When engineer Ron Green moved to Louisiana from San Diego in the early 1990s to work on the superconducting super collider, the thing he missed most was brunch. "I spent 16 years in California, and on weekend mornings I'd travel up and down Highway 1, looking for little restaurants. I kept mental notes about what I liked and disliked about each of them," he says. "When I moved to Hammond, La., and tried to go out on weekends, all I could find were IHOPs, Denny's and Waffle Houses."
When the government scrapped the super-collider project, Green took it as sign to try something new. He bought an old summer home one block off Lake Pontchartrain in the small town of Mandeville, and in 1996 opened The Broken Egg Café, the type of friendly, slightly upmarket brunch spot he'd been yearning for. It seemed other people in the area had been looking for something similar--customers happily accepted two-hour wait times at the cafe on Saturday and Sunday mornings during its first year in business.
Sixteen years later, Green's original restaurant still draws weekend crowds, as do the 20 units of his franchise, dubbed Another Broken Egg Café. While Green's menu has 150 items, including burgers and sandwiches, more than half the offerings have one thing in common: Their main ingredient is the humble egg.
A decade ago, when buffet chains, fast-food outlets and family-dining franchises were expanding their menus, attempting to cater to almost every taste, a singular focus on an item such as the egg would have seemed like a stamp of doom. But now, with the success of narrowly themed concepts like the 260-plus-unit Noodles & Company and the 126-unit Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers (which offers only its namesake product, plus fries, toast and coleslaw), restaurants that do one thing--and do it well--are gaining traction.
The secret is in picking an item with enough broad appeal and versatility to anchor a menu. PB Loco, a gourmet peanut-butter sandwich chain that started franchising in 2005, got great reviews for its unique flavor combinations. The problem was, the concept didn't appeal to breakfast and dinner crowds; even for lunch, the grade-school staple felt more like an occasional novelty than a regular meal. The company started closing stores in early 2008. A small flurry of cereal-only restaurants opened and flamed out in the mid-2000s, going down for the same reasons.
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant research and consulting firm in Chicago, says narrowly focused restaurants need to choose their offerings wisely. "What's at the center of the plate? Is it substantial enough for people to think of as a meal?" he asks. "Noodles & Company broadened its menu to add sandwiches; they have salads, soups, proteins and a good beverage choice. And people are comfortable having pasta at the center of the plate."
Green is not the only one who believes eggs have enough heft to take center stage at mealtime. Besides Another Broken Egg, other egg-focused eateries in the "better breakfast" category include First Watch, Mimi's Café and Le Peep. They've all benefited from a breakfast craze that has made morning meals the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. restaurant industry for the last five years, according to market research firm The NPD Group.