Just When Breakfast Was King... Now It's Not

Fast food has been banking on breakfast, but that might be over.

The fast food breakfast category has been booming for some time now, but recent data suggests customers could be losing interest in morning menus in favor of lunch and late-night bites. Foot traffic analytics firm Placer.ai notes that major chains like McDonald's and Chipotle have seen a shift from heavy morning traffic to lunch and dinner.

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Not too long ago it was clear fast food chains were putting the most energy behind their breakfast menus, as it was the part of day bringing in the most revenue. The on-the-go convenience of handheld breakfast sandwiches, wraps, and other similar menu items are what made breakfast an easy sell to customers as they came back to work in a post-pandemic setting. In fact, consumer behavior research company Circana reported at the end of 2023 that older males between the ages of 45 to 54, typically with incomes of $100k and up, accounted for almost 60% of breakfast sales, often spending five times as much on breakfast as the average consumer.

On the business side, breakfast menus tend to feature cheap and easy ingredients like scrambled eggs, which can serve as the main event with minimal condiments, toppings, or sides. Taco Bell, for example, was still experimenting with its breakfast offering in November 2023 when it rolled out a limited market test of Breakfast Tots. The short-run menu item consisted of seasoned tater tots, scrambled eggs, a choice of sausage or bacon, a three-cheese blend of mozzarella, pepper jack, and cheddar, and a drizzle of the chain's creamy jalapeño sauce. Nothing elaborate, just designed to be maximally satisfying.

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However, despite the enticing features of fast food breakfast, Placer.ai's most recent report shows McDonald's and Chipotle customers shifting their eating habits to later in the day. In 2023, 21.2% of McDonald's customers came in from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is an increase from 18.8% in 2019, prior to the pandemic. On the other hand, only 16.7% of McDonald's customers came in from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. in 2023 compared to the 18% in 2019, and though it's an increase from 15.9% in 2022, it's only a modest one.

Similarly, Chipotle has experienced a shift in its foot traffic throughout the day. Visits from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. were down to 36.2% last year, compared to 40% in 2019. Meanwhile, visits from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. have increased, and 26.3% of Chipotle's traffic came from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., up from 23.9% in 2019.

Although these are just two fast food chains in the industry, their numbers could be indicative of a coming trend. The long and short of it is that the industry shouldn't put all its eggs in the breakfast basket, because that's just not bringing in the bulk of business. But then again, neither is lunch. If these restaurants are smart, they'll entice customers to come in for some late-night eats. 

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