New Breakfast Consumer

The Cultural Evolution of Health

For decades, doctors, government organizations and public health watchdogs warned Americans about the complications of obesity, sedentary lifestyles and diets consisting of junk food. By and large, we ignored them.

In the 1990s, a heart symbol was used to identify heart-healthy menu items high in fiber or lower in cholesterol or calories. But we didn’t order them. In 1995, the American Heart Association introduced the “heart-check” symbol identifying packaged foods that met defined criteria. We weren’t persuaded.

But change is afoot. From a cultural evolutionary standpoint, it’s been relatively sudden. One influence was Baby Boomers reaching their 60’s and reacting to the attendant pains and energy loss: “I haven’t got time for this – I’m busy – how can I fix this aging thing?”

One surprising factor is rooted in American business. A 2015 survey of 443 human resources professionals showed that 85 percent believe wellness programs improve employee health, and 73 percent feel they improve work productivity. So now consumers have big business providing mentors, cheerleaders and incentives to improve their well-being.

Setting the stage for all this was the cumulative effect of the 1960s counterculture lifestyle, the health and wellness movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and the recent cultural shift away from reacting to health problems in favor of proactively increasing quality of life.

As the stars fell into alignment, consumers began to look at their food differently.

The phrase “healthy food” means different things to different people. Some use food as a preventative health regimen, while others merely want to avoid sugar. There are those seeking high-fiber, gluten-free or high-protein meals free of meat. Dieters’ needs range from low calorie to high protein. And food manufacturers and foodservice operators are left to figure out how to satisfy widely diverse requirements.

Breakfast is a great platform to offer many options for virtually any definition of “healthy,” and restaurants are taking advantage of this based on their adoption and creativity. Eggs can take healthy breakfasts in many delicious directions in the form of breakfast burritos, omelets, Benedicts, frittatas and sandwiches. Adding any mix of vegetables, cheeses, herbs, salsas, poultry products, tofu or seitan can produce low calorie, gluten-free, vegetarian or energy-rich high protein dishes. Major chain efforts defined by better-for-you (BFY) standards include McDonald’s Egg White Delight, Dunkin’ Donuts’ DDSMART® menu and Subway’s BFY focus.

For those who make breakfast at home, manufacturers of convenience breakfast foods provide a range of consumer nutrition needs. A small sampling finds Jimmy Dean Delights’ Honey Wheat Flatbread: Egg White with Spinach & Mozzarella-Style Cheese having only 160 calories, while Morning Star Farms’ Breakfast Sandwich: Veggie Scramble with Cheese goes even lower, with 140. Boasting 21 grams of protein with no gluten, Aldi’s Meat Lovers Breakfast Bowl is made with eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes and Cheddar. The vegetarian Baja Breakfast Burrito from Sweet Earth Natural Foods is made with eggs, pinto beans, chipotle seitan, green chilies, and Jack and Cheddar, with 20 grams of protein, 340 calories and using only organic, non-GMO ingredients.

According to Sloan Trends data, 53 percent of adults are watching what they eat, and what they’re watching are nutrients. Rather than counting calories consumers look for the calories they eat to be packed with nutrition.

“This marks a shift from previous generations,” says Annika Stensson, senior manager of research communications at the National Restaurant Association. “Today's consumers are looking for healthier options.”

Simple ways to increase nutrient density include topping legumes, grains or salads with poached eggs for high-protein, vegetarian center-of-the-plate items; adding quinoa, faro or bulgur wheat and a soft cooked egg to salads or entrees to increase texture, protein, vitamins and minerals; and reducing sodium by using bold spices and herbs.

Twenty years ago, a small heart shown next to a menu item was often the kiss of death. Generally, heart-healthy items were versions of popular items scaled back in calories and fat, and also in taste and craveability. Today the search for nutrients is part of the move toward food-based health and wellness. The attention being given to nutrition-heavy menu items, like eggs, is a response to consumer requirements for creative and healthy food, delivered in the way the consumer expects it: vibrant and delicious.

The Choice is Yours

Burger King started using the slogan, “Have it your way,” before Millennials were even born. Now that they’ve picked up the customization banner, the rest of us are falling into the parade and demanding to have it our way too.

Imagine a world with one type of mustard. No sweet-hot, whole grain, Dijon or Chinese. None flavored with Sriracha or cranberries, and none made with beer, honey or dill. Just good old yellow mustard.

That will never happen. Someone is likely creating a new flavored mustard at this very moment. Why? Because we are endlessly curious and love to explore, always searching for new directions in experiences, tastes and trends.

Trend watchers give credit to Millennials for inventing customization, but they merely embraced it and led the rest us toward culinary enlightenment. Americans have always ordered unique combinations of pizza toppings, dipped fries in tartar sauce and added anchovies to grilled cheese. While Millennials are taking the trend to new heights, prior generations not only demanded customization, but grew the trend throughout their lives.

Customization is about the guest being in control of the dining experience. This is a big change for those chains that built reputations based on the consistency of their food. Despite this, McDonald’s, based on reliable consistency since the 1950s, has been testing two platforms, Create Your Taste and TasteCrafted. Although both programs focus on items in buns, there’s nothing to stop either one from migrating throughout the menu. Offering a choice of cheeses and toppings on morning egg sandwiches would be a drive-thru hit.

It is worth mentioning at this point, that the fast-casual segment revenue grew 13 percent in 2014, which, according to Technomic, is 10 times that of the industry overall. But within the fast-casual segment, the build-your-own segment is on fire – 2014 sales were up 22 percent.

In addition to salad bars that have always encouraged customization, well-established chains have added build-your-own menu sections. Arguably the original customizable food, omelets have landed their own place on build-your-own menus, with IHOP, Perkins and Friendly’s all offering build-your-own omelet options. But it is independent operators who’ve gone the extra creative mile, offering the lengthiest lists of ingredients. Two of the best examples have inspired lists of omelet fixings:

  • Milwaukee’s Build-a-Breakfast Build-a-Burger is a perfect example of customizing gone wild, with 20 add-ins for the build-your-own omelets and breakfast burritos, and nearly 50 variables for its burger-building platform. Although this would appear to be Millennial heaven, management confirms regular clientele run the wide gamut of generations.
  • Third Coast Spice Café in Chesterton, Indiana, serves build-your-own omelets made of up to 23 locally-grown/organic meats, veggies and cheeses, and seven chef-made spicy or savory veggie relishes and sauces. Any combination of any number of ingredients may be ordered for the same price.

The earliest of the new generation of fast-casual chains has shown consistent growth, Chipotle being a prime example with 2014 unit growth of 11.6 percent. But the crop of the newest entrants is impressive, including Pieology Pizza, Genghis Grill and the Chipotle spin-off, Shophouse. Welcomed by all who enjoy mixing things up, customization in the Subway/Chipotle tradition requires a different operational system and flow, but to those who get it right, come dramatic growth and leader of the pack status.

A quick look at two of the newest pioneers, Blaze Pizza and Stacked:

  • Blaze Pizza: begun with two units in 2012, now has 67 units nationwide; pizzas are assembled in a buffet line like Chipotle’s, baked in an open-flame and ready in three minutes; lunch accounts for 50 percent of volume due to speed of delivery.
  • Stacked: customizes burgers, sandwiches, salads, pizzas, mac ‘n cheese and ice cream sandwiches, sundaes and shakes with hundreds of toppings and mix-ins; the newest location (opening fall, 2015) will serve equally personalized all-day breakfasts.

Industry expert Darren Tristano of Technomic has this to say about the build-your-own phenomenon: “Subway introduced it, Chipotle perfected it and pizza restaurants like Blaze are really evolving it. The new evolution is not just assemble – it’s assemble and cook to order.”


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