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Huevos Rancheros from The Painted Burro, Somerville, Mass.
Huevos Rancheros from The Painted Burro in Somerville, Mass.
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Dos Ricardos from Compadres Rio Grille
Dos Ricardos from Compadres Rio Grille in Napa, Calif.
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Huevos Rancheros at Fuego Loco in Oak Park, Illinois
Huevos Rancheros from Fuego Loco in Oak Park, Ill.
Breakfast/Brunch is a growing profit Center for Mexican/Latin restaurants
By Ed Avis
Nutritionists always tell us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and it’s becoming quite important for a lot of Mexican and Latin restaurants, too. Restaurant breakfast sales were predicted to reach $47 billion by the end of 2013, according to research from Packaged Facts. And a 2014 National Restaurant Association poll found that ethnic breakfasts are a top trend.
“You can’t go wrong with brunch, especially with Mexican food,” says Robert Medina, who last November began serving weekend brunch at Fuego Loco, his Mexican restaurant in Oak Park, Ill.
Indeed, breakfast and brunch are important dayparts for an increasing number of Mexican and Latin restaurants that are using creative dishes and promotions to attract a hungry morning to midday crowd.
Successful breakfast/brunch operators report that the first key to morning success is creating a menu that attracts attention.
“You really have to branch out if you want to do something special,” says Deborah Schneider, executive chef/partner of SOL Mexican Cocina, which has locations in Newport Beach, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz. “If your brunch is special, that’s attractive to new customers and your regulars.”
The dishes likely to beckon breakfast and brunch diners are often variations of the high- flavor, high-carb dishes found on later mealtime menus.
For example, at The Painted Burro, a Mexican restaurant in Somerville, Mass., the most popular brunch dish is the El Montanero Superbeasto. “It’s really our hungry-man’s breakfast,” says Joe Cassinelli, the restaurant’s chef/owner. “It’s kind of like a huevos rancheros that’s been turbo charged.” This giant dish starts with a crispy tortilla and includes charro beans, fried plantains, homemade chorizo, Spanish rice, two fried eggs, chicharron, chipotle mayo, and baja cream.
Fuego Loco also serves big breakfast meals, which Medina says pleases the “hangover crowd.” His best-selling brunch item is the Mexican Skillet—fried potatoes, poblano peppers, onions and meat topped with cheese and two eggs.
Schneider serves a wide range of Mexican-themed items on her brunch menu, though something simple—the Breakfast Burrito—is her best-seller. It features huevos Mexicanos, refried black beans, cheese, avocado, pico de gallo, and pickled jalapeños and onions wrapped in a Sonoran-style flour tortilla. “We’re not really a burrito place, but we sell a lot of them at breakfast,” Schneider says.
At Compadres Rio Grille in Napa, Calif., the No. 1 item on the breakfast menu is the Dos Ricardos, a meat and bean dish topped with three eggs and the customer’s choice of sauce. A large portion of Huevos Rancheros is also on the menu. “We’re sort of known for good-sized portions and good value, that’s the deal,” says Owner Rick Enos, one of the two Ricks for whom the Dos Ricardos was named (the other was his former partner).
But it is one traditional dish—chilaquiles—that graces the breakfast and brunch menus of all four restaurants interviewed for this article. This dish comes in several variations (for example, the Painted Burro adds pork charro beans and braised chicken), but all include sautéed or fried tortilla strips covered with a tomato-based sauce, onions, cheese, and eggs.
AMERICAN FAVES, LATIN FLAVES
Many successful ethnic-inspired brunch menus also include American dishes with Latin twists. “We need to blend what Americans are looking for in brunch with our Mexican-style theme,” Cassinelli explains.
Take French toast, for example. At The Painted Burro, it is topped with caramelized plantains, while at Fuego Loco, patrons can get their French toast topped with Abuelita chocolate crème anglaise.
Schneider of SOL Cocina takes Latin-themed French toast to an even higher level. According to the menu, the restaurant’s Souffle Carlotta is a “rich & creamy bread pudding spiked with Patron Citronge & lemon zest, butter-sauteed & drizzled with organic agave syrup, topped with mango, berries, vanilla whipped cream, almonds & powdered sugar.”
Eggs Benedict, another staple of American brunch and breakfast menus, also gets the Latin treatment on Mexican menus. The Painted Burro’s Benedict resembles the traditional version, but includes refried beans and smoked-chile hollandaise. In Compadres Rio Grill’s Eggs Benedict Olé, eggs rest atop fresh corn sopes instead of the usual English muffins.
Another key piece of advice successful operators offer is to make sure as many brunch/ breakfast ingredients as possible are also used on the lunch and dinner menus.
“There’s an economy in using what’s in-house already instead of bringing in new product,” Cassinelli says. At The Painted Burro, the sauces and meats for breakfast dishes are the same as those used at lunch and dinner. “The only things that are different are the English muffins and the bacon.”
Enos reports the same at Compadres Rio Grill. “The only thing we need to order [specifically] for our breakfast is breakfast potatoes,” he says. “Other than that virtually everything else is what we use all day.”
When you first launch your breakfast or brunch, you may find waitstaff reluctant to work the shift because they’ll earn fewer tips. Bar staff might also feel under-compensated, since brunch usually requires a full bar even though many diners do not order alcoholic beverages that early in the day.
At The Painted Burro, Cassinelli addressed that situation by increasing the base hourly wage of servers and bar staff until business became good enough that tips picked up.
Schneider, in contrast, simply tried to balance the waitstaff shifts between good and weak when she began brunch service. Now that SOL Cocina’s brunch is successful that’s no longer an issue. “Now they do very, very well. We sometimes run a higher check average at brunch than at dinner,” she says.
Enos says he was fortunate to find Compadres Rio Grill staff who enjoy working weekends. “We have a manager who loves working the weekends and is an early-rising kind of guy,” he says. “He gets Thursday and Friday off and he loves it. He can play golf on Thursday and always get a tee time.”
Recognize that the customers who come to breakfast or brunch are often not the same as those who patronize your restaurant for lunch or dinner, the operators interviewed for this article suggest.
“I love the guys who come in with two newspapers, start with a Bloody Mary and end with
a coffee, and in between have a good breakfast,” Enos says. “People at breakfast are relaxed compared to lunch, when they have to get back to work.”
While accommodating those patrons may mean preparing for less-frequent turnover of tables, the slow pace also can take some of the pressure off of staff.
On the other hand, some brunches attract more families with small children, which presents a different challenge. Cassinelli has youngsters of his own, so he knows customers bringing kids to The Painted Burro want quick service.
“We get a lot more families for brunch, so we do whatever makes the kids happy, such as serving them hot dogs, fruit salad, or cheese quesadillas,” he says. “We understand that families have a very specific window of time when they have their kids with them.”
Likewise, Medina knows that making the kids happy is key to making parents happy. “My whole thing is to make the restaurant family-friendly,” Medina says. “When the parents feel like their kids are welcome, they come more often.”
Whatever your approach to breakfast and brunch, perhaps the best advice is the simplest: Give it time! It may take many months for the mealtime to catch on with patrons. Even regular customers who love your place for dinner may not think of you for breakfast at first.
“You have to train your guests that you’re open for breakfast and stay consistent. Don’t give up too early,” Cassinelli advises. “It’s taken a year and a half to build up our brunch. There will be peaks and valleys—you just need to work to make the peaks a little taller and the valleys a little less deep.”
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