The Evolution of Perfection

Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as being “prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” Putting a little more meat on those dry bones, it is the culinary equivalent of Mom’s love, wrapping you in a blanket in front of a crackling fire and close to perfection. It is food you trust and if it doesn’t actually cure what ails you, it certainly makes you feel better about it.

Comfort food is not a trend by itself, but is the basis for one that is making both comfort and food more intriguing: revving up old favorites with unexpected spices, sauces and ethnic ingredients, or upscaling them into more gourmet dishes. Datassential says consumers are loyal to traditional breakfast favorites, but 53 percent are still interested in unique treatments of “elevated” comfort foods.

Attributes that qualify a food for the comfort label remain subjective depending on childhood experiences, cultural identities and happy memories. But there is little doubt that we all know it when we see it. Of the many items that are generally considered comfort food only one encompasses an entire meal, and that meal is breakfast.

Hot and comforting morning daypart options include Eggs Benedict, hashes, scrambled eggs, grits and omelettes, all of which are perfect foods for experimentation and expansion. This means chefs are stepping off the well-worn path of omelettes made with a recurring shortlist of familiar ingredients and producing dishes like the following:

  • Slim’s Spicy Caribbean Omelette is stuffed with grilled jerk-spiced shrimp, fresh avocado, green onion, sweet onion and cilantro, and then topped with mango salsa. (m.henry, Chicago)
  • For those looking to eat lighter, but very, very well, The Green Omelette is filled with sautéed broccoli, green pepper, onion and spinach, with a choice of ten cheeses that include feta, fresh mozzarella and goat cheese. (Sound Bites, Boston)

These are the sophisticated adult siblings of Denver and Veggie omelettes.

Eggs Benedict mentions are up 36 percent on QSR menus over those of four years ago per Datassential. The creativity in these examples may explain the increasing popularity:

  • Poached y Papas Benedict, made with a thick slice of baked ham and two poached eggs, covered in hollandaise but served on seasoned potato skins. (The Griddle Café, Hollywood)
  • Benedict’s ala Munich includes grilled bratwurst, caramelized onions, poached eggs and a mustard hollandaise served on potato pancakes. (Benedict’s La Strata, Crystal Lake, Illinois)

Both dishes are recognizable as Benedicts, but presented in exciting new translations.

One dish relatively new to American menus, huevos rancheros, is based on comfort for a new generation and has become such a frequent sight that it’s approaching the status of “expected.” Scrambled, omelette, Benedict and rancheros. The inherent simplicity of eggs, beans and chilies offers plenty of room for experimentation and America’s chefs have already seen fit to innovate:

  • Trading out the beans for curry-spiced lentils and the tortilla for naan, the Breslin in NYC serves Poached Eggs with Curried Lentils, Yogurt and Cilantro, a rancheros-like item with an Indian twist.
  • Philadelphia’s Rex 1516 makes Huevos Rancheros with a layer of rich crawfish étouffée topped with two fried tostadas, then another layer of étouffée followed by eggs, pico de gallo, queso fresca, lime crema and fresh guacamole.

The list goes on and on, including comfort foods more commonly thought of as lunch or dinner items, yet quite at home on a morning plate. Grilled cheese and pizza fit this category. Here are two examples of each being menued in the morning:

  • Big Tex (grilled cheese) ‒ scrambled eggs, Pepper Jack, bacon and pickled jalapeños on sourdough. (Melt Shop, NYC)
  • Breakfast Club Melt ‒ fried eggs, hickory bacon and American cheese, coated in sweet pancake batter and deep fried with maple syrup for dipping. (Melt Bar & Grilled, Ohio chain)
  • Breakfast Pizza ‒ Italian ham, tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes, garlic, oregano and eggs. (Gioia Pizzeria, San Francisco)
  • Bazonk! Breakfast Pizza ‒ goat cheese, bacon and mushrooms topped with fresh basil. (Zayda Buddy’s, Seattle)

The range of innovative breakfast combinations is endless, from egg sandwiches with Cheddar, tomato jam and pickled jalapeños (Egg Shop, NYC) to egg-topped lemon rosemary bread pudding with caramel cream sauce (C&M Café, Los Angeles). It seems there are many ways to improve on perfection.

The Business of Comfort Food

If you’d asked a 1960s-era foodservice audience for a show of hands from those who served breakfast, many hands would have been raised. If you’d then asked for those from the midscale family segment to lower their hands, you might have been left seeing no hands at all. The 1960s group of breakfast operators was quite clearly defined, with chains like Denny’s and independent diners making up the vast majority of those serving morning meals.

But things were about to change. Offered here is a quick historical look at the evolution of foodservice breakfast:

  • In the 1960s burger chains sold burgers, fries, Cokes, shakes and not much else.
  • In 1972 McDonald’s launched the Egg McMuffin nationwide.
  • Hardee’s started making made-from-scratch biscuits in 1978.
  • Burger King entered the daypart in 1985 with the Croissan´Wich.
  • Today, NPD says 80 percent of foodservice breakfasts come from quick service operations.

In just over 40 years, the landscape radically changed.

Throughout the recent recession and continuing today, the breakfast daypart has remained the one consistently bright spot in foodservice, growing year after year. According to Technomic, U.S. breakfast sales increased an average of 4.8 percent annually between 2007 and 2012, with an additional 3 percent gained in 2013. During this same time, overall sales remained generally flat.

Breakfast sandwiches have made a particularly strong showing with growth every year since 2009, led by double-digit increases at both midscale and casual dining. With the other dayparts either stagnant or losing ground, breakfast is the fertile ground for operator growth.

Major chains are doing just that, and with a major emphasis on sandwiches. In 2010, Subway’s 25,000+ U.S. and Canadian units captured the industry’s attention by launching their breakfast daypart. The program includes fresh coffee, and sandwiches made with omelettes, breakfast meats and cheeses, customizable with any of the many toppings and sauces that top sandwiches throughout the day.

In March 2014 Taco Bell made major waves by not only launching an extensively tested roster of unique breakfast items, but also doing the unthinkable: directly taking on the competition.

Those two launches added over 30,000 locations serving breakfast in North America. This time it only took two years for the landscape to radically change.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. has stated, “It’s a very competitive marketplace. More players are focusing more effort on the breakfast daypart.” Depend on it ‒ existing breakfast heavyweights like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts will not let other players easily erode their position or keep them from further optimizing their a.m. opportunities.

One of those players is the retail market, which has watched and learned from the foodservice industry. Marketers Tyson, Jimmy Dean and Morningstar Farms have lines of breakfast sandwiches that look much like the ones available at a drive-thru. Hormel produces Spam, scrambled eggs and potato bowls, and Kraft has breakfast food Lunchables. Grocery chains Kroger, Giant Eagle and Aldi have lines of meat, egg and cheese flatbread, biscuit, English muffin and croissant sandwiches to rival ones found on QSR menus.

But despite considerable marketing energy focused on the daypart, significant incentives await operators interested in entering the fray: the morning is still underpenetrated by the restaurant industry. Datassential shows that 83 percent of breakfasts are eaten at home, which offers a huge untapped market for restaurants. There is room for many more players, and just as operators did with other dayparts, the only thing required is to make foodservice the answer to consumers’ needs. Those with the right answers will reap the rewards and that result is certainly comforting.

Why We Seek Comfort

No matter how an individual defines comfort food, we all recognize obvious triggers for needing some NOW. A bad day at work can send us straight to the Häagen-Dazs. Less apparent, but still taking its toll, is the effect of free-floating anxiety over things like the economy, our high-pressured lives and the stress of global issues. Much like background noise we’re only vaguely aware of it, but it can still lead to super-sized orders of fries.

It seems that metaphorically having too much on our plates may lead to an urge for filling our real plates with comfort foods.

Operators see the results of our desire for comforting meals in the only daypart consistently outperforming the rest of the menu: breakfast. Hot breakfasts are a comfort food bonanza with scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, savory sausages, creamy oatmeal, cheesy grits, hot buttered toast and jam, biscuits with gravy ‒ the list goes on and on. And clearly our desire for soothing foods is not expected to fade, as Mintel forecasts 30.3 percent growth in foodservice breakfast sales between 2013 and 2018.

But which came first, the need or the comfort? Are Americans so stressed that we require comforting foods to feel better? Or do we just logically enjoy food that gives us a happy, easy feeling?

On one side we have consumers who answered polls indicating concerns about the state of their world:

  • 86 percent of adults are concerned about the lack of privacy in using computers. (Pew Research Center)
  • 55 percent of consumers worry about medical debt. (Bankrate.com)
  • 69 percent fear a cyberattack on U.S. computer networks. (2014 Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
  • 71 percent of us believe the recession’s negative impact is permanent. (Rutgers University)
  • Fears of an ISIS attack at home was Americans’ top search topic last month. (Google)

That is certainly enough to make a person dive into a vat of scrambled eggs and cheese. But what about the other point of view: that eating breakfast foods is, in fact, a cheerful thing to do that makes us feel content no matter what else is affecting our lives. Technomic says that 52 percent of consumers cite a craving for a breakfast sandwich as the driver for their last purchase. So it turns out we simply enjoy eating things we like to eat. Case closed.

And something else: neither consumers nor operators see a reason to restrict traditional breakfast comfort foods to the morning. Consider the evidence: bacon has not only been a grand partner for eggs, but has been wrapping appetizers, baked with beans, topping burgers and grilled in sandwiches for decades. Now it’s the egg’s turn to be part of all that and more. The following samples illustrate how eggs are being used to offer more comfort throughout the day:

Haute Dish (Minneapolis)

  • Bacon+Egg on a Stick
  • Asparagus Salad: pickled ham hock, soft-boiled egg, watercress, fine herbs and crouton

Speedy Romeo (Brooklyn, NY)

  • Oven Fried Egg (appetizer): with cherry tomato, red onion, corn, pancetta and pecorino
  • The Kind Brother (wood oven pizza): wild mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, egg and sage

Bluestem Brasserie (San Francisco)

  • Hangtown Fry: scrambled eggs, crispy oysters, spring onions and bacon
  • Smoked Trout Salad: house-smoked trout, fingerling potatoes, deviled eggs, frisée, tapenade, cherry tomatoes and mustard-sherry vinaigrette

Melted Bar & Grilled (Ohio)

  • Hangover Fries: hand cut fries, seared pork belly, mozzarella cheese curd and rich gravy topped with a fried sunny up egg and scallions
  • Crabby Benedict: fried eggs atop crisp crab cakes, with sriracha hollandaise, wilted arugula and herb cream cheese

And that doesn’t even touch on all the egg-embellished burgers and vegetable side dishes that have become so common on both chain and independent menus.

So what about the answer to which came first, the need or the comfort? When you’re sitting in front of a plate full of comfort, does it really matter?


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