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Join the (breakfast) club

Where is breakfast going? In North America, big breakfast buffets are fading into quick-service outlets just about as fast as they can be built, and big-box buffets are quickly dissolving into grab-and-go fixtures. Breakfast — once the moneymaker and power meal of hotels that supplanted their (possibly) lazy or non-existent dinner business — is being pared down and, in many cases, abandoned for faster, cheaper and healthier products that generally exist in independent coffee shops only a few steps outside the doors of most urban hotels.

The other day I was traveling and having breakfast in a hotel. I ordered some low-fat yogurt and berries (I was planning to mix them together), but when they came there were two tiny bowls — very cute, but this made it impossible to mix the two together. It took another five to 10 minutes to get the server back, who was then able to bring me a bowl large enough for the mixture. Afterward, thinking I needed something else as I had a 2 p.m. flight and would probably not have time for lunch, I ordered some whole-wheat toast. When it arrived it was already soggy with butter, which I am sure was butter that had been brushed on in the kitchen. There were jams on the table but the container held only four, three of which were the same. I had noticed people getting up and going to empty tables to get jam, and I now understood why. 

Breakfast is not difficult, but it does take a bit of thinking. Perhaps because it is early for servers, too, that second level of thinking is slow to fire up. 

Breakfast also is becoming more simplified as more quick-service options arrive on the scene. There are plenty of Starbucks locations, and nearly every city has its own homegrown coffee roaster and coffee shops. Why is US$20 for yogurt, berries and toast okay?

Many big conference hotels say the buffet helps attract large groups going to their conference meetings, but more often than not, that conference has (at the very least) its own continental breakfast. With a global emphasis on obesity and health, when will hotels learn their lesson? A US$20 or US$30 buffet breakfast is a waste of time and money.

In the United States, breakfast is morphing as fast as it can from an expensive, low-food-cost meal period to a low-cost, low-check-average, low-labor-cost meal period. This is a trend that is here to stay.

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