Canny restaurateurs have been taking advantage of the breakfast and brunch market for years. As ever, the secret is to get the right offering. Joanna Wood reports.
The British have always had a penchant for breakfast, at least the full English, cooked kind, but we've traditionally only kick-started our days at home, at greasy spoon cafés or, on special occasions, at the posh end of things in hotels such as the Ritz.
However, there has always been a place for power breakfasts in the corporate market and the current economic downturn has made business diners look for ways in which they can still eat out, regularly, in style, while spending less and, in the case of city bankers at least, appearing less ostentatious. Which means the breakfast and brunch market is sitting there, ready and waiting to be tapped into if you are an operator who can offer a chic, relaxed experience and quality food.
Of course, it goes without saying that you can't just draw up a breakfast or brunch menu, extend your opening hours and expect the business to flood in if the market isn't there in the first place. You need to do your homework, look at the footfall and your customer profile before launching yourself into the fray.
By and large, it's the UK's metropolitan areas that present the most potential for the early-bird services. The key thing is to have a catchment area with a substantial professional workforce, as this body of souls provide the natural weekday customer base as corporate diners, holding power breakfast or brunch meetings with colleagues and clients. There's an add-on bonus that often they also visit as singletons, breaking their fast on their way to their offices in the morning, or sometimes popping in mid-morning with laptops and working while they brunch, free from office interruptions.
London, as is often the case, is the flagship city for establishments offering urbane breakfasting. In fact, there have been a few canny people who have offered a sophisticated experience at the start of the working day for some time in the UK's capital - restaurateurs such as Oliver Peyton (Inn the Park), Chris Corbin and Jeremy King (the Wolseley) and Iqbal Wahib (Roast), to name just four. Roast and Inn the Park in particular have a high percentage of business customers in the morning - Peyton's Inn the Park in Regent's Park, for instance, does around 60-100 breakfasts during the week and his staff there estimate that 80% of these are corporate customers. "We always opened for breakfast from the launch [in 2004], but then we were getting maybe two to four people," Peyton comments.
But it's the Australian and New Zealand restaurateurs who seem to be able to effortlessly hit the right note for breakfast and brunch services, offering stylish, relaxed dining spaces with clever, interesting à la carte menus and professional front-of-house waiting teams. Just think of Australian-born John Torode's Smith's of Smithfield, always bursting at the seams weekdays during the first half of the day; Kiwi-born Peter Gordon and Michael McGrath's Tapa Room, the all-day café arm of their Providores restaurant in Marylebone; or their fellow-Kiwi Anna Hansen's Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell. All these restaurateurs have a noticeable corporate clientele during weekday breakfast service at their restaurants.
Why is it that chefs from the southern hemisphere are so good at the breakfast/brunch experience? "In New Zealand and Australia, cafés and restaurants have always been used in the morning for business meetings - you get corporate meetings right next to families with children. It doesn't bother anyone," says McGrath.
It's an attitude that's beginning to make inroads in London, spurred on by the current economic restraints. Breakfasts have always been part of the scene at the Tapa Room, but McGrath has noticed an increase in "the suits" holding power breakfast meetings on weekdays over the past nine months between 9am and 10am.
And since she opened her East London café-deli and restaurant, the Modern Pantry, a year ago, Hansen has also pulled in a lot of corporate business from the City to brainstorm over breakfast in the 65-seat deli area where she serves her morning service. "Most of our breakfasts are centred on business meetings - we do 30-40 business breakfasts a day easily during the week. It's at least 20% or our overall breakfast business," she explains.
Other operators who are seeing a substantial corporate morning trade include Lawrence Keogh, head chef at the 120-seat Roast in East London's Borough Market, where 80-100 covers is commonplace for morning services, even in the early part of the week - 80%-90% of those being business meetings. And London gastropub supremos Tom and Ed Martin estimate that at their Botanist pub on Sloane Square, Chelsea, 8% of the business is now tied up in breakfasts. "And we've had more breakfast meetings at the Gun, in the City, than ever before," Tom adds.
It's not only restaurateurs on the high street who are seeing an upsurge of interest in breakfast and brunch services. High-end catering contractors such as Lexington are seeing an upswing in morning diners and a demand for upping-the-ante on early-day menus.
Robert Kirby, Lexington's chef-director, says: "Our clients are definitely staying in-house more. The recession's partly the cause, but it's also because you can get more achieved over early business meetings - people are more alert and they aren't interrupted by phone calls, they achieve more in a shorter time."
So what makes for a good breakfast menu? The key to unlocking the breakfast and brunch market is a good, interesting menu using well-sourced, quality produce. The rule counts for both the corporate clientele and regular customers and it's particularly important if you are going to charge high-end prices - people will pay for artisan ingredients, but there is a cut-off point.
Generally, breakfast dishes need to halt at the £10 mark, brunch dishes (ie, light lunch offerings such as salads or charcuterie) can push up to maximum of £15, but sell best at about £12. As a rule of thumb, à la carte menus work best - although you can, if you are renting out a private dining room to a company for a breakfast meeting - tailor a set option to their specific needs as per normal banqueting practice.
There are other factors that pull in business customers. Service, for one thing, which has to be slick and professional but not over formalised. Stylish, well-designed surroundings are important, too. But if you don't get the menu right and do it really well, then the market won't come to you.
It helps to define your cuisine style and have a signature dish, too. For example, make a point of being British like Inn the Park or Roast (think crumpets, porridge oats with add-ons, tattie scones and haggis, kippers, smoked trout and scrambled eggs), or Anglo-Indian like the Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Club (kedgeree, Bombay scrambled eggs flavoured with turmeric and chilli, bangras butty - aka spiced lamb sausage in a bap), southern hemisphere fusion in the manner of the Tapa Room or Modern Pantry (the former's best seller is Turkish-style poached eggs with whipped yogurt and chill butter, while the latter has ricotta and sweetcorn pancakes, and spicy, sugar-cured prawn omelette).
If you're an Italian restaurant, play on Italian specialities, if you're American, like the newly opened Lower East restaurant in the City is, centre on Manhattan favourites such as waffles or pancakes and maple syrup. "Corporate customers want breakfast to be quick, hearty and slick," says Michelle Moreno, Lower East's restaurant manager (see page 28).
There are certain classics that transcend all menu styles. Some kind of bacon, egg and sausage "fully monty" is a must on any menu. And eggs Benedict and Florentine never go out of fashion. Similarly, porridge, particularly in the colder months, goes down well. The key thing is to put good add-ons and always to source quality producers, naming them on the menu to underline their uniqueness. Put on black pudding, rare-breed sausages, organic eggs, species or vine-ripened tomatoes, for instance; try duck eggs instead of hen eggs, and offer region-specific honey or cream with porridge.
Cooked options are important, but Lexington's Kirby has noticed, "a gradual move away from traditional breakfasts towards healthier, lighter brunch-style menus". He adds: "We source our produce very carefully and have moved towards a more boutique style of presentation. I look to Australian chefs and food writers such as Bill Grainger and Donna Hay for inspiration. And I use Smith's of Smithfield as a benchmark."
Quirkiness can always sell if it's done well and doesn't challenge too much, particularly when it comes to fresh fruit options. Hansen's current menu has a nectarine, apple, watermelon, cherry, grape and banana fruit salad with a lemon verbena syrup.
Another vital component is the drinks offering. You need to have tea, coffee, fresh fruit juices and, preferably, smoothies. Again, quality and quirkiness are the base criteria. Roast, for instance, has a really interesting tea list which includes 10-year-old Puerh tea, and green and white varieties as well as more regular options. Smoothies, with or without yogurt, made on site are increasingly popular and easy to achieve - "every place is capable of buying a blender," McGrath says. And if you are putting on some brunch-style dishes, salads or charcuterie, for example, then make sure you have a few wines-by-the-glass options.
There's no doubt the breakfast and brunch market is expanding, but it's important to point out that you will rarely make a fortune from morning menus. There is a profit to be made, naturally, and in downturns such as the national economy is currently experiencing that's a very salient point. But it's probably better to think of the breakfast and brunch market in terms of what it can offer your business in broader terms. Hook corporate clients in the morning and they will often come back and spend more money on a lunch or evening service on another day.
"The repeat business potential is enormous," McGrath confirms. Or, as Peyton puts it: "Breakfast is a showcase for the rest of your menus. If people come in for breakfast and like it, they'll come back for lunch and dinner."
CASE STUDY: LOWER EAST
Manhattan-inspired Lower East soft-opened five weeks ago in Canary Wharf. In an area where there is a strong corporate market, restaurant manager Moreno predicts early dining will make up at least 20% of business, perhaps more.
"There's a huge market here for breakfast and brunch but there doesn't seem to be anything in Canary Wharf that does breakfasts, except for coffee shops," she says.
Moreno stresses that making all-day dining work isn't easy. "Breakfast is the hardest to do well at. A lot of restaurateurs are uncomfortable with that market and don't know how to sell it, or make it cool."
She believes business breakfasts need to be approached differently from weekend morning trade."Corporate weekday customers want breakfast to be quick, hearty and slick. They don't want to have to ask for things," she says.
"Get breakfast and brunch right, and you've made a couple of thousand pounds before the day starts. It's a massive push to the start of the day for your business and there's an energy going on already by the time lunch comes."
BREAKFAST IN A HURRY
● Businesses that want to capture the "on-the-go" breakfast market, should stick to easily portable products such as bacon rolls and sausages in buns, advises BPEX. Both bacon and sausages can be cooked in advance and either kept warm in a bain-marie or chilled and then microwaved to order.
Another idea is breakfast burritos as served in the USA and likely to come to the UK. Pre-prepare the burrito with cooked sausage, bacon, omelette and tomato, then wrap in foil. Heat through the oven and then hold in a warm cupboard or cabinet until they are required for service.
● Heinz Foodservice offers guidance on tailoring breakfast menus to suit specific customer types. For the time-poor who regularly skip breakfast, the company suggests items they can take away with them, such as pre-cooked bacon ready to be slipped into the bread product of their choice, together with conveniently packaged sauces.
● The continued growth of the cereal bar market reflects the trend towards consumers looking for convenience, according to the Weetabix Food Company, which advises that in addition to the breakfast counter, it's worth providing a cereal bar offering at reception.
On the cereal front, encouraging people to add healthy toppings such as fruit, natural yogurt or honey creates a premium breakfast that is interesting and healthy - and can be prepared cheaply and easily.
THE HESTON BLUMENTHAL FACTOR
Nothing underlines the opportunities that lie in the breakfast and brunch market more than the phenomenal success of Heston Blumenthal's revamped Little Chef menu at Popham, which includes his version of the chain's legendary Olympic Breakfast and the reintroduction of traditional Scottish kippers.
The Blumenthal treatment means free-range eggs, griddled Wiltshire cured back bacon, vine-ripened tomatoes and Ramsay of Carluke black pudding are the norm.
Blumenthal says: "You're never going to lose the £2.99 breakfast, but there's definitely room for growth at the top end, particularly now. Power breakfasts are much cheaper than business lunches because there are no wine costs."