Nobody's Buying Fast Food Breakfast Anymore [Updated]

Update, August 6, 2020: Wendy's wants us all to know that its breakfast sales are doing just fine, thank you very much. According to Business Insider, while Wendy's took a financial hit in the second quarter with a 4% drop in same-store sales, those same-store sales actually increased to "high-single digits" in the month of July, and breakfast was part of what drove the turnaround.

This is particularly impressive because Wendy's breakfast menu launched at perhaps the worst possible time: the first week of March, just as the pandemic was beginning to change commuters' habits. Not only did coronavirus make many people think twice about their early-morning fast food run, it also hamstrung Wendy's ability to market its new breakfast menu to its customers. "Currently, executives said that only about half of potential customers in the US are aware that Wendy's serves breakfast," notes Business Insider. Still, the customers who already know and love Wendy's breakfast continue to order it despite disruptions to daily routine; the breakfast orders are just being placed later in the morning.

Wendy's seems confident that consumer behavior will revert to some version of normalcy soon, and the chain is investing $15 million in breakfast advertising to keep same-store sales rising. "We plan to market breakfast in a big way in the back half of the year, as people fall back into their breakfast routines," said CEO Todd Penegor on a recent call with investors. The "fast food breakfast wars" we braced for in 2020 were overshadowed by an entirely different battleground, but Wendy's just might emerge victorious.

Original post, August 4, 2020: Just a few days ago we wrote about how Taco Bell announced that changes in people's work schedules and commutes had led to a decrease in breakfast and late night customers, both of which had previously been lucrative demographics for the franchise. As it turns out, those pandemic-related commuting disruptions are being felt across the entire fast food business continuum, and the breakfast menu—once considered an integral part of many business models—is now a big fat dud.

The breakfast menu revelation came to light during a number of different quarterly earnings calls. According to Business Insider, McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski said to investors this week that "Breakfast ... prior to the pandemic was the only day part that was growing." A similar sentiment was also shared with Business Insider by Panera CEO Niren Chaudhary. And, unsurprisingly, this same phenomenon was observed by Dunkin' and Starbucks, with both companies reporting a downturn in sales thanks to a pandemic-related shortage of commuters and office workers.

The fact that fast food companies are seeing a decrease in breakfast customers isn't surprising, but it does make one wonder: what are people doing instead? Are breakfast and coffee an integral part of people's days, or did chains simply make the whole proposition cheap and easy enough that people got into the habit of going to fast food restaurants every day? And if it turns out that, yes, people do require a daily infusion of coffee and an egg sandwich, are they now making those items for themselves? While not everyone has time to make breakfast every day—particularly if they work full time from home and simultaneously have to provide child care—making coffee and cooking an egg isn't particularly time intensive or expensive. Have we entered a golden age of homemade breakfasts, or will fast food once again find a way to draw in early morning customers?