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The District has a food truck for everything—Ethiopian, Peruvian, Greek, lobster rolls, cupcakes, popcorn. I’ve lost track of how many Asian fusion taco trucks are out there.
But if it’s 8 a.m. and you’re searching for a simple egg and cheese sandwich from a mobile vendor, good luck. Not only does the District not have a dedicated classic American-style breakfast food truck, but as far as the head of the local food truck association knows, there are no trucks that reliably roam D.C.’s streets before lunch time.
“[In] many of the great vending cities in the U.S.—Portland, Los Angeles, New York—there’s a robust breakfast scene,” says Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the DMV Food Truck Association and co-owner of BBQ Bus. But in D.C.? He’s unaware of a single generator humming before 9 a.m.
Ruddell-Tabisola blames the breakfast hole primarily on rush-hour parking restrictions in the most popular downtown vending locations, like Farragut Square and Metro Center. Last summer, Ruddell-Tabisola told me via email that a group of trucks were looking to test out breakfast in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. But then… nothing. “Nobody really ran with it,” he says.
It’s not just food trucks, and it’s not just about rush-hour parking restrictions. Weekday breakfast options in D.C. tend to be lackluster beyond chains like Cosi and Pret a Manger or hotel eateries that are contractually obligated to serve bacon and toast in the a.m. I’m not saying there are zero alternatives in between: Cafe Phillips provides serviceable fuel to the downtown office masses, Ted’s Bulletin cranks out French toast as early as 7 a.m., and newer outposts like Bullfrog Bagels offer more foodie-friendly grub. Maybe your neighborhood coffee spot even serves some pastries, or if you’re really lucky, a breakfast sandwich. Still, diner-style restaurants are few and far between, and breakfast in general is dwarfed by lunch and dinner. While brunch options are as endless as bottomless mimosas, breakfast is cut off after the first glass. As the food scene grows, will that change?
There are certainly some steps in the right direction. Veloce, the fast-casual pizza place from Pizzeria Paradiso owner Ruth Gresser that opened last month, is one of the only restaurants that serves a breakfast pizza during actual breakfast. The downtown spot opens at 7 a.m. and offers three five-inch scrambled egg-topped pies for $5 each.
“It just seems to me that people are now in the habit of eating on the way to work or having something for breakfast at their work. And there aren’t a lot of options,” Gresser says of why she wanted to open Veloce for breakfast. Still, she’s never considered breakfast at Pizzeria Paradiso.
Bayou Bakery chef and owner David Guas, who opened a second location of his New Orleans-inspired eatery near Eastern Market last week, also serves breakfast, including biscuit sandwiches and granola, on weekdays. As more chefs focus on casual eateries, he believes they’ll focus more on breakfast as well. Late-night options have slowly, but modestly expanded. “Breakfast is that next meal period,” Guas says.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. No matter how much people like eating breakfast, a lot of chefs just don’t like serving it. “It’s early rising,” Guas says. “It’s more to manage… You could potentially be getting phone calls at 7, 8 o’clock in the morning that something’s wrong. Or a breakfast cook didn’t show up, and you’ve got to work the line. Whatever the case may be, it’s just a longer day, period.”
Aside from that, breakfast just isn’t that lucrative. The average check size is smaller. You’re not going to sell high-profit booze on a Wednesday morning. And it’s harder to staff for the early shift.
It turns out The Most Important Meal of the Day isn’t really that for most restaurants. Even places known for breakfast aren’t necessarily getting most of their business from the meal. In 2009, District Taco launched in Rosslyn as a cart that exclusively sold breakfast tacos, inspired in part by the breakfast taco scene in Austin, Texas. But co-owner Osiris Hoil says that wasn’t successful, so he expanded the menu. Now that the business has five brick-and-mortar locations across D.C. and Virginia, the breakfast crowd is less than half the size of lunch or dinner crowds. “People still don’t know that we serve breakfast,” Hoil says.
Similarly, restaurateur Constantine Stavropoulos says breakfast makes up only about 10 percent of sales at his open-all-day restaurants, which include Open City, the Coupe, the Diner, and Tryst. “Breakfast would definitely be last,” he adds of the customer volume compared to lunch and dinner.
Stavropoulos admits the profit margins on breakfast aren’t bad. A restaurant’s food costs, depending on the cuisine and type of restaurant, are typically 25 to 35 percent of what the dish costs diners. Breakfast food costs—generally speaking—can be around 10 to 15 percent. “But it requires volume,” Stavropoulos says. If the restaurant isn’t packed, the labor costs and low check averages will trump the fact that you’re spending less on food.
The reason Stavropoulos’ restaurants serve breakfast is more philosophical than financial. In attempting to create the “third place”—where people congregate outside home or work—he wanted restaurants that were accommodating at all hours. “We’re open all the time, so as a result, we serve breakfast,” he says.
A restaurant’s ability to convert the kitchen between meals can also be a big factor in why they don’t offer breakfast. A lot of restaurants design their kitchens around dinner, Stavropoulos says. Adapting to lunch isn’t usually too hard: You can often reduce the number of entrees and make other minor adjustments. But breakfast? “It’s kind of a big jump,” he says. “You use the same equipment, but the setups are completely different. The stations are different.”
It’s not just the logistics, it’s space. Not every restaurant kitchen has room to store cartons upon cartons of eggs.
Taylor Gourmet learned these lessons the hard way. The local hoagie chainlet experimented with breakfast hours, opening at 8 a.m. seven days a week, for about a year between 2012 and 2013. But it turned out to be too hectic in the kitchen. The restaurant cuts its meats, makes its sauces, and slices its vegetables fresh every day. “We’re just a prep machine that is always, always, always, always prepping. And we have small spaces,” says co-owner Casey Patten. Even with extra staff to help with breakfast, there was too much going on in the confined kitchens to be able to prep everything efficiently. “I’ve got people running the front line. I’ve got people running the grill. And now I have seven other people in a kitchen that’s 650-square-feet prepping to go do a $5,000 lunch,” Patten says.
Taylor Gourmet stopped serving breakfast hoagies in the summer of 2013 and pushed back its opening hours from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. “I just didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Patten says. After all, the breakfast volume wasn’t much compared to lunch prime time.
But here’s the thing about breakfast sandwiches: Even if people don’t regularly buy them, they’re still kind of obsessed with them. “We realized all these people were mad,” Patten says. Some people even set up an online petition to bring the breakfast hoagies back. “I don’t remember how many signatures there were, but there were enough to raise your eyebrows.”
In October 2013, Taylor Gourmet brought back a more limited menu of breakfast hoagies, which are now available all day. But the restaurant didn’t bring back breakfast hours.
Patten believes that breakfast decisions are ultimately driven by coffee products. Granted, he starts every morning with a four-shot skim latte. “I’m going to go where I can get that specific coffee item that I want, and then I’m going to look at what kind of add-on I can have from there.” Perhaps that explains why D.C.’s non-chain coffee scene seems to be growing far faster than breakfast.
A chicken and (scrambled) egg conundrum still remains. Are people not eating out for breakfast more often because there aren’t more good options? Or are there not more good options because people aren’t eating breakfast out?
One camp, including Taylor Gourmet’s Patten, argues Washingtonians are inherently in too much of a rush in the mornings. (They don’t have time for breakfast! They’re busy!) There are also health considerations (not everyone wants to start their day with bacon) and budget limitations (regularly eating out for breakfast and lunch can get pricey).
But if Veloce’s Gresser had to pick a side—and she has a business counting on it—she believes District residents would eat more breakfast with more solid options. “I kind of feel like with restaurants, if you do a quality place that has heart, there’s a market for what you do,” she says. “I don’t think that Washingtonians are adverse to breakfast.”
At the very least, you’d think D.C. could get a breakfast food truck.
Bayou Bakery biscuit sandwich photo by Darrow Montgomery. Veloce breakfast pizza photo by Jessica Sidman.