Breakfast for dinner? McDonald’s scrambles Waffle House turf

UNOFFICIAL BUSINESS / MATT KEMPNER

When the nation’s biggest restaurant chain decides to ignore traditional breakfast timetables and starts offering sausage biscuits and pancakes all day, it has the potential to shake up the eating landscape. I suspect it also says something about the growing power of consumers.

For decades, McDonald’s halted sales of its morning menu in the morning. This apparently was in part because it’s a pain in the kitchen to fix burgers and breakfast at the same time. The worry was it would scramble the assembly line in a business where seconds matter.

Whatever. Customers would complain they couldn’t get eggs at 10:38 a.m.; McDonald’s was unmoved.

But times have changed. Increasingly, consumers decide what they want when they want it.

And McDonald’s, with U.S. sales shrinking, recently showed it is now inclined to listen by serving at least some breakfast items any time. Not so coincidentally, breakfast has particularly high profit margins for the chain.

All-day access to sausage biscuits at the drive-through might not seem like a glorious moment for consumer empowerment (or our health — a regular sausage biscuit supplies 62 percent of saturated fat daily allowances).

But it’s close enough.

Of course, any changes by a giant like McDonald’s is bound to have ripple effects. Wouldn’t it be nice if the chain’s moves spurred other businesses to rethink ways they might give customers not only what they want, but when they want it?

McDonald's and Waffle House

McDonald’s and Waffle House often stake out the same highway exits. Here they sit beside each other in Oakwood, Ga.  MATT KEMPNER/AJC

So I’m wondering about two things: what other products and services might we get on the schedule we choose, and what will McDonald’s moves mean for a rival like Waffle House, which already makes a point of serving customers any menu item 24 hours a day.

First, a sampling of other things that don’t work on our schedule (or, more specifically, on my schedule):

Government. Lots of government business can be handled online at any time of the day now, particularly if it involves me paying money. But government cutbacks mean my local library (remember those?) and the local car tag offices open on an unfathomable schedule apparently tied to some combination of moon phases, daily humidity levels and dice rolling.

Chick-fil-A. I understand that staying closed on Sundays is a big — probably even, crucial — part of the chain’s brand and soul. But it doesn’t fit my self-absorbed schedule. I have the same Sunday issue with many small, independent barbecue joints.

The chain grocer closest to my home, which shuts down by 10 p.m. Uggh. Now, I have to travel another 240 seconds to get to 24-hour rivals. Oh, the humanity!

Haircuts at night. Night fits better with my schedule, plus it would be good to have the deed done under cover of darkness so I can delay seeing how little hair is left up top. Oh, the vanity!

Doctors, particularly, of the non-urgent-care variety are generally gone from their offices before most sunsets. Which usually means you have to leave work to visit them.

I don’t, however, begrudge companies that take off an occasional holiday. I ‘m even OK with outdoor gear retailer REI’s recent decision to stay closed the day after Thanksgiving and urge people to get outside instead. I don’t sweat a day here or there.

Of course, some restaurants already accommodate diners on any schedule.

Waffle House, based in Norcross in Atlanta’s suburbs, does its thing 24 hours a day, all year long.

It might be reasonable to think that Waffle House would be hurt by McDonald’s move into all-day breakfast.

One McDonald’s manager I spoke with told me his sales are already up five percent because of the breakfast move, with a particular boost in the normally slow period between 10:30 a.m. and noon, as well as in late evenings.

But Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner predicts the home of “scattered, smothered & covered” hashbrowns will be just fine.

“We have had all-day breakfast for 60 years now,” he said.

In fact, Warner insisted that the McDonald’s shift should be positive for Waffle House and its 1,800 restaurants (which is less than one for every seven McDonald’s in the U.S.) because it will get people thinking of breakfast unshackled by time.

I’m assuming he’s being overly hopeful.

But a big helping of Waffle House customers are people who have made the boxy, little yellow restaurants part of their daily ritual.

One is Larry Martin, whom I met at a Waffle House in Lawrenceville. The 48-year-old, who has his own business putting images on clothing, told me he eats at least one meal a day at a Waffle House and has for more than 20 years.

Waffle House customer Larry Martin

Larry Martin of Lawrenceville, Ga., said he eats at a Waffle House at least once a day, and has for more than 20 years. MATT KEMPNER/AJC

“When I come in the door, everybody is, ‘Hey, Larry,’ ” he said.

Martin told me he wouldn’t get that at McDonald’s. Nor would he see his food cooked in front of him, as it is at Waffle House, where he can tell that it’s fresh made just for him.

I suppose that is the ultimate example of getting what we want when we want it.

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