Move over scrambled eggs. It’s time to make room for grain bowls and breakfast tacos.
By Nancy Wood
It’s no wonder there’s a boom in breakfast and brunch – especially in urban areas. Busy lifestyles, changing nutritional habits, more fluid work schedules and lower prices are certainly influences on the upswing in breakfast traffic. But don’t look for a downturn in brunch business any time soon either. Cultural and economic trends suggest its rise in popularity over the last decade is not a flash in the pan. And it doesn’t have to be a boozy brunch to leave patrons waiting in line for a table on the weekends.
According to analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, 76 percent of people discussing ‘brunch squad’ on social media are under 25, and based on the 2017 “Eating Patterns in America” report from the NPD Group, millennials continue to influence the restaurant marketplace with their ‘want of authenticity, fresh, and social consciousness.”
Changing Tastes Demand Changing Menus
There’s no doubt today’s breakfast and brunch menus are still egg-centric, and Georgia restaurants certainly haven’t abandoned the traditional Southern staples. But today’s customers are clamoring for innovative food and flavor combinations as well as healthier, lighter options. And the most successful owner/operators are giving them what they want.
“Egg whites were unheard of when I first started in the business,” says Lou Locricchio, founder of Thumbs Up Diner and one of the first independent restaurant owners in Atlanta to serve breakfast all day. “Now, we sell a ton of them.”
Since moving to Atlanta from California in the 1980s, Locricchio has had a front row seat to changing tastes. “Two-thirds of our menu has been customer-driven for the past 20 years,” he says. That includes lighter options and some unusual combinations. “When I came to town, I could never fathom putting fried catfish next to a couple of eggs,” he says. “They wanted it, so I gave it to them. It turned out to be a huge seller at all of our stores.”
For Cooper Hudson, co-owner of Mama’s Boy in Athens, giving the customers what they want has driven not only what she serves for breakfast and brunch, but literally changed how she and business partner Alicia Segars operate their two locations.
“When we opened 12 years ago, we did breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “We quickly found that breakfast was what people wanted.” Seven years ago, the duo stopped serving dinner. “The market drives what you choose to focus on,” she says, “and for us, that was breakfast all day.”
Like most restaurants, Mama’s Boy runs specials and updates the menu occasionally, but as Hudson puts it, “For the most part, with breakfast, people are creatures of habit. We have a low-calorie breakfast on the menu, but I don’t know how many people really choose that.”
Since breakfast can be easily customized, the menu at Mama’s Boy offers plenty of healthy and vegan options, but she finds that even those who come in with the best intentions can’t resist temptation – like the oversized cinnamon bun. “Most people who eat here are like ‘yeah I’m going to eat healthy today, but that biscuit looks too good.’ And let’s be real,” she laughs, “bacon is delicious.”
An Atlanta native, restauranteur Michael Lennox’s latest hotspot for breakfast and lunch, Muchacho, reflects not only his millennial following and location on the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, but his knowledge of the area and penchant for strong branding.
“For a long time, I wanted to focus on a place that did breakfast tacos and have always seen that as a gap in the Atlanta market,” he says. “I wanted to develop a meaningful concept with those as a focal point and add a few things that make it a little more dynamic.”
Open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Muchacho offers a lighter West Coast-style fare that features grain bowls, toasts and poke, as well as breakfast tacos and a variety of signature beverages and coffees.
The Brunch Draw
When it comes to brunch as a crowd draw, the locations that serve alcohol may yield more profit, but the breakfast-all-day spots like Mama’s Boy and Thumbs Up Diner – which don’t serve alcohol – aren’t complaining. In fact, the long waits for weekend brunch at both of those locations encouraged the owner/operators to open other locations and build larger kitchens.
“Originally we weren’t open on Sundays,” says Cooper Hudson, “which is insane to me now, because that’s our busiest day for brunch. We added Sunday, and things kind of took off.” That quick growth also led Hudson and Segars to open a second location in nearby Oconee Falls. “Now both locations have a wait,” she says.
“Atlanta’s been named one of the biggest brunch towns in the country for the past two years,” says Thumbs Up’s Locricchio. “If you open a restaurant in town and want any business during the day part on the weekends, you’re going to open for brunch.”
Although the brunch trend seems to have exploded over the last decade, the truth is, a ‘late morning meal’ has been around since the late 1890s when the word ‘brunch’ first appeared in print. Even then, the term was used to describe a more social occasion that, as the magazine Hunters Weekly put it: “sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.” A 2017 survey by Mintel Research, “Restaurant Breakfast and Brunch Trends,” revealed that nearly 40 percent of the 1,670 consumers surveyed viewed brunch as a time to socialize with friends and family.
“Historically, the weekends were a time for people to get together after church,” says Locricchio. “The hotels in town always knew this – they’re the ones who developed a weekend brunch. It was just a matter of time before the restaurants got on board.”
Michael Lennox, whose flagship restaurant Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall on the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail offers brunch only on the weekends, says serving brunch is a “delicate dance.” In the Atlanta area, brunch is “brutally competitive,” he says.
“There are tons of places in town that do it – and do it well. The challenge,” he says, “is to be distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd while staying true to your brand and your location, and still offer enough of the common brunch standbys to attract an audience.”
Lennox’s distinction can be seen squarely in the vibe and concept for his renovated cotton factory location that bridges the gap between the outdoors and indoors. Described by Lennox as “rustic outdoorsy,” Ladybird Grove features a camp fire-inspired brunch menu that includes traditional sides as well as some original flavor pairings – like ‘Fish-n-Grits’ and a pulled pork griddle cake.
“We didn’t start offering brunch until three or four months after we opened,” says Lennox, “and I think the combination of having considerable BeltLine traffic and a thematically focused restaurant concept has driven how we approach it.”
The Yin and Yang of Adding Brunch
For restaurants that specialize in lunch and dinner, suddenly offering a brunch menu can be a challenge. The trick, says Lennox, “is how do you morph to a different menu with fewer shifts?”
Lou Locricchio says one of the biggest challenges to adding brunch is the learning curve for staff. “You have to shift gears and bring in a bunch of new ingredients. And your labor is going to go up,” he says, “because you have to bring in managers and cooks and retrain everybody.”
It’s definitely easier if you’re already serving breakfast and lunch in a college town like Athens. One of the benefits Mama’s Boy co-owner Cooper Hudson has seen is being able to retain a higher quality of employee.
“When your employees have to be there early in the morning, you kind of weed out people with substance abuse problems,” she says. “But,” she adds, “there’s more labor involved because everything’s made from scratch and the chef has to get pretty creative – how many ways can you really make a brunch special?”
“If done right,” adds Michael Lennox, “it’s a great way to grow business and add another dynamic to the restaurant, but it needs to be done very methodically and very consciously as far as how it complements and fits in with the core business.”
On the upside, serving breakfast and brunch items can add a nice profit to the bottom line. “There can be spikes in the marketplace with items like pork, eggs and dairy,” says Locricchio, “but nine times out of 10, we’ll eat that because we know it’s short-term.”
“It’s just part of the deal,” says Cooper Hudson. “But it’s pretty rare that we adjust the menu price to include that because fortunately, each dish is made up a lot of different items so it’s not as big of an impact.”
Since Ladybird Grove only serves brunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and serves alcohol – Michael Lennox has a different take. “We sell quite a bit more alcohol than food – about a two to one ratio. On that basis alone,” he says, “you’re going to see better margins.”
In general though, Lennox sees brunch as profitable because lower-cost items – like potatoes and grits – are driving the menu. “The biggest impact is going to be on your commodities like milk, butter, eggs and yeast. Those markets can change pretty dramatically at times. Avocados were pretty expensive for a time,” he says, “and if you have avocado toast, which is a popular item, that can start to make you evaluate whether you want to move on to different things. You have to stay on top of pricing.”
Local Sourcing: A Balancing Act
As the popularity of breakfast and brunch increases, pricing can also be affected by trying to incorporate locally sourced items on menus. Finding local suppliers who can keep up with the sheer volume of commodities and seasonal items at the busiest restaurants isn’t easy – even in Georgia.
With six locations, Thumbs Up founder Locricchio has buying power, but he always keeps an eye on the bottom line. “We would love to have eggs locally sourced, and sometimes during the year we do,” he says. “But right now, I don’t see us being able to do that and keep our prices competitive.”
“We do what we can to purchase food from local farmers,” says Michael Lennox, “but you’re not going to have a local potato farmer who is likely to produce to scale.”
Cooper Hudson agrees. “It would be hard to locally source everything. You can’t get a good strawberry here in December,” she says. “Our chef does a great job buying from local farmers when he can, and we buy most of our meat from the University of Georgia agriculture school meat department.”
For some items, Locricchio has definitely been on the forefront of local sourcing. “I’ve been doing that farm-to- table thing for 25 years,” he laughs. Inspired by his California roots, he first started locally sourcing sunflower sprouts in the 1980s after spotting them in the Your DeKalb Farmers Market. “They’re grown right here in town – you can’t get more local than that,” he says. Locricchio also developed his own organic biscuit mix, which is made by a company in Blairsville that now provides his organic fry batter and grits as well.
Finding that balance may be a challenge, but one thing is certain – whether the menu is breakfast-all-day or brunch on the weekends, Georgia’s restauranteurs are giving their customers the tastes and trends that keep them coming back for more.