Brunch Nation: Why It's Hottest Meal of the Year

The recession has turned us into a people who brunch. It makes sense that in hard times, a restaurant outing that combines two meals into one would become as hot as jalapeño-cheddar frittata. The latest restaurant traffic numbers reflect the trend, with the number of brunch-goers rising more than 8% in 2009 (through August), while traffic for breakfast, lunch and dinner all collapsed like a botched soufflé, according to the market research firm NPD Group.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Restaurateurs across the nation confirm their brunch business has remained strong amid what NPD describes as the weakest environment for eateries in nearly three decades. Erin Rooney, owner of the market-driven American restaurants Slow Club and Serpentine in San Francisco, says her business overall has fared well in the recession. "But far and away, brunch has seen the least impact," she says.

A Different Financial Commitment

Rooney attributes brunch's success to a lower check average than dinner's, with diners spending $12 to $15 on brunch versus $30 to $45 a head on the evening meal. "Brunch still feels like a special outing, especially more than lunch, which is a quick bite to eat," says Rooney, whose brunch menu at Slow Club includes such upscale offerings as sweet risotto and bourbon French toast. "It's a more social time to get together and maybe have a drink. But it's not the same financial commitment as dinner."

There may be other reasons for brunch's growing popularity this year, reversing last year's 2.4% traffic decline for the meal, which usually occurs around midday. For couples with young kids, going out to brunch with the children can end up being cheaper than dinner for two, as a night out often involves paying for a babysitter. "We definitely see the most kids at brunch," says Rooney.

The bigger brunch boom may actually be occurring at restaurants that are less upscale than ones like Rooney's, says NPD restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs, noting that the average check for the meal nationally is just $6.48 for the year. "You are not going to get anything for $6.48 at the high end," says Riggs. Except maybe an expertly made cappuccino.

What Is Brunch, Really?

Brunch business jumped 19% at "grilled buffet" restaurants like Old Country Buffet and 13% at family-dining joints like Denny's (DENN) and IHOP (DIN). Meantime, brunch business at fine-dining establishments fell by a percentage in the double digits, Riggs says. "It's not the high end that is driving the growth," she says.

But, she cautions, NPD's figures are self-reported, meaning that customers provide feedback about where and when they ate a meal, making the definition of brunch admittedly a little elastic. "If they're at a hamburger place and eating between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., they're likely to call that brunch," she says.

If there's some confusion about what brunch actually is, it's no surprise. The twofer meal is actually the youngest of "meal occasions," as the restaurant industry refers to meals out. The first published mention of the word is thought to have come in a British magazine called Hunter's Weekly in 1895. "To be fashionable nowadays we must 'brunch,'" says an article in the Aug. 1, 1896, issue of the magazine Punch. "Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter's Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch."

Nightmare Year For Restaurants

Brunch's good fortune -- brunch traffic is up 8.2% for the year -- compared with the rest of the meal occasions has been the one saving grace in an otherwise miserable year for the restaurant industry. Traffic was down 1% for breakfast, 2% for lunch and 4% for supper, Riggs says. Sales overall year-over-year are down too, she adds, an unprecedented occurrence.

"This is the first time we've actually seen sales declines," Riggs says. "Even when traffic was down in the past, operators had been able to pass high food inflation onto consumers, so checks were up."

One big food-industry casualty of the recession appears to have been the power lunch, says a recent story on DailyFinance. The decline of corporate wining and dining comes despite the fact that more than a third of chief financial officers say their most successful business meetings outside the office were conducted over meals, the article reports.

'A Pretty Rough Ride' Ahead

The restaurant industry overall isn't expected to make a comeback before the second half of 2010, Riggs says. "The industry is still in for a pretty rough ride," she says. And even when it comes back, it's unclear whether restaurants will see diners return to the free-spending ways of a few years ago, when multicourse meals accompanied by wines from Napa Valley were starting to become a staple, not a luxury. "Consumers have gotten hit harder in this recession than in the past," Riggs says. "It may be different this time around."

Whatever happens, it seems like restaurants won't go wrong if they continue to stock their fridges with bacon, eggs and other brunch fixings.
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