Not quite breakfast. Not quite lunch. The late-morning and mid-afternoon brunch daypart is more than a meal. It’s a social experience, and one that consumers are hungry for coming out of the pandemic.
Opportunities exist for non-breakfast brands to carve out their share of the brunch segment. When executed correctly, the daypart can be a solid revenue generator for restaurants that have traditionally focused on dinner service.
That’s been the case for The ONE Group, parent company of Kona Grill and STK, where brunch has become a core business for both concepts. Emanuel “Manny” Hilario, president and CEO of The ONE Group, says the idea came from the hotels where the company provides food and beverage services.
“We saw the strong demand and success of the brunch daypart at the hotel properties in which we operate, and we identified that there was a customer need and a supply shortfall that we could fill nationally with the addition of a quality brunch offering with a highly differentiated vibe,” he says.
The ONE Group started testing brunch at both restaurants in 2020, developing programs that fit within each brand’s identity. Kona Grill is known for its sushi and seafood, while STK’s approach to fine dining blends a chic lounge atmosphere with a modern steakhouse experience.
The key to winning at brunch for both brands involved crafting a menu that’s fun for guests to interact with, featuring items that Hilario says are both “craveable and Instagrammable.”
“The customer wants their friends to know they are out at brunch,” he says. “The greatest metric we have to illustrate our success would be how viral brunch has become, and how guests interact with the brands on digital during this daypart. The camera eats first, and it most certainly does at brunch.”
Kona Grill features signature items like the Rocky Mountain Omelet, Spicy Lobster Avocado Toast, and Macadamia Nut French Toast. For STK, there’s Hot Chicken Waffle, Smoked Pork Belly Benedict, and even a wagyu burger which includes a 7-ounce beef patty, American cheese, bacon, fried egg, lettuce, tomato, onion, and special sauce.
“Brunch requires a strong element of balancing comfort food, like eggs, sausage, and bacon, with more interesting trial items like benedicts with caviar,” Hilario says. “Offering comfort food like our egg white omelet and cinnamon French toast creates a path to experiment with new things like our smoked pork belly benedict and wagyu burger.”
Similar to The ONE Group, an upscale pub concept also began experimenting with implementing brunch offerings during the pandemic. Known for its craft beer and live music, The Brass Tap began rolling out a brunch program in 2021. The idea came from a franchisee who opened a unit that fell short of expectations, so he orchestrated a comeback with a three-hour weekend brunch program. Weekend sales at that store proceeded to triple, catching the attention of the company’s leadership.
“We picked up the ball and ran with it,” says Stan Dorsey, The Brass Tap’s executive chef. “We tested it, brought it back, took notes, and kept working at it. One thing we had to consider is that not every distribution center has the same exact products. When you’re scattered all over the country, it’s about finding products that are available everywhere, so you can’t do regional stuff. You need to be a little more mainstream.”
The Brass Tap landed with a menu that features waffles, biscuits, burritos, and breakfast skillets, and of course, mimosas and sangria. Dorsey says around 30 of the 50-unit chain’s stores offer brunch. Those that haven’t added the program tend to be older units that don’t have the same equipment package, or smaller stores with limited kitchen capacity.
“You’ve also got to have the storage space for new products, because there are a lot of things that you didn’t have before that are only used on the weekend,” Dorsey says. “But if you have the storage and the equipment, and you can find the labor, it’s a pretty easy thing to do.”
Non-breakfast brands may shy away from brunch for fear of extra costs and added complexity, but Dorsey says it tends to be a low-cost segment. Breakfast foods typically carry lower costs, and high-margin alcoholic beverages can increase profitability by driving up check averages and enhancing the guest experience.
“One of the big advantages with brunch is that you get to bring the booze along. Mimosas, screwdrivers, and things like that have great costs,” Dorsey says. “Every dollar that’s spent at brunch is a dollar that we wouldn’t have if our doors were closed, so it’s definitely a big deal for franchisees.”
Fogo de Chão added a brunch program back in 2016 to expand its weekend capacity. Seven years later, the program is still going strong, and CEO Barry McGowan has a key piece of advice for non-breakfast brands adding the daypart.
“Complexity is the death knell of restaurants. If you’re changing your model and adding all these components you don’t already have, it can be dilutive and you lose your return,” he says. “My feedback is always to stick to your strengths. Make sure you can execute against what your version of brunch is for your brand.”
Fogo de Chão’s brunch program features a Market Table with exotic fruits, imported charcuterie, Belgian waffles, made-to-order omelets, and more. Prep cooks are brought out from the back to prepare waffles and omelets on weekends, but most of the program centers around repurposing existing offerings. The produce and proteins served at brunch are the same items available at dinner. They’re just bundled and displayed in a more breakfast-centric format.
“We shift SKUs, we merchandise it differently, and we price it differently,” McGowan says. “We go through brunch and wait until it’s depleted in the afternoon. Then, it just starts to turn over into dinner. It’s an easy transition. That’s why it worked so well, and that’s why it keeps building.”