It started with a few well-known chains offering breakfast muffins and pastries. But getting creative with breakfast can be a way to keep your cash tills ringing all day long. So whether it’s savoury muffins made with cheese and courgettes, or a stock of homemade jam to accompany your fresh buttered toast, the breakfast trade can be a great way to keep your customers coming back for more.

"Breakfast is now spreading far and wide in terms of eating out," says Mintel’s catering analyst Helen Spicer, whose report on breakfast catering last year showed it to be a growth industry.

"With the nation’s healthy eating fixation renewing old mantras such as ’breakfast is the most important meal of the day’, the meal has been garnering renewed importance both in- and out-of-home. A wide number of eating-out outlets are now trying to jump on the breakfast bandwagon, either by building on an already-established good food reputation or as part of a wider move into catering.

"Well-publicised operators moving in this direction include brands such as the pub operator Wetherspoon, coffee shops or even a more niche revival of juice bars in high-footfall urban areas," she adds.

While the outlook was rosy a year ago, the predicted downturn in eating out due to the struggling economy has yet to fully materialise. She points to anecdotal evidence that consumers would rather cut down on the basics, such as the grocery shop, than necessarily on those eating out ’lifestyle’ occasions. "Eating out has been mostly resilient during the credit crunch because it taps into all-day dining, which is still a huge trend; while people will cut back to a certain extent, they’re reluctant to cut back too much." Nevertheless, the tightening purse strings mean that when it comes to breakfast catering or a lunchtime sandwich, consumers are becoming aware where they can cut back and ranges need to adapt. "Consumers won’t necessarily spend a fiver in Pret every day - but they want options and more and more flexibility in what they can pick up," she says.

Sandwich chain Pret A Manger’s ability to attract customers in for coffee in the morning has been the key to its breakfast trade.

"It should stand us in good stead and really started with our coffees," says Simon Hargraves, Pret’s director of food and communications. "They always had a popular following, particularly now there’s a trend for people to grab a coffee on their way to work. The majority of our breakfast trade happens around the counter, so people buy their coffee and then pick up something else to go with it."

== Capitalise on grab-and-go ==

It is precisely this grab-and-go trend that bakery retailers and sandwich shops should really be capitalising on, particularly when the market for handheld snacks is growing rapidly, and consumers are increasingly expecting food that can fit easily into their busy lives.

In fact, according to Mintel, not only does half the population count themselves out of the eat-out breakfast market, but the proliferation of the bacon-and-eggs option shows how woefully behind the times many caterers are when it comes to breakfast options.

With the nation more aware of health issues than ever before, people are looking not only for fast options, but also for those that reflect a better nutritional balance. For Pret, this issue is so key to its success that a dedicated nutritionist works with the company on all new products, and has helped it develop a breakfast range that offers both a handy version of the English breakfast, but also healthy yoghurt pot and fruit options.

"We have ham and cheese croissants, for example, and egg and bacon breakfast baguettes," explains Hargraves. "But we also have our granola yoghurt pots, which are made fresh every morning. We don’t believe in having thin, low-fat options - we’d prefer to have smaller amounts of foods that have fat in their proper quantities, so it’s 4% fat yoghurt."

One baker that agrees with Pret’s dedication to quality, not quantity, is Baker & Spice, whose remit is to provide similar offerings to other establishments of a quality that is "of a different planet".

Its breakfast offerings include real-butter croissants made with liquid chocolate, cinnamon buns, a brioche range, organic mueslis, granola, and high-quality jams. And while the products carry a price tag to match the cost of ingredients, managing director Gayle Mejia believes customers are willing to pay more for quality items that they can eat on their way to the office.

"We have people come in to buy food for breakfast who would probably not sit down to a meal here," says Mejia. "But they come in every day - it’s not just a once-a-week treat. And they do that because people now want their food to be made from good-quality ingredients."

So if it’s the weekday crowd on whom you are setting your sights, come 8am, keep grab-and-go in mind, but don’t be afraid of quality. And for outlets that are ill-sited to take advantage of the commuter run, there is also the option of supplying other cafés and restaurants with their morning goods.

"Smaller bakeries should really look at supplying local cafés with morning pastries and the like because if they don’t, a larger trader will come along and do it for them," says bakery consultant Paul Merry. "But if a baker catches on to these wholesale openings, it could be a good market for them."

Ultimately, however, while the breakfast trade is a growing option, there are still hurdles to overcome - not least a reluctance among some consumers to have a morning meal at all.

"Despite recent innovation and advances, there is clearly a way to go, considering our consumer research has found that 52% of respondents have not eaten breakfast out-of-home in the previous three months," states a Mintel report.

More worryingly, it was found that 12% of respondents never eat breakfast at all, despite health advice and increases in both retail options and outlets offering breakfast catering.

For Pret A Manger, the main solution to this has been to go all-out for tasty options on the menu, but it has also put a lot of work into serving its croissants range warm - a killer move in the cold winter months.

"We spent two-and-a-half years developing our ’croissanterie’," says Hargraves. "It keeps the croissants warm, but also moist - the managers fill it up with water every morning."

For Mintel, appealing to the morning trade is also about customising your options to fit consumer needs. "What does seem to be rather consistent across both the eating-out market as a whole and breakfast catering more specifically, is the need for options to customise the offer," says Mintel’s Spicer.

"From swapping toast for hash browns in a full English to getting wheat-free toast or a fresh, made-to-order smoothie, consumers are not only getting more demanding in what they want, but operators also seem more willing to give it to them."



=== Who breakfasts out of home? ===

One in 10 people eat breakfast out of home once a week

In a survey on the frequency of eating breakfast out of home, conducted in March 2007, 2,029 adults aged 15-plus were asked the following question:

"Thinking about eating breakfast in the UK but not at home, which, if any, of the following best describes how often you have eaten breakfast away from home in the last 3 months? Choose one only."

These were the results: All %

Once a week or more 10

About once a fortnight 3

About once a month 7

Less often than once a month 14

Haven’t eaten breakfast outside the home in the last three months 52

Never eat breakfast 12

Don’t know 2

Source: GfK NOP/Mintel