Breakfast is something of an outlier. On the limited-service side, morning-centric concepts have long specialized in foods that were ideally suited for carryout. Conversely, full-service restaurants—including those peddling weekend brunch—leaned into dine-in experiences with dishes like pancakes, eggs benedict, and french toast that were meant to be enjoyed on-site.
Last year, the National Restaurant Association’s (pre-pandemic) State of the Industry report showed that, of the three major dayparts, breakfast accounted for the least amount of off-premises sales across multiple segments, including quick service, fast casual, family dining, and casual dining. The only area where breakfast captured the majority of off-site business was the coffee and snack segment. Through the lens of the pandemic, these findings would suggest that, of all the dayparts, breakfast became the most vulnerable.
But the reality was less dire for many restaurants. In fact, several brands had already begun innovating in that daypart prior to last spring.
“We were already well-prepared for the rapid shift to off-premises dining with systems in place,” says IHOP president Jay Johns. These systems included the brand’s proprietary online-ordering platform, IHOP ‘N GO, and partnerships with major delivery service providers like Grubhub.
Beyond logistics, IHOP had also developed special packaging for to-go orders, including one that cut moisture, retained heat, and was shaped specifically to house the brand’s signature pancakes.
With these operations and tools ready to go, the biggest shift for the breakfast leader was the addition of curbside pickup to its existing off-premises services. For on-site business, IHOP, like restaurants across all categories and daypart specialties, developed QR code–based menus and expanded its outdoor seating where possible.
“We’ve seen our off-premises sales nearly double since the start of the pandemic and are continuing to amplify efforts to ensure that the quality of our off-premises experience matches what folks would expect when dining in an IHOP,” Johns says.
For some restaurants, the limitations brought about by COVID-19 opened them up to more menu possibilities.
In Chicago, the slowdown and shelter-in-place orders presented breakfast/lunch concept Beatrix with an opportunity to imagine morning takeaway beyond grab-and-go staples like muffins and sandwiches.
“The most challenging aspect of breakfast has always been time and value. People have typically wanted something they can quickly pick up and enjoy, whereas now we have the opportunity to introduce more hot food and prepared food to-go,” says Marc Jacobs, executive partner and divisional partner of Beatrix parent company, Lettuce Entertain You. “In the past, we saw a lot of pastries and a coffee or a breakfast sandwich, and today we are seeing more success with dishes that people cannot make at home.” These include Light & Fluffy Lemon Pancakes, Pecan Praline French Toast, and Spicy Chicken Tinga.
Atlanta-based Flying Biscuit Café leaned into bowls when it pivoted to off-premises. The chain was no stranger to that particular carrier; in fact vice president of operations Brent Fuller jokes that one of its most popular bowl bases, the “creamy, dreamy” grits, is so beloved that the brand could be renamed Flying Grits.
Bowls available for online ordering include an acai bowl, bacon grit bowl, sausage grit bowl, and the Dirty Bird Bowl (two split biscuits topped with chicken, queso, and chicken-sausage gravy).
Although Flying Biscuit didn’t skimp on the portion sizes for off-premises, it did make tweaks based on customer feedback.
“Our executive team had all the delivery service orders copied to our phones, and we were all watching customer behaviors. We would see a customer order gravy on the side; we would see no onions in something. So we went back and modified,” Fuller says. “We try to make the experience easier for the customer and then easier for the employees of the store.”
During the pandemic, breakfast concepts were also able to capitalize on consumer demand for comfort foods. For Flying Biscuit, this opportunity manifested in the form of new menu items, including chicken and waffles, as well as Beyond Breakfast sausages, which can be served as a side or substituted into existing dishes like the sausage biscuit.
Beatrix has honed its offerings to optimize pandemic-era business across its four locations. Trimming the menu not only allowed the restaurant to highlight guest favorites, it also helped streamline the back of house—a major boon at a time when fewer team members were on deck.
Instead of doubling down on rich foods, Beatrix offered a different type of indulgence—one that brought a bit of the dine-in experience to guests’ homes. Last fall, it introduced a three-course breakfast and brunch program, with starter options like avocado toast and Burnt Honey Toast; entrées such as Pepper & Egg-White Sandwiches and the aforementioned Light & Fluffy Lemon Pancakes; and a juice or specialty coffee.
“We’ve seen great success with both,” Jacobs says. “People want what they know, comfort food, and accessibility.”