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The cultural transformation of the American breakfast


good morning breakfastOccasion-based business strategy is nothing new in the food business. But the current frenzy of breakfast strategizing is certainly one of the more intense episodes in an industry struggling for organic volume growth. It is our belief that the cultural transformation of breakfast is unleashing new business opportunities behind the headlines. 

Widespread success began, more or less, with the popularity of Jimmy Dean frozen breakfast sandwiches and bowls about a decade ago. Sara Lee also set off a competitive surge of launches in the frozen convenience breakfast space, many of which continue to do well. 

In retrospect, it is 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 we’ve all had microwaves for quite a while). Most of these products take a version of the iconic McDonald’s Egg McMuffin and transform it into contemporary forms for all sorts of dietary preferences. 

Consider this for a moment longer: Multiple major food companies launch big product lines for an underdeveloped occasion in a declining sector, frozen foods, and virtually everyone is succeeding. This is not a common tale in contemporary packaged foods. It is even more remarkable than Greek yogurt, because the latter was at least birthed into a long-term growth category in American food culture. 

And therein lies an ironic coincidence. Both Greek yogurt and frozen breakfast bowls and sandwiches have reinvented the breakfast marketplace due to longer-term structural changes in the meaning and practice of morning eating. Cookies may be next.

Before we jump to our explanation, though, it will be easier to explain changes in breakfast demand from a historical perspective. 

In the 19th century, most Americans worked either in the agricultural or manufacturing sectors. They engaged in heavy to light manual labor all day long and burned a large amount of calories as a result. The men, especially, had more or less no time for lunch. American farmers wanted to stay in the fields, not trek back to the farmhouse. And factory workers did not always have lunch breaks in a pre-union age. In an era often romanticized by foodies and organic-food advocates, breakfast was just not the ‘proactive health and wellness occasion’ we view it as today. It was a mundane fuel occasion designed to onboard lots of calories to burn throughout the day. And cheap access to eggs and meat for many Americans made this possible in ways their counterparts in other parts of the world would have envied. 

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 and others helped redefine breakfast as a health and wellness occasion, a nutritional moment, for a middle class of clerks and bureaucrats 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 middle-class existence 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 echoed in interviews across America to this day. In essence, breakfast transformed from an energy/satiety occasion to an eating occasion focused on emerging notions of targeted nutrition. 

Fast forward to 2014: What we’re seeing today in the field is actually an ironic, even mystifying, partial return to the demand drivers of the 19th-century farmer, even though today’s consumers don’t require as many calories. The difference is in the cultural rationale and context behind the change. 

Modern middle-class 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.’ Although behavioral data suggest most consumers eat four or five times a day,  anxiety over energy remains powerful. It is really an anxiety about underperformance in an increasingly competitive era. 

While many marketers are obsessed with protein gram count as the driver of the new wave of breakfast foods, the real driver is not nutrition. It is the spread of a renovated American ideology of energy, one based on 21st-century ideals of increased performance and productivity combined with a desire for a morning insurance policy against an uncertain day ahead. 

The new American weekday breakfast is moving from light, grain-based breakfast foods tied to old notions of nutrition to higher-satiety foods that consumers believe will give them sustained energy to cope with an unpredictable schedule. Traditional categories need to focus on making consumers feel full like the modern disruptors are doing so well: 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. 

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FOOD SHOPPING IN AMERICA 2017

As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.

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