When the markets are toast, people buy breakfast

Friday, September 19, 2008

New numbers show that, while everyone else is in the red, spending on breakfast foods has actually increased. What does the nation eat when times are tight?

Guest: Mary Elizabeth Williams, Takeaway contributor

Contributor's notes: Breakfast is champion

In an economic climate of uncertainty, a time of darkness and fear, America looks to a brighter dawn. And what goes better with a new day than a little Count Chocula?

What's bad for business can be good for breakfast.

On Wednesday, General Mills posted a 14 percent rise in first quarter sales, including a 5 percent bump in cereal sales. It's not just cereal that’s thriving either. Take a look at the breakfast aisle in your local supermarket and you’ll find oatmeal, instant oatmeal, flavored oatmeal, oatmeal in little take-and-go cups. There are also Farina, Cream of Wheat, grits, warm multigrains. I don't know if the new economy means investors will be getting out of high tech and into soft food, but there is something going on here. Then there are the frozen waffles, the bagels, the Froot Loops Cereal Straws ("Fruity, crunchy tubes for milk sippin' fun!"). Forget sexy, we’re bringing breakfast back.

What's behind the bounce? Part of it, certainly, is a phenomenon known as 'trading down,' exchanging that four-dollar latte for a bite at home. As we tighten our belts, those little expenses we've come to enjoy become more expendable. To that end, Starbucks, home of the Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino with Chocolate Whipped Cream, introduced a new line of breakfast treats two weeks ago, including a "perfect" oatmeal. A rep for the company told me that customers have been requesting warm, substantial fare. These days it may be harder to justify spending money on anything with a caramel drizzle, but hey, a person's still got to eat, right? In years past, consumers put their money where their mouths were for what the item lacked — going for low fat, low sugar solutions. Now, more enlightened, we're seeking food for what it can actively do for us. And you can get a whole lot of nutritional bang for your buck with a bowl of hot cereal and some fruit.

Breakfast, in addition to being the proverbial most important meal of the day, can also easily be the most frugal. (Well, maybe not if you're if you’re noshing at Norma's, where the supersized "Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata," dappled with 10 ounces of Sevruga caviar, will set you back a cool thousand dollars. That's a lot of Wheaties.) And if cereal is a cheap morning date, it's even cheaper for dinner. Free range out of your range tonight? That old college standby of corn flakes and milk for dinner is looking better and better.

But surely it's not mere financial austerity that's responsible for the rise in breakfast's fortunes. When the going gets tough, the tough seek sustenance. I asked representatives for both presidential campaigns how the candidates start their days, and Barack Obama's spokesperson responded, "Senator Obama is pretty methodical about breakfast. When your days are scheduled to the minute like his are, skipping breakfast is not an option! He eats 4-to-6 eggs, some type of potato and wheat toast. Every now and then he eats fruit, bacon, and oatmeal." Yes we can… raise our cholesterol.

We may sometimes hold early-morning power breakfasts at fancy hotels, but that first meal of the day is still likeliest to evoke images of home and family. Breakfast is the most intimate of our meals, the one we're likeliest to consume with nary a care for the game face we present to the world.

Kemp Minifie, executive food editor of Gourmet, said via email, "For the first meal of the day I think comfort food still reigns and is more desired than ever in this recessionary roller coaster. I'm amazed at the number of people I see making instant oatmeal in the office and how often I see oatmeal on breakfast menus." Breakfast is the pancakes in funny shapes that mom used to make. Breakfast is toast in bed. It's safe and forgiving. It has its limits, though.

I recently bought Optimum Zen cereal, "for inner harmony." The box invites me to "bring back the peaceful sigh of being in tune with yourself... providing you with serenity and calm for your busy world." With the way the economy is going, I'm going to need a bigger box.

— Mary Elizabeth Williams

Contributors:

Katherine Lanpher and Mary Elizabeth Williams

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