TIME Food & Drink

Alice Waters: The Fate of Our Nation Rests on School Lunches

TIME 100 Gala, TIME's 100 Most Influential People In The World - Red Carpet
Alice Waters attends the TIME 100 Gala, TIME's 100 most influential people in the world at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 29, 2014 in New York City. Kevin Mazur—Getty Images

It was the French philosopher Brillat-Savarin who wrote, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” And it is this, his most famous idea, that is now never far from my mind when it comes to the discussion of school lunch in this country. When I read last week that there are those in Washington who would dismantle the recent positive gains that have been made in improving the way children are fed at school, I was appalled — yet sadly not surprised. As with many institutions and universal ideas in this nation in recent years, it seems that even something as right and as basic as feeding children food that is good for them has become politicized.

Right now we all need to pause, step back and look at the bigger picture. The costs associated with not investing in real food are too great, and we need to acknowledge honestly the far-reaching consequences that the current program has had in every area of American life. By allowing fast-food culture into the cafeteria, we have effectively endorsed that industry’s values, helped facilitate the obesity epidemic, widened the achievement gap and aided an addiction to junk. Even in the short term these costs, both tangible and intangible, dwarf the budget for a universal — and real — school food program. The idea of school lunch as an egalitarian mechanism to nourish our nation’s potential has long been discarded and devalued. We are faced with an enormous crisis of health, education and inequality.

We need to have the courage and conviction to establish a nutritious, sustainable, free school-lunch program for all.

The incremental steps the First Lady has fought for, as valuable as they are, are never going to address the challenges we are facing. Lunch must become integrated into the daily lessons. Like physical education, we need edible education. Until lunch becomes about learning and is central to school life, children and lunch ladies are bound to reject changes. A plan of this scope and scale may not be realistic in the current Congress, but it is where we must go. I truly believe that decisionmakers on both sides of politics will come to realize this is the most logical place to reach every child and have the most lasting impact. The public school system is our last truly democratic institution.

Having worked in it — and in this field — for more than 20 years with the Edible Schoolyard Project, I have seen that engaging all children at the table with a delicious meal made from real ingredients transforms their attitudes and behavior for life. By making lunch an interactive part of the curriculum, we empower children to make their own informed decisions.

When children learn about where their food comes from, their eyes open to the billion-dollar marketing campaigns that target them. They are also freed from the prison of fast-food addiction. It is my experience — and that of many other educators in the U.S. — that once there is a real alternative, children do not throw out their healthier options. In fact, they embrace those healthy foods and never look back.

I know that many in government on both sides of politics now realize that in food we find the root problem of many of our nation’s ills: diet-related disease, hunger, environmental devastation. And I am sure that by redirecting ourselves to real food, we find also the solution. We need to start at school. By radically changing the way we think about feeding our children, we not only change the nutrition of individual children and the diet of all Americans in a generation, we also restore the health of the land — and the essential values of this country.

TIME Saving

You Can Get a Free Ice Cream Cone Tonight

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Free Cone Day is back at Haagen-Dazs, with free scoops being dished out at hundreds of shops starting at 4 p.m. today.

Haagen-Dazs is celebrating Free Cone Day on Tuesday, May 13, when no fewer than 167 Haagen-Dazs shops in 27 states and the District of Columbia will offer each customer one free scoop of their favorite flavor ice cream in a cone or cup, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

When the event took place last year, Haagen-Dazs scooped more than 200,000 complimentary cones. The company expects to easily break that record today.

Other than dealing with what will surely be larger-than-usual lines inside your local Haagen-Dazs, it’s the perfect night to invite some friends out for ice cream. Tell them that you’re buying.

TIME Food and Beverage Industry

Fastest-Growing Alcoholic Beverage Category? It’s Not Craft Beer

Craft beer’s growth in the U.S. has been amazing, rising from 11.5 million barrels brewed in 2011 to over 15 million barrels in 2013. Over that same time span, however, production of another traditional American brew has tripled.

We’re talking about the rise of hard cider. The growth of cider—or rather, the comeback, since cider was America’s beverage of choice during colonial times—has been in the works for years, hitting an especially hot streak recently. Big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and the Boston Beer Company (maker of Samuel Adams) have taken notice and joined in the trend, introducing cider brands of their own, complete with broad marketing campaigns for beverages that are sweeter and more gender-neutral than beer.

Interest in cider has piggybacked on both the craft beer and foodie trends, in which a sizeable swath of consumers devotes a considerable amount of time, effort, and dollars to regularly seeking out new, interesting, typically local flavors. The popularity of cider in the U.S. also follows in the footsteps of the market in Europe. A little less than a decade ago, cider “suddenly became the most fashionable drink in England,” Ed Gibson, an Englishman who now runs Austin Eastciders in Texas, recalled to the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “Everybody was drinking it – all the pop stars, celebrities and the cool kids. It went through a renaissance at that time and now it’s about 15 percent of the beer market in England.”

Cider’s share of the market is considerably smaller in the U.S.—maybe 1%. But sales have soared of late, up nearly 100% in one recent 52-week period. Data cited in an Oregonian story about the rising popularity of cider in the U.S.—and in particular, in Oregon—indicates that American hard cider production more than tripled from 2011 to 2013, from 9.4 million gallons to 32 million gallons.

And, unsurprisingly, there’s nowhere better to this trend in action but in trendy Portland. Portland not only says it has more breweries than any other city on earth (53 and counting), it is now claiming to be the “worldwide epicenter for cider.” That’s the phrase used by Jeff Smith, co-owner of what he says is America’s first boutique cider-only bar, Bushwacker Cider, located in southeast Portland. The place offers nearly 300 varieties of cider, and Smith told the Oregonian that consumers are drawn to the not-bitter beverage for the simplest of reasons: “It’s not as complicated as beer. You basically get an apple and crush it. It’s branch to bottle. People see that.”

Even as cider has been enjoying a sharp rise in sales, cider makers expect much bigger things down the road. During the past two CiderCONs, held since 2011 in Chicago, researchers surveyed more than 100 cider producers, and the vast majority projected strong growth for their companies over the next five years. A 2012 Nielsen report, meanwhile, stated that the “relatively small Cider segment is poised for great growth,” in part because ciders “attract a younger, more affluent consumer.”

TIME Saving

Free Pretzels! Hot Giveaway on Saturday to Celebrate National Pretzel Day

There’s still more than a month’s wait until the arrival of Free Donut Day. So for now the free pretzels served up hot and salty on Saturday will have to suffice.

National Pretzel Day might not have quite the magnetic, indulgent pull of Free Slurpee Day, Free (Ice Cream) Cone Day, or the mother of all gluttonous marketing giveaways, National Donut Day, but hey, a freebie’s a freebie.

Here’s where and how to score a free pretzel on Saturday, April 26, a.k.a. National Pretzel Day 2014:

Philly Pretzel Factory. Every one of this company’s 135 stores around the country is giving out one free pretzel per guest on Saturday. The goal set by the company is to hand out a staggering one million free pretzels this year.

Pretzelmaker. All customers at participating locations of this chain—found in malls throughout the country—are welcomed to enjoy a free soft pretzel, in a choice of salted or unsalted. Pretzelmaker expects to give out some 65,000+ free pretzels on Saturday, while raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: Customers are “encouraged (but not obligated)” to make a donation while picking up their free pretzels.

Snyder’s of Hanover. At nine locations around the U.S., including the St. Louis Zoo and Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Snyder’s is dishing out free pretzel pieces in a variety of flavors—Honey Mustard & Onion, Bacon Cheddar, Hot Buffalo Wing, and so on.

TIME Food and Beverage Industry

The Perfect Bacon Bowl Is Totally the Next Snuggie

The Perfect Bacon Bowl has sold 2 million units in its first four months

Nobody needs a bacon bowl. We’ve managed to survive as a species for thousands of years consuming bacon in its much more pedestrian form: as strips. Eaten one at a time. Not baked together into a receptacle.

Yet, in the four months since its television advertising debut, the Perfect Bacon Bowl–a cooking apparatus used to do exactly what it sounds like–has sold 2 million units and is set to rival another product no one ever thought they had use for: the Snuggie.

The Perfect Bacon Bowl is the brainchild of Thom Jensen, a Salt Lake City histologist looking for a way to get his kids out of bed on Saturday mornings. He first tried to make a bacon turtle–just a turtle made out of bacon–using an upside-down muffin tin. But the bacon burned. So Jensen looked online and found people were making bacon bowls all over the place by putting aluminum foil around the tin, which got him thinking.

Jensen sent an online video of a conceptual bacon bowl into Edison Nation, a company that solicits ideas from everyday inventors. If Edison Nation believes the product might sell, the company licenses it and brings it to market, giving the inventors a cut of the sales. Jensen’s prototype was crude, a mere container made purely from tin foil, but it caught the eye of Edison Nation, including CEO Louis Foreman.

“There’s an incredible number of great ideas out there that never get to market because the obstacles are too great,” says Foreman, who’s also an inventor. “If you woke up and said, I have a great idea, you’d have two choices – quit your job and become an entrepreneur, which is high risk, or try to license your invention to somebody else.”

For many would-be inventors, however, filing for a patent and developing a prototype can be complicated and incredibly expensive. Foreman began Edison Nation as a way for people to realize their ideas without resorting to something drastic like liquidating their 401k. Anyone with $25 can submit an idea, and if it gets approved, Edison Nation invests all the capital and gives 7.5% royalties to the inventor.

The company receives thousands of submissions a year, but only a handful actually making it to store shelves. Foreman says trends and technologies like the maker movement and 3D printing have spurred more Americans to try their hand at inventing. He also says that because there’s less brand loyalty than ever (and the fact that stores will take virtually anything back) consumers are also more likely to try something different.

Since its founding in 2008, Edison Nation has licensed hundreds of products, including Party in the Tub (a disco light to get kids to take a bath), Eggies (an alternative to hard-boiling an egg), Gyro Bowl (a “spill-resistant” bowl for kids) and Emery Cat (a cat scratching board).

But Bacon Bowl may outperform them all. Edison Nation says the product is on par with the Snuggie, which sold 25 million units in a little over two years and has brought in an estimated half a billion dollars since it debuted in 2008. “I’m just overwhelmed,” Jensen says.

Bacon Bowl is the only one of the two dozen or so ideas Jensen has sent into Edison Nation. And even though he’s likely to receive a hefty royalty check at the end of the year, he’s not going to quit his day job. “I have to have something to pay for my hobby,” he says.

TIME Food and Beverage Industry

Doh! Government Proposal Could Make Beer Prices Soar

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There’s a lot to hate about changes proposed by the FDA, which could push prices higher not only for beer, but for milk and meat as well. The new regulations are being bashed as wasteful and anti-recycling to boot.

For centuries, beer manufacturers and farmers have enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement, in which the barley and other spent grain that’s left over in the brewing process is sold or given to farmers to use as cheap feed for animals.

“I get free waste removal and he gets free feed — it doesn’t get any better than that,” Kyle Williams, owner and brewer at North Carolina’s Brevard Brewing Co., who works with the nearby Busybee Farm, explained in a recent (Hendersonville) Times-News story. “It’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship.”

This relationship is in jeopardy, however, due to changes proposed by the FDA that are part of the broader Food Safety Modernization Act. Brewers fear that if the proposal is approved, they would be required to dry and package spent grain before it’s shipped off to farmers as feed. The equipment needed and administrative hassles required to handle that extra step in the waste removal process would cost a bundle—as much as $13 million per brewing facility, Scott Mennen, vice president of brewery operations at Widmer Brothers Brewery in North Portland, Ore., told the Oregonian. “That would be cost prohibitive,” Mennen said. “Most brewers would have to put this material in a landfill.”

(MORE: That Craft Beer You’re Drinking Isn’t Craft Beer. Do You Care?)

The proposals, as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act in general, are obviously designed to protect consumers and make food safer. But no one has made much of a case indicating that using spent grain as feed is unsafe for animals or humans—an FDA spokesperson cited in the Oregonian piece couldn’t a single example in which the age-old practice has caused problems.

The Brewers Association declared the FDA proposal an “unwarranted burden for all brewers,” arguing that if the regulations would approved, costs would rise for brewers—and, inevitably, for drinkers who buy products made by those brewers—and that the changes would also be bad for the environment:

Brewers of all sizes must either adhere to new processes, testing requirements, recordkeeping and other regulatory requirements or send their spent grain to landfills, wasting a reliable food source for farm animals and triggering a significant economic and environmental cost.

Right behind brewers in the protest over the new regulations are farmers, who are potentially losing an inexpensive stream of feed for animals. The system of recycling a nearby brewer’s spent grain “saves me so much money in feed costs it’s incredible,” one small farmer in North Carolina, who uses the grain to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens, said to the Times-News. “If I couldn’t get the grain, it wouldn’t be justifiable for me to be in the hog business, because it keeps the cost down to where it’s affordable for me to feed them — that would be one more industry I would be out of.”

To recap, the new FDA proposal would raise the costs and complications in the of production process for beer brewers, and would also make it more expensive for farmers to feed animals, perhaps even to the point of putting some out of business. The proposal wasn’t created to address some specific safety problem, nor out of concern for the environment—in fact, approval of the new regulations could result in more waste at landfills, which is less than ideal for the environment.

(MORE: The Resurgence of Cheap Old-School Mass-Market Beer)

And horror of all horrors, your beer could wind up costing more down the line. Same thing for meat, dairy, and a wide range of products that originate at farms, as the rise in feed prices is a prime reason why there’s been such as steep rise in beef prices lately.

The FDA is currently reviewing the proposed rule changes, and it is including the overwhelmingly negative feedback it has received from brewers and farmers in this process. A revised proposal is expected sometime this summer.

UPDATE: The Beer Institute, the national trade organization for the American beer industry, understandably opposes the FDA proposals. A representative of the group reached out to TIME and released a statement explaining the Beer Institute “began a year ago with FDA and other industry groups to make sure the amended rule we expect this summer allows us to continue this practice of marketing spent grains in the safe, sanitary and swift manner that the industry has exhibited.” Chris Thorne, vice president of communications for the Beer Institute, also said, “The FDA has asked the Beer Institute to please make sure that brewers understand there is no requirement that spent grains be dried and pre-packaged.”

TIME Food and Beverage Industry

Big Comeback Planned for the All-American Drive-in Burger Joint

Wendy's hamburger has become more popular than McDonald's.
Paul Vernon / AP

The once-ubiquitous drive-in restaurant–you know, the kind with rollerskating waitresses–will be seen again very soon in all parts of the country, even in states where you wouldn’t want to eat outside for much of the year.

Sonic, the old-fashioned burger-and-shake chain known as “America’s Drive-in,” grew steadily in the early years of the new century. The company hit the 2,000-location market in 1999, and promptly leaped up to 3,000 drive-in locations by 2005. By late 2008, the 3,500th Sonic location opened in the U.S.

However, that’s where the expansion leveled off. Here we are, six years later, and the Sonic website lists the number of locations as simply “more than 3,500.”

It’s understandable that Sonic’s growth might slow substantially of late. The company’s franchise expansion stalled around the time of the Great Recession, when business slowed across a wide range of industries. Over the past five years or so, fast food lunch and dinner sales totals have generally plateaued, and a perception has taken hold that perhaps we’re reaching the point when American consumers just can’t handle any more fast food burger joints.

What’s more, Sonic stands out in the crowded field due to its drive-in feature, in which customers pull up into parking spots in their cars, place their order, and wait for one of the restaurant’s old-fashioned “carhop” staffers to delivery the food. It’s a charming custom, but the charm wears off when, say, it’s 20 degrees and there’s 18 inches of snow on the ground.

“The main difference that sets drive-ins and drive-thrus apart is that the demand for drive-ins is more heavily dependent on the weather,” Hester Jeon, an analyst with IBIS World, explained recently to Marketplace. “Sonic’s business dips pretty dramatically during the colder months.”

So another reason that Sonic’s growth slowed is that it was running out of warm-weather spots to open up more franchises. The company is based in Oklahoma, and its restaurants have traditionally been concentrated there and in Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and throughout the South—pretty much everywhere that spring starts early and the chill of fall sets in late.

Nonetheless, Sonic just announced huge plans for growth, with expansion in the U.S. expected to reach roughly the same pace it reached in the early ’00s. The numbers thrown around by Sonic are bold, and nice and round: 1,000 new locations over the next 10 years.

In light of the company’s already heavy presence in the South, how will Sonic do it? First, it’s targeting states with mild climates that don’t already have an abundance of Sonics, namely California. Over the next six years, the goal is to open 15 Sonics in southern California, specifically in greater Los Angeles and San Diego County, and another 15 elsewhere in California. By 2020, Sonic expects to have a total of 300 drive-in locations in the state.

Second, and most interestingly, Sonic isn’t shying away from cold-weather locations. Last summer, Sonic opened in its 44th state, an unlikely one for a drive-in chain: North Dakota.

What makes Sonic’s expansion to North Dakota and other spots with short summers feasible is the introduction of a new restaurant design prototype that features drive-in stalls and outdoor seating that most Sonics, but that also includes a decent-sized area for indoor seating—making the idea of eating at Sonic in January in North Dakota or upstate New York seem not totally nuts. “With locations up north, we had to think creatively about how to develop a location that works with inclement weather while still matching the iconic SONIC Drive-In look,” Bob Franke, Sonic senior vice president of franchise sales and international development, said in a press release for the opening of the North Dakota location. “The result is a new SONIC Drive-In prototype that gives our guests many options during their visit that won’t be disrupted by a little snow.”

The result for diners is that even if they live in an area of the country where drive-in dining wouldn’t be comfortable for the majority of the year, they’ll be fairly likely to see a Sonic pop up in their neck of the woods in the near future. “The Northern states are ripe with expansion opportunities for Sonic, given the brand’s relatively small footprint in the area combined with high customer awareness and pent-up demand,” Franke said earlier this year. Over the next handful of years, 13 new Sonics are planned in the vicinity of Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., and by 2018 another 14 should open in the greater Seattle area.

TIME Food

Panera’s Founder Showed Us Exactly How He Plans to Revolutionize Dining

Ron Shaich, Panera's Executive Chairman Of The Board
Ron Shaich, Panera's co-founder Boston Globe—Boston Globe/Getty Images

Panera Bread is changing the way customers interact with its cafes thanks to an across-the-board digital transformation involving self-service kiosks and from-the-table mobile ordering—a strategy four years in the making from founder and CEO Ron Shaich

When Panera Bread’s CEO suggests turkey chili for lunch (even though you’re more of a tomato soup guy) and a turkey club (despite the fact that ham and swiss is clearly superior), you give in and let him order.

Because not only does Ron Shaich really want me to try the turkey chili, which he assures me that I’ll like, but he wants to demonstrate what the company calls “Panera Bread 2.0″ – an across-the-board shift involving self-service iPads, from-the-table mobile ordering and a new take-out system that will fundamentally change the way Panera interacts with its customers.

Over the next three years, Panera Bread will redesign its 1,800 restaurants to allow for a host of integrated technologies to make the dining experience easier, faster and more technologically driven — all something Shaich has been pondering for years now. “I wrote a vision for this four years ago,” he tells me over lunch at a Panera Bread in Midtown Manhattan, one of a handful of cafes just beginning to use some of the new technologies. “The big thing here is not about technology. It’s technology enabling a differentiated guest experience for how you want to use Panera.”

In 2010, Shaich stepped down as CEO, became executive chairman, and began thinking long-term about the company, all centered around a main idea: How would he compete with Panera if he weren’t working for Panera? He remembers calling a Panera cafe near his home in Brookline, Mass., and getting the manager on the phone so his food would be ready by the time he got to the restaurant. “I thought, this is a phenomenal system,” he says. “The only problem is this only works for the CEO. There’s 8 million customers a week.”

Shaich says he realized that Panera’s soft underbelly was a one-size-fits-all guest experience. Everybody got in the same line. Everybody waited at the same registers. Then the cashiers would send everyone over to what Shaich calls the “mosh pit.” “That’s where we’d say, Pick up your food,” he says. “And you’d play the game in the mosh pit called find your food. You sandwich is here. Your salad is over there. Your espresso drink is in a third place.”

Those experiences led him to rethink the way the restaurant operated and interacted with its customers. And it led him here, to this Midtown Panera, where he’s ordering me turkey chili on an iPad instead of waiting in a traditional line and choosing an item from an overhead menu. At this café, the Panera iPads are the first thing you see when you walk in. Shaich swipes through the menu, adds a chicken salad for himself, chooses my turkey chili and turkey club, and swipes his credit card.

As we wait, he takes me into the kitchen to show how the back-end inner-workings have had to change as well. Shaich says 50% of Panera’s orders are customized, meaning people are adding or subtracting certain ingredients to their preferences. Panera 2.0 is all about personalization, and the order boards for Panera’s kitchen staff have also been altered. Added ingredients show up in bright green. Subtracted ones are in red. It’s all an attempt to increase Panera’s accuracy.

After a few minutes, we reach a counter to get our food, one of several places you can now locate an order. All items ordered from the iPad kiosks are at one counter. Take-out items are situated in a bookshelf-like area for easier pick-up. Or, you can bypass the whole thing, sit down at a table, order on your phone, and your meal will arrive right where you’re sitting.

The $42 million 2.0 rollout will cost $125,000 a store, and Shaich has publicly told shareholders to expect slower growth over the next couple years. But he believes what Panera is doing is where the industry as a whole is heading. He says they’re not just using technology for technology’s sake, but are utilizing it in a way that is enhancing the customer experience and catering to a younger demographic that increasingly uses mobile technologies and is accustomed to getting things to their own specifications quickly.

“My whole job is to figure out what the world’s going to need down the road and get this company to that place,” Shaich says. “Expect us to have relatively modest earnings growth over the next two years, because we’re making major investments in this. But it changes the trajectory of the whole company.”

TIME Food and Beverage Industry

How Breakfast Became the Most Important Meal of the Day

It's not just Taco Bell and McDonald's who are duking it out to win over America's early diners. Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Jack in the Box, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. have all stepped up to the plate recently with new marketing campaigns or menu items

Fast food chains generate the vast majority of their revenues during the lunch and dinner hours. So why does it seem all the industry’s biggest players care about lately is breakfast?

It’s been a nasty couple of weeks in the fast food world. Not due to any new “pink slime” type scandals, but thanks to an increasingly aggressive, in-your-face ad and social media showdown between Taco Bell and McDonald’s. The war is all about breakfast, and it kicked off when Taco Bell featured Ronald McDonald—actually, a whole bunch of guys really named Ronald McDonald, not the McDonald spokesclown—in a commercial giving Taco Bell over-the-top endorsements for its new breakfast.

McDonald’s countered by enticing the morning crowd with a promise of free coffee for a couple of weeks, followed up more recently by the launch of the McGriddle as a tempting new pancake-wrapped alternative to Taco Bell’s waffle-wrapped breakfast taco. The battles have continued on with braggy Tweets and more ads, and while plenty of smack has been talked, there’s something contrived about all of the bickering. Both of the combatants involved, of course, are well aware that they both stand to benefit thanks to the attention showered upon them.

What’s somewhat overlooked amid this colorful smackdown is that the players are fighting about a meal that has traditionally been something of an afterthought for fast food—but that has taken on enormous importance lately.

(MORE: Why Fast Food Chains Wish the Dollar Menu Would Disappear)

It’s not just Taco Bell and McDonald’s duking it out over breakfast. As Nation’s Restaurant News summed up earlier this year, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Jack in the Box, and sister chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have all stepped up their breakfast game recently, rolling out new marketing campaigns and introducing new menu items. Likewise, Businessweek took note of White Castle’s new Belgian Waffle breakfast sandwich, which is available not only in the morning like you’d guess, but after midnight for the chain’s celebrated late-night munchers.

Why does it seem like breakfast has become the most important meal of the day among fast-food competitors? Why is it that the traditional marquee battlegrounds, lunch and dinner, seem to have taken a step back in terms of fast food priorities?

The answer is simply that throughout the fast food world, lunch and dinner sales have been flat for years, while breakfast sales have climbed steadily—up 4.8% annually from 2007 to 2012, according to The Motley Fool. Meanwhile, the food and beverage research firm Technomic just reported that fast food “burger chains have finally reached maturity” in the U.S., with minimal or nonexistent growth it terms of both sales and number of locations.

When it seems impossible for fast food outlets to increase sales during lunch and dinner, and it also seems impossible or at least infeasible to create more fast food franchise locations, there’s still one way to boost sales—and that’s to pull in more customers into existing restaurants at times other than the usual lunch and dinner periods. These other “dayparts,” as they call them in the business, include the post-dinner time, which has gotten a push with late-night menus and greasy “craver” snacks, and, of course, breakfast.

(MORE: Drinkers, Stoners, Insomniacs Wanted: Fast Food Expands Late-Night Menus)

“This decade, visits to restaurants have slowed, and especially during the recession they declined for two years—but the morning meal was the bright spot,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst for NPD, which released a study earlier this year indicating breakfast sales increased 3% in 2013 across the entire restaurant industry, according to QSR Magazine. “It continues to grow strongly while the other dayparts are not.”

And why has breakfast been the anomaly? The frantic, on-the-go, no-time-to-cook nature of modern life is one reason. The Egg McMuffin-unemployment connection offers another explanation, showing a correlation between fast food breakfast sales and the jobs market. Basically, the theory holds that more people swing by the drive-thru in the morning when they actually have jobs to drive to—and when they’re jobless, there’s less reason to get out of bed, let alone feel compelled (or financially able) to fork over cash for a prepared morning meal.

What’s interesting is that the post-recession era has been notable in that the unemployment rate has declined, and that a disproportionate number of the jobs created lately have been low-paying gigs. Both of these factors actually bode well for restaurant breakfast sales because 1) when people have jobs, they’re more likely to eat breakfast out of the house on the way to work (see above); and 2) breakfast is the most affordable meal to eat at a restaurant, so it’s more within reach of today’s typical low-wage worker.

“It’s the cheapest meal you can get at a restaurant outside of a snack,” said the NPD’s Riggs. Among consumers, demand is high and rising for a fast, inexpensive restaurant breakfast, so it’s understandable that so many players in fast food want to win the battle for this growing, increasingly important time of day. “Those who are best able to meet consumers’ wants and needs at that daypart are the ones that will win market share.”

TIME Smart Spending

Your Grilling Season Budget Just Went Up in Smoke

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Mike Lang—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It’s finally the time of year to break out the barbecue and cook outdoors. Now if only you could afford some steaks to toss on the grill.

This shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. Beef prices have been rising sharply since the beginning of the year, and the increases have come as a result of factors in play long before then. Thanks to long periods of drought, shrinking cattle herds, soaring feed prices, and high demand among consumers, analysts have been saying that beef prices will remain high for years to come.

So this week’s Associated Press headline indicating that beef prices in the U.S. have hit their highest levels in nearly three decades shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. Just how high are prices? USDA choice-grade beef reached $5.28 a pound in February, up from $4.19 a year prior and $3.97 in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Retail beef prices usually decrease after the winter holidays, hand in hand with a fall-off in demand after the period of New Year’s parties and Christmas gatherings is over. But that never really happened in early 2014. A Department of Agriculture reported released earlier this year indicated that average beef prices were up to $5.04 per pound, a record high that was quickly surpassed when the next Department of Agriculture study was published.

What’s a hungry home griller to do? Well, there’s always Meatless Monday. Long before the dramatic rise in beef prices, the concept of scaling back on meat consumption has been pushed as a way to improve one’s health and finances. Data cited by Bloomberg News indicates that Americans are eating less red meat than they have in the recent past. The USDA forecasts that Americans will eat an average of 101.7 pounds of red meat this year, compared to 104.4 pounds in 2013.

Even so, due to the exceptionally small number of cattle in the U.S., as well as growing demand for beef overseas, the supply-demand ratio has pushed prices higher—and likely, higher still down the road. Understandably enough, beef prices generally rise during “grilling season,” which peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Penny-pinching experts always roll out essentially the same handful of tips for coping with higher meat prices. You can make do with cheaper cuts, for instance, or eat more pork, poultry, or yes, even vegetables. Buying in bulk—at a warehouse club like Costco, or perhaps via a service like Zaycon Foods, which sells meat wholesale in church parking lots and other prearranged locations—is a classic bit of advice.

In fact, not that this will do us much good now, but back in January, observers who were taking note of the trajectory of wholesale prices were advising people to stock up on beef and freeze what meat couldn’t be used in the short-term. Prices were high then, but forecasts indicated that they’d be higher later on. And now we know, the forecasts were correct.

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