consumers can enjoy these foods on the go and at restaurants. At Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen in Chicago, customers enjoy the sabich, a sandwich made of roasted eggplant, hummus, fried egg and house salad in a fresh pita and served with garlic sauce.

At Olea in Brooklyn, the Breakfast Scramble platter is a hearty offering of local, organic eggs, served with fresh cilantro, tomato, red onion, eggplant salad, feta, kalamata olives, herbed yogurt, whole wheat pita, and tahini-honey.

Fast-casual chain Cava, which serves fresh, customizable, Greek-inspired fare in bowls and pitas, has gone national and attracted millions of dollars in investments. Last fall, it acquired its closest competitor, Zoe’s Mediterranean Kitchen, in great part with the help of the Ron Shaich, founder of another future-forward chain, Panera Bread.

With the exponential rise of chains like Cava, many are betting on a continued, strong interest in Mediterranean cuisine. Demand for Mediterranean foods strengthen as more consumers are exposed to such dishes in quick, convenient formats. For Americans, Mediterranean dishes and flavors are becoming part of everyday routine.

The plant-based connection

A large swath of Mediterranean cuisine centers around plant-based foods—another appealing attribute to current health trends. With a focus on lean proteins, including fish, and ingredients like beans and seeds, it’s easy to see why these foods offer so much inspiration to restaurant menu development professionals. “As U.S. consumers have gained more interest in a plant-based diet, seeds and beans have grown in popularity as great vegetarian and vegan sources of protein and nutrients,” says Stamberger.

“Interest in plant-based diets comes from many fronts: some people select more plant-based foods for nutrition, some for sustainability concerns, some for ethical concerns regarding animals, others for allergens, and impacting (combating) health issues through diet.”

According to research firm Mintel, 46 percent of consumers agree that plant-based proteins are healthier than animal proteins and 52 percent say taste is a top driving factor of consumption. Part of the Spinning Wheel Brands portfolio, Hope & Sesame, produces the first and only sesame seed milk. It has developed a nutrient-dense beverage with 20,000 sesame seeds per liter of sesame milk.

By using a proprietary “natural bitter-blocker ingredient technology,” Hope & Sesame removed the potent taste of sesame seeds and created a creamy beverage that can be an ideal part of a fast-paced breakfast or snack at any hour. It’s easy to see a path for such innovation is making its way to quick-service restaurants, especially as plant-based protein nutrition continues to gain popularity.

An article originally published in our winter issue features additional dishes and trends that are emerging alongside plant-based foods as ideal choices for breakfast, drawing inspiration from the Mediterranean.

CCD Helmsman, a food innovation firm, spotlighted colorful veggie spreads as a trend to follow and adopt in 2019. Veggie spreads are getting more creative with the use of various vegetables and vegetable roots and they are ideal for use by quick-service shops at breakfast time. The increased interest in such spreads has mirrored the rise of Mediterranean food’s popularity. Hummus, tahini, beetroot tahini, and tzatziki spreads are examples that are cut from this lineage.

Ongoing, creative menu development takes global cues

Packaged Facts, a consumer research firm, recently highlighted global porridge as a creative way to innovate with grains, apply flavors and ingredients from the international stage. “Carolina Gold Rice Congee,” which includes chicken, tomato, sate and egg from the Animal Restaurant in Los Angeles, is an example. Porridge, like oatmeal, is a great way to experiment, while offering a hearty and recognizable dish to American diners.

The American grits has cousins all over the world. The Packaged Facts 2018 Grain and Bakery Innovation report states “Take it Far East with rice congee or Deep South with corn grits, but put it on your table: this what’s-old-is-new-again dish suits these cheffy, free-range, plant-forward, mix-and-match times, with plenty of room for innovation at moderate price points for casual cuisine appeal.”

Porridge, congee and grits offer flexible platforms and work with many ingredients from afar.
Porridge, congee and grits offer flexible platforms and work with many ingredients from afar. Photo by Klara Avsenik.

For additional creativity, Packaged Facts recommends drawing inspiration from Asian street foods. Many of the rising stars from the East are rooted in such culinary origins. The Vietnamese banh mi and the Chinese congee, fried rice, bao and crepe-like jianbing are great places to start. R&D and menu development professionals have a lot to work with here as these foods are transported from evening consumption to morning intake and nutrition.

Thinking outside the breakfast platter

A Brunch Banh Mi, served on a Vietnamese-style baguette served at E.P. & L.P. restaurant in Los Angeles is one of Packaged Facts’ food sightings. This brunch dish, with aromatic chicken sausage, pickled carrot & daikon, spicy mayo, cilantro and two fried eggs, is sure to be popular. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of recommendations that were offered up in a Packaged Facts Culinary Trend Tracking report on breakfast last May.

Packaged Facts also notes that breakfast bowls are a great way to add Asian and Hispanic ingredients and amp up the excitement factor. A chilaquiles bowl with fried eggs, salsa verde and soaked tortilla strips is an example of taking Mexican ingredients and serving them in a format that is comforting yet energetic and appealing at the same time. A congee bowl with savory ingredients, like the congee with chicken, tomato and poached egg, is another way to use the breakfast bowl format and offer an exciting taste profile that takes breakfast to a new level, says the research firm.

Badaracco offers up additional inspiration with countries whose foods can form the basis of emerging breakfast dishes:

  • Lebanon—manakish, a flatbread “pizza” seasoned with the Mediterranean spice blend za’atar.
  • Britain— a heaping plate of bacon, Lincolnshire sausage, black pudding, eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast, known as the “full English breakfast.”
  • Israel—smoked white fish, lox, bagels, shakshuka, hummus, halloumi, labneh, rugelach, bourekas and gvina levana.
  • Cuba—casamiento (rice and eggs), huevos habaneros (ham and eggs), picadillo cuacua (Havana ham and eggs), torrejas con frutas (Cuban French toast) and the tostada (Cuban toast).

‘Party dresses’

While menu development teams can emulate or replicate dishes from afar, there is also an easier way to integrate their influence. Badaracco suggests incorporating preparations, seasonings or toppings/addins from international breakfast dishes while keeping the base familiar. “This is a territory that would be easy to make a mistake in right now—keep your base familiar and approachable, and use the add-in or prep as the party dress,” she says. “Consumers will pass you by if there is anything off-putting—they are not in a risk-taking mood.”

Eggs would be a good base to start with, particularly prepared as an omelette–fried or poached–creating a familiar platform. Guests could then choose from two or three toppings that reflect a popular global dish. Taking inspiration from Mexico, salsa and tortillas could be one option.. Another option could be simmered tomato with Mediterranean spices. Yet another could be a savory porridge or rice add-in.

While the egg base is familiar and comforting, the topping options would change, but still adhere to authentic preparation and roots. A good example of too much risk-taking would be, for example,to fuse toppings from different world regions together into one dish.

Trendologists are eying flavor trends that are sweeping many categories, including smoke, floral, liquor and tea, says Badaracco. Expect bolder flavors at breakfast time, particularly as the “party dress,” even though the historical and traditional will be an underlying theme. “Fusion has retreated and been replaced by hybrids. These are being sassed with flirty toppings and bolder flavors.”

While menu development professionals have an open canvas when it comes to taking advantage of the global breakfast trend, it’s evident that innovation in this day and age requires a thoughtful and strategic approach. The opportunities outweigh the risks, however, and keeping an eye on consumer sentiments and trends will serve restaurant chains well.

Taking cues from global flavors and dishes, there are more ways than ever before to attract consumers to restaurants for their breakfast occasions. At the same time, diners will be exposed to new flavors and dishes that will continue to drive home the benefit of breakfast at restaurants. Restaurants can build big business by leveraging the global breakfast trend. They can win using a methodic and strategic approach that’s also innovative and unrelenting. It’s a competitive advantage that chain restaurants have in their arsenal to fend off pesky food retailers grabbing market share.

Photo credit: Bamboo Asia

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