Auntie Anne's began testing a new breakfast platform at select locations in November 2012. The menu was initially available at a handful of the brand's nontraditional (non-mall) locations such as travel plazas, train stations and airports.
The trial phase "well exceeded expectations," and the chain has since expanded breakfast offerings to 32 locations, with all travel locations expected to carry the menu next year.
QSRweb had the opportunity to talk to Carl Hornberger, Auntie Anne's director of menu management, about its fledgling breakfast lineup and what has made it successful.
QSRweb: Why is Auntie Anne's expanding its breakfast menu, and what is the growth plan?
Carl Hornberger: We started this in nine stores and saw immediate success, so we quickly brought it in to other stores. It's in about 30 now and hopefully it will be in 50 by the end of this year. We are working to get it into all 100 or so (travel units) in 2014. We don't consider it to be in test anymore, but we are managing the pace smoothly.
QSRweb: Do you have sales data on the menu?
CH: We won't reveal that data, but I can say we saw sales at the levels we wanted very quickly. It exceeded expectations.
Any new product has to prove itself, and this did pretty quickly. Our franchisees are eager to add it.
QSRweb: What was the impetus behind developing a breakfast strategy, and when did the planning begin?
CH: We began kicking the idea around in early 2012. We wanted to meet consumer needs, particularly because we have a large presence in airports and transportation venues. Breakfast is also on trend, so we knew there was an opportunity and a need for this. It's a win-win-win, really — it meets a trend, it meets consumer needs, and it allows us the ability to introduce a great new product.
QSRweb: How did Auntie Anne's come up with the menu?
CH: We knew we'd stick close to our brand, with a freshly baked style, made on premise, from scratch. That's our unique differentiator. And we knew we'd stick with our pretzel dough.
Then we played around with different styles, shapes and forms of pretzel bread. What we landed on was more of a traditional bun shape, instead of a pretzel shape. We did this for ease of eating; consumers who are in airports are on the go. They need that portability.
QSRweb: What is included on the menu?
CH: We have two pretzel sandwiches, one is the traditional bacon, egg and cheese, and the other is the sausage, egg and cheese (which is the top seller). We have a breakfast sausage stick, which is a sausage link wrapped in pretzel dough. It comes five per order and sells really well for us.
In some locations we also have a freshly made waffle, made from our pretzel mix.
QSRweb: How does the pretzel waffle do?
CH: It's very unique and different, and it's tougher to sell. We have a cinnamon sugar flavor and another with confectioner's sugar and a light butter topping. It's a great-tasting product, but it's tough to convince consumers to try such a novelty.
QSRweb: Since the breakfast is being expanded, will you add to the menu?
CH: We will start testing more items as it rolls out; more traditional items like Canadian bacon, egg whites, ham. We're in the early stages.
QSRweb: Most brands leverage their beverage/coffee line to boost breakfast sales. Does Auntie Anne's plan on promoting its beverages at these units?
CH: We have always had our own proprietary coffee line. We'll encourage the stores that have breakfast to carry the typical grab-and-go items, like Minute Maid Orange Juice and V8.
QSRweb: Were there any operational or equipment changes made or training added for the units with breakfast?
CH: We did add training, it is mostly done online. The biggest operational change is hours of availability. Right now, Auntie Anne's standard items had to be available immediately for sale because we guarantee 30-minute freshness on those products. For breakfast, we maintain that 30-minute guarantee so we enable our franchise partners to modify their hours of availability. They can pick and choose when to stop serving breakfast. Some sell it all day, and many sell the traditional items during breakfast, which makes sense at an airport.
For equipment, some just had to add the waffle maker.
QSRweb: Since the daypart is going so well, will Auntie Anne's consider expanding it into its traditional mall locations?
CH: Malls aren't the best location because they don't open until about 10 a.m. We don't think consumers will be looking for this at malls, so they're not in our plan.
QSRweb: A lot of QSR brands are adding pretzel bread now, including big chains such as Wendy's and Dunkin' Donuts. Does this pose a threat to Auntie Anne's, being a traditional pretzel concept?
CH: I think the pretzel bread trend is probably a good thing. The more people we can introduce to pretzels, the more I think our brand will rise to the top. We'd love the world to be a pretzel-eating world.
As we see the emergence of artisan breads and pretzel bread, people are thinking about sandwiches differently. But we know that if anyone can do pretzel bread, we can do it better.
QSRweb: Some brands have tried breakfast and have failed. In your opinion, why has Auntie Anne's breakfast execution worked so far?
CH: First, I think we have a great product. Also, the venue in which we operate is underserved at the breakfast daypart. The challenge for many brands is to get consumers to move out of their routine; if they're going to work in the morning and they're used to getting their McDonald's or their Starbucks, it takes a big effort to get them to change that pattern. In the airport, their patterns are probably already changed.
Portability is also a benefit for us, because we have that with our products and people at these venues are on the go. And, where we have a competitive advantage is with the trend toward made-from-scratch and fresh. We've had our 30-minute guarantee in place for 25 years.
Read more about food and beverage initiatives.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.