Morning Glory

The flailing fast food industry has an unlikely savior: breakfast sandwiches.

A McDonald’s Steak-n-Egg Mcmuffin, April 5, 2014.
A McDonald’s steak, egg, and cheese McMuffin.

Courtesy of RPavich/Flickr

Reinvention is never easy, but for McDonald’s and its burger- and taco-slinging peers, it’s become essential. And the Golden Arches are creaking under the pressure.

With consumers ditching fast food for fresher, healthier-seeming options, McDonald’s has tried to woo them back by phasing out some antibiotics from its meat, giving Ronald McDonald a makeover, arguing (using science!) that the McRib isn’t gross, and calling one of its chicken sandwiches “artisan.” It’s asked customers to “pay with lovin’ ” instead of dollars, and, in what can only be interpreted as an awkward pitch to millennials, last week even recast the Hamburglar as a stubble-faced rake in skinny jeans. Still, global sales keep sliding, now for 11 months straight. More than ever before, McDonald’s and the larger fast food sector need a savior.

Already, though, a source of partial salvation is emerging. And it happens to be the one thing fast food doesn’t need to rebrand: breakfast sandwiches.

Dunkin’ Donuts executives are touting their breakfast innovations on earnings calls, while Taco Bell has volleyed biscuit tacos and morning wraps at the masses. When Starbucks reported its second-quarter earnings in late April, executives pointed excitedly to a 35 percent increase in breakfast sandwich sales since the same period in 2014, led by a demand for new selections like a spinach and feta wrap and a reduced-fat turkey bacon, egg, and cheese. For McDonald’s, the standard-bearer of its industry and now the epitome of its woes, breakfast has remained a lone bright spot. The Big Mac may have fallen out of favor, but the Egg McMuffin is as beloved as ever.

That’s been the case for decades, of course. In 1971 Herb Peterson, a McDonald’s franchisee in Santa Barbara, California, decided the chain could use a morning option similar to eggs Benedict, but without the mess of Hollandaise sauce or the involved preparation of poached eggs. As company legend has it, Peterson settled on an egg, cheese, and Canadian bacon combination, then devised his own utensil—a six-ring tool that could be placed on the grill to cook eggs in precise English muffin–sized circles—to produce half a dozen of them at a time. The Egg McMuffin debuted on McDonald’s menu nationwide in 1975.

Since then, McDonald’s has taken the Egg McMuffin and run with it. The Golden Arches now offers an Egg McMuffin with sausage, with cheese and steak, with just cheese, and with egg whites. Similar ensembles can be purchased on biscuits, on bagels, and on maple-flavored griddlecakes. At competing chains, breakfast sandwiches have proliferated as well. Dunkin’ Donuts sandwiches come on bagels, biscuits, croissants, and, of course, on doughnuts. Late last month, the company added guacamole. Starbucks, which expanded its morning offerings after acquiring La Boulange Bakery in 2012, seems to aim for the middle ground between “hungrier than breakfast” and “not quite ready for lunch.” Taco Bell launched its breakfast menu and questioned the existential form of the taco last year when it introduced the biscuit taco and the (now sadly killed) waffle taco. Since then, the chain has aimed advertising napalm at McDonald’s far more staid morning menu. In 2014, Taco Bell recruited real-life people named Ronald McDonald to declare their love for Taco Bell’s breakfast; this year, the fast food Mexican chain parodied the dystopian aesthetic of the Hunger Games movies in order to not so subtly declare McDonald’s an oppressively boring breakfast dictator. One way or another, Taco Bell’s efforts seem to be working; breakfast now makes up 6 percent of the chain’s sales.

As companies have rethought what can go in breakfast sandwiches, they’ve also stretched how late they’re willing to serve them. After years of telling customers its kitchens couldn’t handle breakfast prep past 10:30 a.m., McDonald’s said in March that it would test serving a limited breakfast selection all day. Taco Bell’s breakfast menu is available until 11 a.m.—half an hour longer than McDonald’s. Starbucks and Dunkin’, whose menus are more generally morning-focused, serve their breakfast sandwiches throughout the day. “It’s become crucial for fast food companies to be successful during breakfast times, and as a result of that we’re kind of seeing them shift some of the conventional norms about when breakfast should be served,” says Andrew Alvarez, fast food analyst for financial intelligence firm IBISWorld.

Is it the sandwiches, or is it us? Analysts and company executives attribute breakfast sandwich enthusiasm to the modern worker’s harried, time-scarce lifestyle. A well-made breakfast sandwich, after all, can be scarfed down with one hand. Beyond that, fast food insiders say the demand for all-day breakfast has been fueled by a rise in unconventional work hours. People who start and stay at work later might still want breakfast food at the top of their days. Others, lacking the time to sit down for a proper meal at any point, might find a breakfast sandwich the best cross between snack and satiation.

“In our 24/7 world, consumers want what they want, when they want it,” Chris Fuqua, vice president for brand marketing at Dunkin’ Brands, writes in an email. “We are seeing breakfast permeate through the entire day and Dunkin’ Donuts is a great destination for on-the-go people who want a quick bite or a meal any time of day.”

This change is particularly apparent in urban areas, which is one reason why Alvarez says many new breakfast and delivery concepts are getting trial runs in cities. McDonald’s is conducting its all-day breakfast experiment at 94 restaurants in the San Diego area. Starbucks is testing delivery in its native Seattle and in the Empire State Building, as well as an “express” store on Wall Street. The breakfast sandwich boom also isn’t limited to cheap fast food. BEC, a new restaurant coming to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, plans to sell fancy bacon, egg, and cheeses at a premium from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. Five Guys, the fast-casual burger chain, offers a simple breakfast menu in select locations (one of them is in Washington; a Slate editor there describes the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich as “incredible”).

Why else are breakfast sandwiches taking off? For one, they tend to be profitable. “In the same way that dessert offers higher profit margins for traditional restaurants, breakfast offers higher margins for fast food,” Alvarez says. But more than that, most areas for growth in the quick-service food industry are already tapped out. From 2007 to 2012, breakfast sales in the U.S. rose by roughly 5 percent a year, according to data from food research and consulting firm Technomic; sales of other meals essentially remained flat. McDonald’s has long dominated breakfast with $30 billion-plus in sales, but now other chains want a piece, and sandwiches are their way in. “What we’re seeing is a new, untapped market, and a lot of attention to that market until it becomes saturated,” Alvarez says.

Yet amid this frenzy of breakfast innovation—sandwiches moving from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., English muffins giving way to biscuits topped with orange jalapeño honey—the classics have endured. The Egg McMuffin, whether with Canadian bacon or with sausage, remains an almost untouchably ideal breakfast option. Why? For starters, it’s steadfast. When you order a wrap with eggs and spinach and turkey bacon, you might not know exactly what to expect. But an egg and cheese sandwich is timeless in its reliability. The McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, in particular, is dependable and beautifully portable in a way that more gourmet morning sandwiches aren’t. Five Guys’ version might come on a sumptuous hamburger bun, but can you really hold it with one hand and prevent the insides from spilling out?

Breakfast as it pertains to the modern worker shouldn’t be a time for experimentation; we don’t need a “better burger” for the morning. The egg and cheese is a classic because it lands perfectly between delicious and utilitarian. It’s filling but not overwhelming, tasty but not decadent, safe but not boring. The very appearance of the Egg McMuffin is evidence of this: In order to work, it requires both mechanical reproducibility (the well-proportioned egg, the geometric circle of Canadian bacon) and room for small imperfections (the cheese dripping off one side, a slightly burnt English muffin). In the world of breakfast sandwiches, the Egg McMuffin is the true incumbent. No wonder Taco Bell’s breakfast insurgents are calling for its head.