Quality and freshness drive the morning rush.
At one time, a hapless muffin or a lifeless scone could exist without notice. But those days have crumbled away.
As the country's coffee culture has grown so has the importance of breakfast treats that partner with the morning brew. If a concept focuses on coffee, accompanying items have to be just as good.
No longer an afterthought, breakfast items such as muffins, pastries, croissants and bagels bespeak a new regimen, one that embodies quality and freshness.
"The key words are 'well prepared,' and that is the treat," says Zov Karamardian, owner of Zov's Bistro in Tustin, Calif., which sells a variety of made-from-scratch, fresh-baked breakfast items such as buttery raisin brioche and light and billowy orange-glazed cranberry scones.
Like Zov's Bistro, the Macrina Bakery and Cafe in Seattle has built a loyal following based on the simple concept of quality and properly prepared baked goods. Muffins, studded with seasonal fruit, are moist and airy, while Danish are crisp and buttery.
"We give people what they want," says Chef-owner Leslie Mackie. "We try to make the best product with the best possible ingredients. We don't try to over-complicate things."
But none of the attributes would matter if the items weren't fresh. For Mackie, freshness is so ingrained in her endeavor that it is a given. "Well, yes, of course freshness is paramount," she says after the topic comes up.
At the 90-unit Atlanta Bread Company bakery-cafe chain, which expects to add up to 60 more stores by year-end, bakers start their day at 10 p.m. and wrap up around the time the restaurants open at 6:30 a.m. All goods baked on site that do not sell by the end of day are donated to local charities.
"This way we ensure quality and freshness," says Executive Chef Officer Peter Teimoradadi.
But bread and pastries at the 130-seat units are just a part of the formula for the quick-casual concept, says company spokesman Paul Wilson. "Each of the restaurants plays classical music and there's a fireplace, all of which is designed to accentuate ambience," he says. "We try to create a distinctive, warm home experience on one hand and an alternative to fast food on the other."
Teimoradadi proudly points out that he uses only butter. "We only buy the best nuts, the best raisins," says the classically trained chef. "That makes a big difference."
The Panera Bread bakery-cafe chain, based in Webster Groves, Mo., also is trying to distinguish itself with baking on premise and creating an upscale but quick and casual persona. The warm interiors invite customers to dine in but the setup for takeout is organized for fast and efficient service. Such a setup suits customers with a grab-and-go regimen, which is still prevalent, as well as the increasing number of people who order and stay.
The concept pervading its 230-plus units finds its strength in freshness. About two years ago, Panera expanded its bagel offerings by baking them throughout the day to optimize freshness. But the doughy rounds that have enamored customers have not been the traditional onion or sesame bagel but the sweeter ones, such as the cinnamon crunch. " We see the tie with the sweeter bagels. It's natural that you would want something sweet with coffee," says Panera's Scott Davis, whose title is vice president of concept essence.
"We see the bagel as a big part of our company." Bagels, says Davis, have "exceeded our wildest dreams."
The company also is hoping to snare a big following for its revamped scone, which has metamorphosed from its triangular shape to a smaller round size. "We think a lot of people are looking for an upscale alternative to the muffin," Davis. "We see the muffin as looking backward, the scone as looking forward. Flavors include buttermilk with orange icing, cinnamon, cranberry hazelnut and lemon poppy seed.
"Scones tend to dry out and be a less than great experience," Davis says. "But nothing beats a fresh-baked scone with a great cup of coffee."
COFFEE IS KING
For coffee bars and bakery cafes, increasing check averages with baked goods is a no-brainer. Increasingly, however, the menu is dictated by offerings that optimize the flavor of the morning pick-me-up ritual.
"For us, food is there to complement the coffee," says Julie Key, category manager/bakery for Seattle-based Starbucks. "Our goal is not to find the best food but the best food to pair with coffee. One of the ways of doing that is finding local bakeries that can supply on a consistent basis."
Just like Boston-based Au Bon Pain, Starbucks is trying to capitalize on the Krispy Kreme craze by offering the sweet airy doughnuts in its New York City locations. "It's something new in New York," says Key.
When it comes to straying from tradition, breakfast may be the least accepting. Operators say that most customers prefer the tried and true - muffins, Danish, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, croissants, bagels and coffee cake. They are, however, open to different flavors.
"What we do is offer a lot of choices," says Bo Kellar, regional executive chef for Motorola Food Works in the Southwest. "We have the hot cinnamon rolls that we do from scratch, bear claws, muffins--blueberry of course--but we also have chocolate brownie muffins. There are about 20 choices."
At the Atlanta Bread Company, 14 different bagel flavors are available as well as 12 types of muffins and six kinds of croissants. "People want fresh and quality but they also want something that's got a lot of flavor," says Teimoradadi.
Variety, however, is dictated by region. While bagels are a mainstay on the East Coast, they aren't big sellers in the Northwest. House-made granola and vanilla yogurt to go is popular at Zov's Bistro, but it's not exactly flying out of bakery cafes in New Orleans, which Karamardian recently visited.
SIZE AND OTHER MATTERS
Super-sizing may work for particular foods, like soft drinks, but the approach could backfire when it comes to baked goods. Regional preferences may determine size preferences, but items that are too large may be self-defeating. Kamaradian says she sells more breakfast treats when they are of traditional size.
"I have found that if you offer a giant scone, it will get shared. People buy more if the items are regular size."
Operators are also seeing a shift in what customers order. Indulgence is back but with some restraint. "You would think people want healthier," says Mackie. "But we sell gobs of pastries."
To strike a balance, Mackie offers pastries made with puff pastry dough instead of a yeast dough. The result is a crispier and flakier product that is also lighter in texture but not necessarily lower in fat and calories.
"For awhile, the healthy concept kicked in, but, in the last few years, I've seen a rebound," says Kellar of Motorola Food Works. "People are saying 'I want my donut and I want my cinnamon roll. They don't seem to be as conscientious as they used to be."
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