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The cultural transformation of the American breakfast

5 min read

Food Retail

(Photo: Flickr user calamity_hane)

Almost every sector of the food and beverage industry (restaurant operators, food retailers and CPG brands) is intently focused on “the breakfast occasion.” And for good reason: ongoing Hartman Group tracking of food and beverage occasions shows that almost a third (32%) of eating and drinking events occur in the morning.

In our contemporary eating culture there are fewer rules about what to eat and drink. We often idealize having three balanced meals but rarely actually eat that way. This explains why we now see half of all eating and drinking occasions classified by consumers as snacking occasions. America’s cultural transition to a snacking culture is altering consumers’ shopping and eating behaviors and changing the meaning of the breakfast daypart.

When we take a deeper look at the 32% of morning meal or snack occasions, we find that consumers describe 15% of these as “breakfast,” 8% as pre-breakfast “early morning snacks” and 9% as post-breakfast “morning snack.”

Whether viewed as morning snack or meal, with about a third of eating occasions occurring in the morning, the cultural transformation of breakfast is unleashing new business opportunities for diverse food and beverage marketers.

The proliferation of premium fresh brewed coffee, egg sandwiches, oatmeal and premium distinctions that various restaurant and food retailers are serving up to entice consumers to breakfast (e.g., artisanal breads, steel-cut oats, free-range eggs) is well-documented. But it is important to remember that part of the modern cultural transformation of breakfast began in the frozen foods aisle of the grocery store about a decade ago with the introduction of Jimmy Dean frozen breakfast sandwiches (and later, breakfast bowls).

In retrospect, it’s surprising that no manufacturer had thought to freeze the American sausage-and-egg combination earlier. Certainly there was no manufacturing or R&D barrier to doing so (and certainly the microwave has been in households even longer). Most of these products are some reimagined version of the iconic McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.

This isn’t the first go-round for changes in the breakfast daypart.

In the 19th century, most Americans worked either in the agricultural or manufacturing sectors and breakfast was not the ‘proactive health and wellness occasion’ many perceive it today. It was a mundane fuel occasion designed to intake lots of calories to burn throughout the day. Cheap access to eggs and meat for many Americans made this possible.

At the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Kellogg, Dr. Post and others appeared on the scene to challenge American breakfast traditions just as the middle class began to grow. They helped redefine breakfast as a health and wellness occasion, a nutritional moment, for a middle class of workers who had time to eat lunch (at work or at home) and generally did. For this group, breakfast was less important not only because their lifestyle and social status allowed time for lunch but primarily because they didn’t perform manual labor all day long and did not need what many now term a ‘heavy’ or ‘weekend’ breakfast.  The morning meal was transformed into a light bowl of grains and milk for this emerging middle class, a social group increasingly focused on the emerging American ideals of self-improvement that we all take for granted today.

During the 20th century, cereal especially helped redefine breakfast as a health and wellness moment. Breakfast beverages also arose to give us a heavy dose of scientific nutrition to start our day. “Starting our day right” became a cultural mantra that we still hear in consumer interviews across America to this day. In essence, breakfast transformed from an energy and satiety occasion to an eating occasion focused on emerging notions of targeted nutrition.

Today we’re witnessing an ironic, even mystifying, partial return to the demand drivers of the 19th-century farmer, even though modern consumers don’t require as many calories. The difference is in the cultural rationale and context behind the change.

Modern workers are willing to sabotage daily eating routines in favor of ‘an important meeting,’ ‘a Facebook post that is outrageous and must be answered,’ ‘a nagging email or SMS message’ or ‘simple daydreaming.’ This de-ritualization of eating creates real, palpable uncertainty as the day starts, uncertainty about ‘when I can eat and what I’ll have time to eat.’

The new American weekday breakfast is moving from light, grain-based breakfast foods tied to old notions of nutrition to include snacking and higher-satiety foods that consumers believe will give them sustained energy to cope with an unpredictable schedule. Anxiety over energy remains powerful in breakfast occasions, yet it must be understood that the anxiety is about underperformance in an increasingly competitive era. Consumers are anxious for a morning insurance policy against an uncertain day ahead. This is why they focus on protein as the source for sustained energy.

Traditional categories need to focus on making consumers feel full as currently accomplished by modern disruptors like Greek yogurt, nutrient-dense bars and breakfast sandwiches.  Finally, an upmarket twist also has emerged: the nutrient-dense breakfast sandwich. Panera’s spinach power sandwich is slowly making the rounds in many an office park, allowing those who believe breakfast should be full of nutritious goodness the ability to fill up for an uncertain day ahead as well.

More information on The Hartman Group Eating Occasions Compass is available here.

As CEO, Laurie Demeritt provides strategic and operational leadership for The Hartman Group’s research and consulting teams. The Hartman Group is recognized for its ability to blend qualitative, quantitative and trends research to help clients develop marketing strategies. For more information about The Hartman Group, visit contact Blaine Becker, senior director of marketing at: [email protected]


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