Fast-Food Chains Bet on Breakfast

The morning commute is returning, and fast-food competes for customers’ wallets with digital offers, promos and new menu items.

May 24, 2022

Fast Food Breakfast To-Go

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—More commuters are returning to the office, and fast-food chains are beefing up their breakfast promotions and loyalty programs to recapture the morning daypart that was severely crippled by COVID-19, reports NBC News.

The breakfast business isn’t fully back to pre-pandemic levels at fast-food chains yet, but “it’s bounced back faster than other mealtimes,” Lauren Silberman, a restaurant analyst with Credit Suisse, told NBC. “It’s actually surprising how strong the breakfast performance has been.”

Fast-food-restaurant traffic was up 11% in 2021, according to the National Restaurant Association, despite many workers continuing to work from home and only some children were back to in-person school. A new DoorDash report shows that breakfast orders on the app increased three-fold between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. in 2021 compared to 2020.

“Breakfast is the most profitable part of the day,” said Silberman.

McDonald’s owns the morning daypart among fast-food restaurants, grabbing 27% of customer traffic during the a.m. hours, according to the food-service consulting firm Technomic. To step up their breakfast offerings, the McDonald’s offers coffee, hot or iced, any size, for 99 cents when ordered through its app.

Wendy’s, which has failed multiple times in introducing breakfast, seems to have finally found a winning strategy for its morning offering. Wendy’s launched its breakfast menu two years ago, right before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“Even though it wasn’t the way that we would’ve drawn up the playbook, it may have actually helped us because it gave us the opportunity to really build it in a steady way,” Wendy’s U.S. President Kurt Kane said.

The pandemic shifted the breakfast daypart, and before the pandemic, Wendy’s thought that its busiest times would be from 7 to 9 a.m. as consumers went to work. Instead, the company saw its longest breakfast lines from 8 to 9 a.m.

But Wendy’s is using aggressive promotions to capture the early morning customers once again. From November to mid-December, it sold its egg and cheese biscuit sandwiches—with a choice of sausage or bacon—for just $1. It also has turned to online ordering, delivery and pickup, as the chain aims to grow its morning daypart by 10-20% this year, mainly by targeting people returning to their old routines.

“Fast food companies are positioned well to catch consumers looking to return to their pre-pandemic routines,” Maeve Webster, president of the menu and strategic consulting firm Menu Matters, told NBC.

Burger King has recently introduced a line of Cheesy Breakfast Melts to add excitement to its breakfast menu, and after halting breakfast offerings during the height of the pandemic, Taco Bell serves breakfast once again and has introduced several variations of the Toasted Breakfast Burrito.

Convenience stores, meanwhile, are upping their breakfast game by offering low-cost breakfast sandwiches, two-for-one deals and discounts on coffee. It’s all part of their battle with QSRs to draw traffic away from fast-feeders (read more about “Competing With QSRS” in the May issue of NACS Magazine).

Early this year, Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s rolled out the Toastwich, a hand-held sandwich of made-from-scratch pizza dough and traditional breakfast fixings, such as eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese.

“It’s highly craveable, it’s highly portable, it’s value priced and it’s something unique that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Darren Rebelez, president and CEO, Casey’s.

Along with the Loaded Breakfast Bowl and Loaded Breakfast Burrito, which the chain added last year, the Toastwich has revived interest in Casey’s morning menu. In March, Casey’s announced that breakfast daypart same-store sales were up 17% from the same period a year ago.

Wawa has expanded its breakfast lineup to include Bacon & White Cheddar Egg Bites, part of its Sizzli sandwich menu. Two Egg Bites come with each order. And the Pennsylvania-based retailer recently introduced a limited edition Peanut Butter Fudge Coffee, along with new handcrafted frozen coffee and frozen refresher drinks.

Parker’s Kitchen, based in Savannah, Georgia, lures in guests with Southern favorites like biscuits and sausage gravy, Southern-style breakfast bowl, fish and grits, egg casserole, chicken tender biscuits and other morning favorites.

In April, 7-Eleven launched a new maple-flavored sausage, egg and cheese taquito, available all day, and customers can pair a taquito with any sized iced coffee for $1. For 7Rewards members, each purchase of a breakfast taquito comes with 100 bonus points.

With inflation at its highest in four decades, grocery prices are soaring, squeezing consumers’ wallets.

“It’s more about the value proposition than the increasingly outdated idea that value is cheap prices,” Webster told NBC. “Because, in the end, cheap prices mean cheap food, and with competition increasing [quick service restaurants] need to seriously consider how they are creating ownable and defensible competition points of differentiation.”

Here’s how convenience retailers are reawakening the morning daypart.

A recent Harvard Business Review study on loyalty programs found three takeaways for loyalty programs. NACS Magazine dove into loyalty programs and how they can provide convenience retailers with critical consumer insights and a competitive edge.