Oatmeal, a sweet trend for diners and restaurant profits

By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How brilliant is this: First, take a healthful food that costs just pennies per serving and requires barely any effort to make. Then, sex it up with sweet toppings and extra ingredients. Finally, put it in a cute, portable container. That's hot oatmeal to go, the restaurant industry's newest answer to breakfast on the run.

Chains such as Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Cosi, Caribou Coffee, Jamba Juice and Pret a Manger have introduced hot oatmeal with fruit and nut toppings for takeout within the past 18 months. Even fast-food giant McDonald's has been test-marketing a fruit-topped oatmeal in Baltimore and the District since late last year, although no decision has been made whether to offer it in other cities, a company spokesman says.

Locally, frozen yogurt shop Sweetgreen has been selling slow-cooked organic oatmeal mixed with quinoa from its roving yellow Sweetflow Mobile van a couple of mornings each week downtown. And Community Canteen in Reston offers thick-cut natural oatmeal from Bob's Red Mill with such toppings as goji berries and kiwi.

For restaurants, the oatmeal trend is a win-win. They're adding variety to their breakfast menu with an inexpensive food that customers perceive as healthful. Plus, it doesn't require fancy cooking equipment, and its basic ingredients don't spoil easily.

For customers, well, what's not to like? Oatmeal is comforting, cheap and filling. Its low fat and high fiber content can help reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. And now, it's portable.

This transformation of oatmeal from frumpy to fashionable is the natural confluence of several things: the buzz about whole grains and eating healthy; Starbucks's introduction of portable oatmeal in 2008, which spurred the other chains to copy it; and the fact that breakfast has been the one meal showing signs of life in the economically distressed restaurant industry.

"The breakfast market has been the only growing segment over the last decade," says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at the market research firm NPD Group. Even so, he added, there are signs that breakfast, too, might have hit its peak, as breakfast sales dipped last year in the face of the recession and record unemployment.

The three most popular foods at breakfast are sandwiches, yogurt and oatmeal, says Balzer, whose firm has been tracking what Americans eat for 30 years. He calls oatmeal "the female breakfast sandwich," because more women tend to eat oatmeal, while more men like the breakfast sandwich.

Don't tell that to 25-year-old Jonathan Sih of the District, who was buying oatmeal with baked apples and dried cranberries from the Sweetflow van last week during its stop at 19th and K streets NW.

Dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and tie, the lobbyist says he's "trying to be healthy. I was going to just eat a banana for breakfast, but I saw the van selling oatmeal and changed my mind." Sih says he recently was accepted into the Air Force as a combat systems officer, "and there's nothing like a job change to get you motivated to eat better."

Sweetflow employee Bona Park says the recipe for the organic oats and red and white quinoa blend was worked out in December, "during the blizzard, when we were stuck in the restaurant." By early this year, the Sweetflow workers had started making weekly stops they call "oatmeal blasts" to sell their hot cereal.

They soak the grains overnight, then cook them in a rice cooker. A blackboard on the outside of the van lists the day's toppings, including the irresistible brulee top: Park sprinkles the oatmeal with raw sugar, then caramelizes it with a culinary torch to create a sweet, crackly crust.

Although cold cereal is still Americans' most popular breakfast food, according to the NPD Group, hot cereal has been slowly gaining popularity over the past few years. "There's a retro health trend," says food service analyst Maria Caranfa with the consumer research firm Mintel. "Consumers are looking for healthy basics, and oatmeal falls into that category. It has a healthy halo."

Caranfa predicts that oatmeal's popularity will continue and that "more convenience stores will add it so customers can prepare it there, like they do at Starbucks."

Starbucks, in fact, seems to be one of the main catalysts behind the oatmeal-to-go trend. As with coffee, Starbucks took a simple, cheap food everyone loves but consumes mostly at home or at sit-down places and made it portable, customizable and chic.

When Starbucks introduced its Perfect Oatmeal -- actually instant, microwaveable oatmeal with packets of toppings -- in September 2008 as part of a new breakfast menu, other chains began working on their own hot-cereal additions.

Even Au Bon Pain, which had been selling hot oatmeal since about 2002, knew it needed to respond, says Ed Frechette, senior vice president of marketing for the Boston-based chain.

"We had oatmeal, but we hadn't called much attention to it. But then we saw what Starbucks did with instant oatmeal, and we knew it had gone mainstream," Frechette says.

He and executive chef Thomas John worked on adding another flavor, and last fall Au Bon Pain unveiled apple cinnamon oatmeal alongside its regular version. Both are made from rolled oats cooked in water for about 12 minutes, John said. The two kinds of oatmeal are kept in heated soup tureens, and customers serve themselves, adding such free toppings as dried fruit, almonds, chocolate chips or brown sugar.

The new flavor has expanded the chain's hot cereal sales, Frechette says, making it the fourth-most-popular item, behind coffee, pastries and breakfast sandwiches. The apple cinnamon has done so well that Frechette says the original plans to offer it only during the winter have been changed: "We're just going to leave it through the summer and watch what happens."

Upscale, full-service restaurants are also getting in on the oatmeal act. Where in the past they might have included a bowl on the breakfast menu as an afterthought, they are now proudly (and sometimes exorbitantly) spotlighting it.

At the Blue Duck Tavern in the Park Hyatt Hotel, a bowl of McCann's Irish oatmeal with a rather ordinary topping of raisins and brown sugar will set you back $12 on the breakfast menu. The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas goes one better, charging $13 for the same oatmeal served with steamed milk, maple syrup reduction, bananas and berries.

And then there's New York. Carey Jones, writing about the city's best oatmeal for SeriousEats.com, placed the bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with caramelized apples and pears and bruleed top at Norma's in Le Parker Meridien in the category of "Absurdly Pricey, but Oh, So Tasty." The bill: $16. Not including coffee.

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