What’s For Breakfast?

Breakfast is perhaps the most personal and idiosyncratic meal of the day. First of all, there are large numbers of people who barely eat anything before noon, despite our grandmother’s admonishment that we’re healthier if we eat a good breakfast. (It is interesting how often “things your grandmother told you” actually turn out to have a strong basis in medical and nutritional science.

For example, some people do not eat a substantial breakfast or any breakfast at all in the belief it will help with weight loss. It turns out that just the opposite occurs because the lack of food retards our metabolism causing our body to burn fewer calories in response to the deprivation and consequently encouraging fat accumulation and retention.) The famous quote, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” (Adelle Davis) therefore has quite a bit of substance to it.

But even if one has a breakfast it is perhaps the one meal that is most rooted in personal habit, family upbringing and cultural norms. From a traditional Japanese breakfast with fish and rice, to the pile-em-high stack of pancakes at America’s IHOP, to Chinese congee, the breakfast is one meal the has most resisted the attempts of food marketers to change local custom. According to The Economist:

Like everyone else, Chinese people love fast food. Western purveyors of salty, fatty delectables such as McDonald’s and KFC serve up vast quantities of lunch and dinner to the world’s most populous nation. But not breakfast. Chinese consumers have yet to be won over by the Egg McMuffin or even the breakfast platter (a mix of sausage, scrambled eggs and hash browns). No Western fast-food chain has figured out how to please hungry Chinese mouths in the morning.

Paul French of Mintel, a research firm, reckons that the Chinese foreign fast-food market, valued at RMB 87.8 ($13.9) billion, is “underpenetrated” at breakfast time. Only 21% of Chinese eat fast food in the morning, compared to over 75% at lunch time. Why is this? “People want congee [a sort of porridge with goodies in it] for breakfast, not a sausage sandwich,” says Mr French.

Domestic restaurants see a gap in the market, and are rising early to fill it. They are copying the foreigners’ chief selling points—fashionable decor and clean tables—but keeping the menu strictly Chinese. Local fast-food chains such as Manfadu and 82 degrees are building new stores with plastic menus and western-style layouts. They serve congee with pickled vegetables and youtiao (deep-fried dough). Hungry locals flock in. Mr French reckons that 82 degrees is opening two stores a week to meet growing demand. He also reckons Manfadu now holds 10% of the Shanghai breakfast market, up from 2% in 2008.

McDonald’s, which has got away with peddling the same breakfast products everywhere with a few minor tweaks (an Egg McMuffin with chicken is an option in China), may have to think harder. Though breakfast accounts for around a quarter of the firm’s American sales, in China this number is less than 10%. McDonald’s says it is playing the long game. “We know breakfast isn’t going to be an overnight sensation,” says Jessica Lee, a senior director in McDonald’s Asia, “it wasn’t in the US either”.

McDonald’s are making inroads into the breakfast market with new combinations, “the egg McMuffin with chicken is selling well” says Miss Lee. But the company’s commitment to their current model of minor tweaking rather than truly new products may hold them back. They should heed the Chinese proverb, “do not fear going forward slowly, fear standing still.”

On a trip to China last year I spent about a week in downtown Shanghai and a week in the hill-forests of Moganshan Village 395 (the numbering is a holdover, I believe, from the Communist revolution) where I stayed in a kind of bed and breakfast (called Naked Village: http://www.nakedretreats.cn/naked-home-village/the-retreat/) where, amidst the beautiful bamboo forests, one also got  chance to eat traditional home-style cooking prepared by the village’s Ayi’s.

One of the things that I enjoyed most was the Chinese breakfast; the congee was more enjoyable, for me, than oatmeal, which is faintly resembles. Perhaps someone in North America ought to experiment with a kind of congee for westerners rather than just trying to get the Chinese to eat McMuffins or donuts.

One Comment on “What’s For Breakfast?”

  1. Peter To says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I also like congee very much! Here is a photo I took last year in China.


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