The History of Fast Food Breakfast

McDonald's breakfast items

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Since first introducing breakfast items to the quick-service restaurant (QSR) industry in the early 1970s, McDonald’s morning offerings have become a valuable part of its business. In addition to generating as much as a quarter of the Chicago-based company’s annual revenue, McDonald’s brisk breakfast business over the years has inspired myriad competitors to find innovative ways to compete for customers.   

McDonald's Leads the Way

McDonald’s morning menu first started taking shape in 1972 when a franchise owner named Herb Peterson showed McDonald’s chairman Ray Croc a breakfast sandwich idea they’d created. This was a year after a fellow franchise owner named Jim Delligatti—creator of the Big Mac—got the blessing of the big-whigs to broaden his menu by selling sweet rolls and doughnuts to his customers. 

Before bringing his innovative breakfast inclinations to McDonald’s as a franchisee in southern California, Peterson worked at D’Arcy Advertising in Chicago, and the burgeoning fast-food chain was one of his clients. Inspired by his love of eggs benedict and with the help of his assistant Donald Greadel, Peterson came up with the concept for what is now known as the Egg McMuffin (a name conceived by Patty Turner, the wife of McDonald’s corporate executive), the benchmark breakfast item beloved by millions and millions of McDonald’s customers.

Peterson and Greadel showed their sandwich idea—slices of egg, cheese and grilled ham between halves of an English muffin—to Kroc, and McDonald’s main man loved the idea. Soon after, the McMuffin was being offered nationally, and by 1977, the company introduced a full breakfast menu that included pancakes (or hotcakes, as the company called them), sausage, hashbrowns, and more. 

Within 20 years, McDonald's was making $5 billion a year on breakfast alone. From there, the innovation continued with the introduction of new menu items like biscuit sandwiches in 1986, breakfast burritos in 1991, McGriddle sandwiches in 2003, oatmeal in 2010, egg white Egg McMuffins in 2013, Triple Stack McGriddle sandwiches in 2018, and donut sticks in 2019. Before 2015, when McDonald’s began offering its breakfast items all day long, customers could only order off the breakfast menu until 10:30 a.m.

Competing for the Breakfast Crown

Naturally competitive with McDonald's, Burger King tried to follow with a breakfast menu starting in 1979, but there was a snag, as their flame broilers did not have the same adaptability to breakfast items as did McDonald's grills. It took until 1983 before experimentation led to items that were compatible with their existing equipment. 

One of the new menu items was the Croissan'Wich, predating the use of croissants as sandwich bread by Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. In 2005, Burger King introduced its Enormous Omelet Sandwich, which became their most familiar breakfast item, bolstering their other breakfast staples like pancakes, hashbrowns, breakfast burritos, and Maple Waffle sandwich, added to the menu in August 2019.

Breakfast Making a Run for the Border

A vast array of other competitors have tried to their best loosen McDonald’s grip on the breakfast market. Most famously, after gaining tons of momentum in 2014 with the introduction of its wildly popular Waffle Taco—created a product development director named Heather Mottershaw, who was inspired by a friend’s post on her Facebook feed—Taco Bell tried to tear down the Golden Arches in May 2015 with a new menu item. 

Taco Bell’s Biscuit Taco, which replaced the Waffle Taco, was accompanied by ads that took the burger titan to task by name. In the years that followed, Taco Bell has tried on a variety of different menu items, including a grilled breakfast burrito, crunch wrap, and quesadilla, along with a breakfast soft taco, and a sausage flatbread quesadilla. The Irvine, California-based chain has had considerable success with its breakfast menu. 

Taco Bell is not alone in its unique offerings or its quest to snag its share of the breakfast market. In 2017, Carl’s Jr. began offering its Breakfast Burger (beef patty with cheese, egg, bacon, and hashbrowns), which was added to the menu in 2004 and previously only available during breakfast, all day. In March 2019, Sonic made its similarly crafted Brunch Burger available all day. 

Breakfast Tacos and Breaking Out of the Box

Other QSRs like Jack in the Box and Del Taco, which both have extended breakfast hours (Jack has been serving breakfast all day since the mid-’90s, and Del’s menu is available from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m.), have less adventurous options but attract their fair share of customers just the same with breakfast sandwiches, burritos, tacos, and hashbrowns. Some of the other leading breakfast competitors are better known for their coffee and doughnuts, but more and more, Dunkin' (formerly Dunkin' Donuts) and Starbucks are gaining ground in the breakfast game.

The most prominent player entering the breakfast sweepstakes—or upping its stakes, rather—is Wendy’s, which has announced ambitious plans to expand its offerings in 2020, making breakfast menu items available at all locations across the country from the 300 outlets that currently offer breakfast. The company is slated to invest 20 million dollars in expanding its workforce by 20,000 workers and offering new menu items like the Breakfast Baconator, the Frosty-ccino (coffee with ice cream), and a honey butter chicken biscuit.

Moving Past Breakfast

Ironically, with all of its competitors going all-in on breakfast, McDonald’s is shifting its emphasis from captivating fans with its creative breakfast options to speeding up its service. To that end, McDonald’s has been testing artificial intelligence technology in some of its stores, acquiring AI tech company Apprente in September 2019 to help automate the ordering process. The company also stated plans to simplify its menu, letting individual franchise owners decide which items it offers throughout the day.