Eggs? Grilled Cheese? Food Chains Say 'Niche' Pays

Ron Green of The Broken Egg Café.

But the other element that sets these concepts apart is the egg itself–inexpensive, nutritious and the Swiss Army knife of the culinary world. “It’s so versatile, you can cook it any way you want,” says Another Broken Egg’s Green (who prefers poached). “You can put it in a salad, use it as a binding agent for sweet stuff. It pairs well with seafood. It has essential amino acids, about 70 calories and all kinds of vitamins–everything you need to round out a healthy diet.”

The other reason the breakfast theme is taking off is that the competition is not against other restaurants, but rather the cereal aisle. “The home is our No. 1 competitor,” Barnett says. “People typically eat at home for that morning daypart, and the more competitors that are marketing and getting people to dine outside for breakfast, the better. It raises all boats.”

Pete Nowak of Columbus, Ohio, is another egg-ophile. He’s hoping for round-the-clock demand for his concept, Eggfast, which will begin expanding throughout Ohio this year, offering a 24-hour quick-serve version of breakfast, including delivery. “Late-night delivery is saturated with pizza and wings, so we’re definitely popular at night,” he says. “But we’re just as popular at 9 a.m. as at 3 a.m. And a surprising number of people come here for dinner, too.”

Hot Concept
The other darlings of the franchise world are restaurants specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches; those eateries began popping up across the country in the last half decade. But while the better breakfast concepts have proved themselves, it remains to be seen whether consumers will be satisfied with grilled cheese at the center of their plates.

Among the players in this space are Grilled Cheese Co., with four locations in Maryland; Chedd’s, with three units in South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin; and San Francisco-based chain The Melt, founded by Flip camera creator Jonathan Kaplan. All are focused on elevating the comfort-food staple to gourmet levels, using international cheeses, artisanal breads and add-ons such as wild mushrooms or black beans.

But Technomic’s Tristano wonders if it’s enough. “We’ve done some research on grilled cheese, and our position is that it’s probably too narrow,” he says. “It’s a great product, but maybe not enough to sustain an entire concept itself. Even with soup, salad and a protein, it might not be substantial enough for dinner.”

His other caveat is that even if the public does go crazy for grilled cheese, it is a product easily co-opted by established restaurants such as Panera Bread or even McDonald’s.

Michael Inwald strongly disagrees. His company, Cheeseboy, which has eight locations in five Northeastern states, is set to begin franchising in earnest later this year. Instead of gourmet offerings, Inwald focuses on a solid sandwich with familiar additions like bacon, turkey, ham, pepperoni or veggies. “We don’t offer brie and apricot vinaigrette, but it’s not Wonder bread and American cheese either. We offer premium mainstream options, like cheddar, provolone, basil and tomatoes,” he says. “We’re trying not to be pretentious. We’re open to everyone.”

While admitting that lunch is Cheeseboy’s biggest meal, Inwald cites the popularity of breakfast grilled cheese with bacon and eggs. “We do a great business throughout the day,” he says. “We are a great snack product, and if you want that, a regular grilled cheese is perfect. But if you want a full meal, just add turkey, spinach and tomato; a cup of soup; potato chips; and a drink. We are really a round-the-clock concept.”

But what if the buzz around breakfast fades, or grilled cheese just doesn’t satisfy for dinner? Many of these franchises say they aren’t keen to expand their menus; instead, they have faith that their core concepts have enough flexibility to change with evolving tastes. “Instead of diluting our brand by offering everything, we want to concentrate on the one thing we do well, and do it better than everyone else,” says Eggfast’s Nowak, who points out that the potential for innovation is huge.

“There is such a wide variety of breakfast-related items we offer,” Nowak says, citing migas (a traditional Mexican scramble); flatbread with pico de gallo salsa; and hash-brown casserole. “There are lots of daypart items that are not so far outside the breakfast theme that we can experiment with. But we aren’t interested in burgers, wings and pizza.”

While Green’s Another Broken Egg does offer sandwiches and burgers, he’s not interested in making them the centerpiece of his menu. “The majority of people coming in for lunch still order egg items,” he says. “We’re always trying to come up with new recipes. Our tag line is ‘Inspiring Eggs to Excellence.’ And we’re always looking for ways to do that.”

Leave a Reply