Ideas for creatively serving up this comforting, popular meal
By Connie Jeske Crane
Some decades ago, South Carolina-based chef and food writer Belinda Smith-Sullivan started her work life as a flight attendant based out of New York. “Back then we were called ‘stewardesses,’ just to give you an idea how long ago that was,” she says with a chuckle.
It was then, in between jetting the globe and sampling new cuisines, that Smith-Sullivan first came to love brunch. Her latest cookbook, Let’s Brunch: 100 Recipes for the Best Meal of the Week—released in September by publisher Gibbs Smith—celebrates that love. Originally, Smith-Sullivan says, brunch was simply the easiest way for her and her roommates to entertain in their sixth-floor walk-up. “I could get friends to come every Sunday and climb the endless stairs for a champagne brunch—that, by the way, did not break the bank!”
Smith-Sullivan’s warm reminiscences, not to mention her beautiful recipes, epitomize what most of us love about a good brunch. A casual vibe, affordability, tantalizing food…and did we mention the socially acceptable chance to down cocktails before noon? What’s not to like?
For caterers, brunch is equally appealing, and food industry reports consistently note its roaring popularity. (See sidebar on p. 35 for more details.)
However, plying garden-variety eggs benny and OJ isn’t going to net you Instagram raves or a flurry of bookings. According to industry analysts, as comfy as the format is, brunch requires real creativity and hard work. As Datassential recently noted: “Today, a significant portion of customers are seeking opportunities to experience new and unique foods. Millennials, specifically, are very adventurous and interested in on-trend breakfast foods.”
With that challenge in mind, not to mention industry changes due to COVID-19, we talked to Sullivan and caterers with brunch expertise. What’s inspiring them in the kitchen? How are they staying safe? And how are they preparing for this unusual holiday season? Here are key strategies they shared:
1 | Bring on the adventure
As noted, we’re witnessing big-time cravings for novel and global flavors today. In 2019, for example, the Prepared Foods InfoCenter reported morning diners hankering after things like Japanese-style breakfast sandwiches, African breakfast grains and shakshuka (a North African/Middle Eastern dish featuring eggs simmered in tomato sauce, onions and spices).
For caterers, if so much choice feels a bit bewildering, it’s helpful to break it down, to think of this in terms of balance, curiosity and building on your strengths. Smith-Sullivan, for example, who has Mississippi roots, says she developed a love of Mediterranean flavors through travel and now weaves it into recipes—like her Italian Baked Eggs and Sausage in Marinara Sauce. “I love that Mediterranean profile,” she says. “It’s simple, elegant, full of herbs and citrus, so that’s what I’ve done with the book.” Smith-Sullivan says culinary friends are invariably pleasantly surprised by her innovative twists on Southern dishes.
In Flemington, N.J., Market Roost Restaurant, Catering & Bakery is a longstanding local favorite for brunch. And while the beloved Sunday brunch is on hold due to COVID, Carol Todd, co-owner with her husband Norman Todd, says catering continues, albeit with scaled-back events, mostly at clients’ homes. Peruse the Todds’ brunch catering menu, and you’ll find that winning balance of comfort and adventure. Beyond staples like frittatas, quiche and scones (apricot almond, cranberry pecan, lemon currant), it’s packed with small delights and ambitious plates with a decidedly Old World bent. The menu ranges from French crepes, savory pastries, fresh mango fritters, polenta and a whole smoked stuffed whitefish, to a miniature pastry selection, including raspberry Linzer tarts, mini cannoli and dulce de leche triangles. “All made in-house,” notes Carol, who’s also a pastry chef.
By contrast, Fuwa Fuwa Japanese Pancakes—with four locations in the Greater Toronto area—does a more focused business. Riding a wave of interest in Asian breakfast traditions, Fuwa Fuwa (which translates as “fluffy fluffy”) specializes in sky-high Japanese soufflé pancakes, offering catering alongside its restaurant business. Benson Lau, the business director, says catering customers want pancakes for events like weddings. “We deliver pancakes to their location or, if they’re willing to pay extra for service, we can handcraft our pancakes onsite.”
To maintain freshness with the drop-off business, there’s one presentation tweak. “We put pancakes in a box and all the toppings on the side,” Lau says, so customers decorate their own pancakes with such toppings as fresh cream, sauces and fruit. A rotating selection of seasonal fruit toppings, plus Japanese desserts like cheesecake and interesting drinks—Iced Matcha Latte and Mango Soda, for example—add excitement to the menu.
2 | Add new twists
Another winning strategy is to simply rethink favorites. Smith-Sullivan’s recipe for Blackened Catfish on Herb Grits with Pineapple Relish, for example, is a playful take on shrimp and grits, and seems to delight Southerners especially, she says.
Switching out proteins works similarly. A 2018 Mintel report tracked new “protein competition” at breakfast, listing the sudden popularity of chicken in the morning, plus Greek yogurt, plant-based proteins, seafood and higher quality meats.
3 | Dress up the drinks
Well-conceived cocktails are also key with bold brunch flavors. Smith-Sullivan includes numerous cocktails in her cookbook, leveraging trending flavors like blood orange, cucumber and grapefruit.
In North Augusta, S.C., Julie Nye-McNeely, of Something So Right Events, caters more brunch weddings all the time, and says guests flock to well-stocked mimosa and Bloody Mary bars. “You have your olives, celery, shrimp that you can add to it, or cilantro…. You can make a whole meal out of a Bloody Mary bar if you do it right!”
4 | Get practical
As for COVID safety, caterers share a new normal of masks, shields, hand hygiene, smaller events and social distancing. There are also the expected changes to buffets (pretty much out for now) and food stations. Since guests aren’t serving themselves, Nye-McNeely is scheduling more attendants to serve up omelets and drinks. “We are definitely using more staff than we did before,” she says.
COVID aside, brunch always requires an early start and care with staffing, says Nye-McNeely. “You have to get staff that are morning people.”
On the plus side, caterers say many brunch elements—from grits to egg dishes and drink mixes—can be made ahead. “There’s a lot of prep that you can do the day before,” says Nye-McNeely.
5 | Prepare for the holidays
As much as the holidays are normally a boon to caterers, 2020 will be different. Due to COVID restrictions, all caterers we talked to expect scaled-back affairs. “I’ve talked to other caterers, and we just aren’t sure what’s going to happen just because of the rise in COVID,” says Nye-McNeely. “We’re not sure if people are going to have the holiday parties they normally might.”
Nye-McNeely—who recently started offering delivery lunches and frozen dinners—plans to offer more brunch drop-off catering for the holidays. “We’re going to do our signature brunch casserole, a cinnamon raisin French toast casserole, and then just your traditional egg casseroles.”
While events may be scaled back, Lau says festive recipes will roll out as usual at Fuwa Fuwa (including a tiramisu-themed pancake).
6 | Adapt your business
While the holidays may be the ideal time to promote drop-off brunch packages—a strategy many caterers employed successfully for Mother’s Day 2020—don’t forget the day-to-day opportunities. More people working from home due to the pandemic means customers may even want to order drop-off brunches on weekdays.
Bagel chain Einstein Bros. Bagels, for example, recently started tapping into this trend by launching Everyday Brunch Specials, which can be ordered ahead via mobile app or delivered via DoorDash. The specials—meant to feed one, two or six—include such options as bagel sandwiches, bagels with shmear, twice-baked hash browns, chocolate croissants and blueberry muffins.
In true entrepreneur fashion, caterers and restaurants are switching up their business models to meet the brunch demands of consumers’ taste buds and lifestyles—even as routines change due to COVID. •
Brunch: Trends and Statistics
General: According to Datassential, in 2018, brunch was on 5.8% of American menus but expected to grow by 17% in the next four years. In 2019, nearly one in four restaurant operators reported an increase in brunch sales over the preceding year.
Weddings: Industry sites like The Knot have noted the rise of wedding brunch formats.
Social gatherings: According to Mintel 2017 research, about 40 percent of those surveyed value brunch as a time to socialize with friends and family.
Business: Nation’s Restaurant News reports many work meetings now happen over brunch.
Consumer preferences: Datassential found consumer decisions are influenced by made-to-order food, customizability and variety of choices.
For More Information
Belinda Smith-Sullivan • chefbelindaspices.com
Einstein Bros. Bagels • einsteinbros.com
Fuwa Fuwa Japanese Pancakes • fuwafuwapancakes.com
Something So Right Events • facebook.com/somethingsorightevents
Market Roost Restaurant, Catering & Bakery • marketroost.com