On a recent weekday morning in downtown Toronto, hungry A&W customers lined up to get their breakfast fix before work.
Although the fast-food chain offers traditional staples like pancakes and omelettes, these early birds all hungered for one thing: the breakfast sandwich, where ingredients like eggs, cheese and bacon are secured between two buns — allowing for easy consumption.
"It's convenient, it's quick," said James Serreno, dining on a bacon-and-egg sandwich before heading into his administration job.
"It fits in your hand pretty easily. You can eat it while you're walking," added Kyle Ferreira.
He bought three sausage-and-egg sandwiches on the way to his accounting job, because, as usual, he didn't have time for breakfast at his home in Hamilton, Ont.
"I wake up at 6:50 a.m. I have about half an hour to shower, get dressed, and get to the bus."
The breakfast sandwich business is booming as more and more time-starved Canadians decide they don't have time for a meal at home. Instead, it seems, they'd rather eat a sandwich on the go.
'It's portable. It's hand-held. You can get it through the drive-thru. You can eat it in your car, on the way to work," said Toronto-based industry analyst Robert Carter.
Buying time at breakfast
Breakfast is the only mealtime where restaurant sales are growing in Canada, said Carter, who works with market research company, NPD Group. As cash-strapped, debt-ridden Canadians look to cut costs, dining out for lunch and dinner have become more of a luxury.
However, buying breakfast tends to be cheaper, and can save us precious time.
"We're always looking at ways, how can I buy an extra five, 10 minutes?" said Carter. "Having breakfast out of the home is one of those very convenient, simple ways."
According to NPD, between February 2016 and February 2017, 1.98 billion visits were paid to Canadian restaurants during breakfast time — an increase of six per cent compared to the previous year.
The barrage of breakfast sandwich offerings is helping feed the growth. NPD found that Canadians bought 552 million restaurant breakfast sandwiches in 2016 — a 12 per cent jump compared to 2013.
"You can get some pretty innovative breakfast sandwiches," said Carter.
Indeed, many fast-food chains — from Tim Hortons to McDonald's to A&W — make them with a bun, or perhaps a bagel, a wrap, an English muffin, or even a croissant, depending on where you dine. Prices start around $2.50 to $3 each.
And just like with their beloved coffee, customers don't have to waste time sitting to eat their sandwich. In fact, if they travel by car, they don't even have to enter the restaurant — thanks to the convenience of drive-thrus.
NPD surveyed thousands of Canadians' eating habits and found 30 per cent of our restaurant-bought breakfasts in 2016 were purchased from a drive-thru.
"We jokingly say the fastest-growing appliance for breakfast now is the power-window button on your car," said Carter.
The drive toward breakfast sandwiches is also very good for others in the industry. For example, over the past five years, breakfast sandwich sales have more than doubled for packaged-food supplier, Premium Brands Holdings Corp.
The Richmond, B.C.-based company supplied mainly quick-service restaurants with about $450 million worth of sandwiches last year — and 90 per cent of them were for the breakfast crowd.
"Lifestyles have changed," said company CEO George Paleologou. "People are generally eating on the go, so demand for hand-held foods is definitely going up."
Soggy cereal sales
The rise of the breakfast sandwich is also eating into cereal sales — a traditional staple that can't be consumed while commuting to work, at least not with milk.
According to market research firm Euromonitor International, Canadian cold cereal sales totalled $918.7 million US in 2016 — a decline of 7.3 per cent since 2012. Sales are projected to fall another 7.3 per cent by 2021.
Euromonitor notes the decline is due to a number of factors, including a growing number of breakfast-meal options and the desire for grab-and-go meals outside the home.
A&W customer Ferreira said if he took time out for morning cereal, he figures he'd have to get up almost an hour earlier to give himself enough time to get to work. "There's already such a small amount of time to sleep as it is."
Carter predicts breakfast out will become even more popular as more restaurant chains let customers pre-order and prepay using their smartphones. Starbucks has already launched an app offering that service at select Canadian locations, and McDonald's has one in the works.
However, for Ferreira, the tables have already turned: he's back to making his own breakfast.
But that's only because it has now become more convenient. The chef-by-trade has just changed jobs and is currently running two restaurants. That means he can prepare breakfast on the job — without losing any time.