The restaurant industry as a whole, especially the QSR and fast-casual segments, has been placing increasing emphasis on the breakfast daypart in recent years. Chains such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme have helped Americans get their morning off to a sweet start for decades, while Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Caribou Coffee, and others provide the caffeine we need to jump-start our day. For more substantial fare, consumers have long turned to drive-through operators such as McDonald’s for dashboard dining options like Egg McMuffins or to more traditional operators such as American restaurant icons IHOP, Denny’s, Waffle House, Big Boy, and Cracker Barrel. Fast-casual bakery cafes such as Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain are building momentum as well, although the popularity of them and the others mentioned extends well past the breakfast hours.

I like breakfast foods. Who doesn’t savor pancakes or waffles slathered in real butter and covered in genuine Vermont maple syrup? Biscuits with sausage gravy is a Southern staple. French toast, omelets, oatmeal, … And bacon makes everything better. What I don’t like is the time of day when breakfast is usually served. My stomach seems to wake up a few hours later than the rest of me, and by that time it’s mid-morning.

A solution for me and others like me is the relatively new introduction of the breakfast/brunch/lunch chains. They open early (usually no later than 7:00 AM) and close early (most at 2:00 or 3:00 PM). Unlike bagel chains Einstein Bros. and Big Apple Bagel that have similar hours but limited service and menus, the ‘brunchery’ chains have full-service sit-down dining and provide a wide variety of breakfast foods as well as a selection of sandwiches and salads. Omelets, crepes, breakfast sandwiches and wraps, eggs just about any style, pancakes, waffles, and French toast are just some of the offerings.

Most of the operators in this segment are small-ish and regional in nature. Many play up the concept through their names: Biscuitville, Eggs Up Grill, Another Broken Egg, Sunny Street Café, and The Egg & I are just some of the players.

Largest among them and one of the earliest on the scene is First Watch, which was founded in Pacific Grove, CA, in 1983. The company relocated to Bradenton, FL, a few years later, and the chain has grown to 100+ locations that are concentrated east of the Mississippi River but also has outposts in Arizona, Oklahoma, and a few Midwest states. The name of the concept is a nautical term that refers to the first shift of the day, and the company has added the tag line “The Daytime Café” to its signage. It was acquired by a private equity firm in late 2011.

I’ve eaten at First Watch in Tampa a number of times and always enjoy the wonderful eggs Benedict with fresh hash browns and fruit. My friend usually gets the fruit-filled crepes and raves about them. Recently, a First Watch restaurant opened near where I live, and another friend and I decided to check it out on Labor Day Monday. It’s a smaller-than-usual location (a former Blinds R Us franchise store that closed), and it was packed. We arrived at 11:15 and waited nearly 30 minutes for a table. However, it was definitely worth the wait!

The décor is clean and uncluttered with lots of natural light. Service was prompt and friendly, and as always the food was delivered hot and tasty. The Key West Crepeggs didn’t disappoint with its filling of eggs, turkey, bacon, avocado, tomatoes and cheese. If we had chosen to, we could have joined the community table near the front of the restaurant where solitary diners or those in a hurry are welcome to join at any available seat. I noticed a lot of families with smaller children among the diners, as well as groups of friends enjoying a holiday break.

Until relatively recently, the company has grown slowly and organically, but last year it entered the Atlanta market by acquiring two J. Christopher’s units. The overwhelming majority of the locations are corporate-owned and -operated, but the company created a franchising VP position earlier this year and is expecting franchisees to account for a third of the more than 300 new restaurants projected by 2017. In 2013, First Watch was named one of “The Next 20” by Nation’s Restaurant News, which annually compiles “The Top 100” and “The Second 100” lists of leading restaurant operators and chains. Based on 2012 systemwide sales, First Watch was 8th on the list of next 20, a remarkable ranking given that the restaurants serve no alcohol and have limited hours.

While not in the same size range, The Egg & I is also coming on strong, experiencing more than 70% growth since the beginning of 2010. I noticed over the weekend that The Egg & I will be opening a restaurant just a few miles from my house, within in the demographic zone of the new First Watch. I look forward to discovering the differences between the two concepts.

If you’re interested in learning more about these and thousands of other restaurant operators in the U.S. and Canada, please give Chain Store Guide a call at 800-778-9794 and request a free demonstration of our online database.