Breaking Down Breakfast

Drawing people in to breakfast isn’t easy, but these operators have managed quite well.

Virtually everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but getting people to eat it can be another issue altogether. Time-pressured students, rushing to their first class, may skip breakfast either at home or school. Similar constraints may keep B&I customers from making a habit of a healthy breakfast, and hospital patients, particularly the very ill, may simply not “feel hungry.”

What’s a foodservice director to do? Well, here are some success stories.

Make it a snack time: Last spring, Vermont became the fourth state in the country to expand free breakfast to children who previously qualified for reduced-price meals. In the Colchester School District, Director of Nutrition and Food Services Steve Davis said administrators at Porters Point Elementary School were grappling with a bus schedule that gave many students just five minutes to eat. He came up with a program to serve breakfast during “snack time” at 9 a.m., allowing children to “send down orders through the teacher, and eat in the classroom. Our breakfast participation tripled, to 80% or 90%, and the kids who eat breakfast at snack time score better on tests.”

Davis tries to offer healthy breakfast items in the five schools he oversees, including hot items such as eggs with bacon or meat, whole wheat English muffins, fruit, pancakes, cereal, yogurt and cheese sticks. The in-classroom breakfast is used as a springboard to talk about healthy food choices and nutrition with the students and “get more food education into the curriculum.”

At Colchester’s middle and high schools, three or four hot breakfast items are available each day, and participation at the high school doubled with the addition of hot breakfast sandwiches. “Not feeding kids breakfast makes them more likely to eat junk. Obesity needs to be a focus now,” Davis points out.

Another Vermont foodservice director, Carol Brill, in the St. Johnsbury School District, offers four different kinds of milk to her students. “Some like to put chocolate milk in their cereal,” she explains. “We offer fruits and juice and make our own muffins. We always have a good variety of fruits, and we’ll do a grapefruit with a muffin that the students like. They also enjoy having the experience of tasting new fruits they wouldn’t normally have, like mango or pomegranate.”

Meredith Bailey, foodservice director at the Kiski Area School District, in Leechburg, Pa., gives students a “second chance” to eat breakfast, in the cafeteria between first and second period study halls. “It gave us 60 more kids a day, and it’s everything from grab and go items to cereals, warm pretzels, Tony’s breakfast pizza, pancakes, waffle sticks and whole wheat mini-loaves with apple and banana.”

To encourage participation, the school initially offered free hot chocolate to everyone who ate breakfast.

“We compete with the time factor,” she notes. “Breakfast makes it hard for them to get to class [on time]. Scheduling is our biggest competition.”

Health is a major factor in the breakfast menu in Lawrence, Mass., where Foodservice Director Anne Marie Stronach recently eliminated fruit juice in favor of whole fruit. Students also get low-fat chocolate milk only on Fridays, with one percent white milk the rest of the week. All cereals must meet a guideline of three grams of fiber and reduced sugar.

“More cinnamon toast crunch was a big deal for the students<’ Stronach says. “Whole wheat is also served as the bread component.”

Participation fell at first, but rebounded as students saw others enjoying breakfast and teachers and cafeteria staffers encouraged students and ate the breakfasts themselves.

El taco grande: At St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, General Manager Hays Atkins says he has found success with a breakfast taco program. “It’s a part of the culture here, and is one of our highest selling breakfast items,” he says. “We think it’s classes that usually get the students out of bed, but the tacos don’t hurt.”

He serves 300 to 500 breakfasts daily at the 0,000-student unviersity. Beyond the tacos, St. Edwards offers scrambled eggs with choice of cheese, chorizo sausage, bacon, pico di gallo, salsa and a roll filled with eggs and cheese, plus a number of traditional items.

At the University of New Hampshire, demand for healthier choices such as egg white omelets “continues to grow,” says Director of Dining Jon Plodzik, whose department serves around 3,200 breakfasts daily. “Our later breakfast demand and thus, business, has grown threefold over the last two years. Students typically prefer breakfast after their [first] morning class. As such, we’ve extended breakfast on campus until 11 a.m., which has really improved participation. That’s where we’ve seen the growth in demand. We added egg burritos, breakfast pizzas, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, sweet and savory stratas and make-your-own breakfast sandwiches. We carry 27 different breakfast cereals every day, all day. Omelets remain a strong menu item for breakfast and throughout the day. At one location, we added an all-day breakfast concept.”

Breakfast is an all day deal for Parkhurst Dining at Allegheny (Pa.) College, says General Manager Michael Zanie, who estimates one out of nine students eats breakfast. He’s looking to add lactose-free milk in addition to soy milk. An action station is dedicated to eggs made to order. At 4 a.m. at Princeton University, you can smell the muffins baking. Foodservice Director Stuart Orefice began the program last spring, baking fresh muffins every half hour. It’s a draw, he says, along with fresh fruit and nonfat yogurt.

Healthy eggs: Vegetable omelets with Egg Beaters are popular with patients at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, says Director Food Service John Hofman. An on-demand room service menu features breakfast any time with a broad variety of items. “Patients are encouraged to eat because they can do it when they want, between 6:30 a.m. and 9 p.m,” Hofman explains. He serves about 375 breakfasts a day.

On the flip side, he notes, a breakfast burrito is popular with about 2,000 morning retail customers weekdays, despite its high calorie count.

Janie Norton, assistant director of patient services at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, also serves a room service menu of traditional breakfast items, which children enjoy selecting. Favorites are French toast sticks and omelets. Separate menus are available for various age groups, from toddlers to teens. “Food is one of the few things patients have control over in a hospital,” Norton observes. “It’s really important. Patients staying longer than two weeks receive a visit from the chef to see whether there’s anything special they’d like.”

The Breakfast Pizza

Not the leftover pizza of our college memories, UMass’s breakfast offering still draws students in.

Many foodservice directors and relate to—or even tell their own stories about—college students eating pizza for breakfast. Historically, however, said pizza was left over from a party the night before and may or may not have been refrigerated in the interim.

At the University of Massachusetts, students still have the chance to eat pizza for breakfast. But there’s a twist. The pizza is actually designed for the morning meal.

Ken Toong, director of dining services at UMass, rolled out a breakfast pizza program last fall at Worcester Dining Commons.  There are three varieties of the thin-crusted product, two savory and one sweet, offered is smaller bites than is typical for pizza. Ingredients include such items as sausage, bacon, potatoes, and cream cheese; one variety is vegetarian.

“There is also a whole grain option,” says Toong. The idea has been “well received,” with Worcester serving an average of 200 slices during the breakfast period.

The pizza program, Toong says, “is a great way to provide more options to our customers.  They love it and the food costs are lower than some other breakfast items. With 14,000 students on the meal plan, we serve an average of 7,000 students at our four dining commons. I got the idea for the breakfast pizza from a buffet line at a casino during a trip to Las Vegas.”

But Toong’s breakfast efforts go beyond pizza. To encourage breakfast participation, Dining Services also offers “a variety of scrambled eggs with Latin influence” and is currently testing congee, a classic Chinese breakfast dish based on creamy long grain rice with a porridge-like texture, to which a wide variety of ingredients such as meat, fish, poultry, herbs, gingko nuts and lotus root can be added.

“We’ll do Mexican too,” says Toong. “Kids don’t want the same old, same old. They want more variety. It’s hard to get them up in the morning, but when they have class, they’ll come and eat breakfast.”

Two years ago Dining Services launched a grab ‘n go hot breakfast program that’s been very popular. “Portability – that’s what the students want,” he says.

His overall strategy, he explains, “is to entice our students with more fresh food and promote that breakfast is an important meal. We enhanced the continental breakfast menu with an extensive fresh fruit and yogurt selection, including a minimum of five fruits such as honeydew melon, cantaloupe, grapes, blueberries,  and strawberries, in addition to three choices of yogurt.

“For the hot food selection, our most popular concept is the omelet station. Some of the large facilities have two stations with one chef at each, handling four pans at a time.”

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