In pre-pandemic times, Rick Bell had the breakfast routine down at Engadine Inn and Cabins in the Asheville, North Carolina, area, where he is an owner, proprietor and cook.
First course: a fruit-based dish. Second: traditional hot breakfast, sweet or savory depending on the day. Plates went out one at a time to guests of the bed-and-breakfast in the dining room, along with juice and coffee. Service started at 9 a.m.
These days, mealtime and tables are being spread out, and porches are open for breakfast. And instead of making several visits to a table, a server is leaving all the plates, pots and cups at once to avoid too much interaction.
"The meal is delivered hopefully before you arrive, and then you're on your own unless you need something," Bell said.
Like hoteliers all over the world, Bell is having to reconsider once-standard morning meal plans to accommodate new health regulations, employee safety and customer concerns as coronavirus changes the way people travel and dine out. For the many hotel brands that have elevated breakfast to a key part of their offering, the adjustment is especially important.
Anthony Melchiorri, a hospitality consultant and host of "Hotel Impossible" on the Travel Channel, said breakfast has been a hot topic as hotels consider changes forced by the coronavirus, both in consulting conversations and in regular interview shows on LinkedIn.
"It's coming up across the brands," he said.
Americans aren't returning in droves to hotels yet. According to data from travel research firm STR, U.S. hotel occupancy reached just over 39% between May 31 and June 6, a slight uptick from the previous week but a steep drop from the same time a year earlier. Still, when guests do get back to hotels, they want to find their favorite amenities.
"They still want their breakfast and you've got to be able to provide the breakfast," says Melchiorri. He said hotels have plenty of options, including extending hours, limiting capacity, asking guests to make reservations at staggered times and having staff dish out food that customers might have retrieved themselves.
"There's so many ways to make it work, I don't think you need to take it away," he said.
At Hyatt, guests are able to use the company's app to see menus, order food to pick up and pay.
"Restaurants offering breakfast service have shifted from self-service buffets to a-la-carte menus or made-to-order options," Frank Lavey, senior vice president of global operations at Hyatt, said in an email. "Individually prepackaged items may also be available for guests to grab on-the-go."
Industry giant Marriott International said in a statement that the company was looking at spacing furniture out in food and beverage areas, adding new signage, updating the way food is prepared and distributed and using contactless room service, among other measures in the new era.
Hilton, whose Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn brands have developed a fan base thanks to their breakfast options — cooked-to-order and make-your-own waffle, respectively — is moving away from buffets in favor of grab-and-go meals.
"As travel resumes, we plan to ramp up breakfast options, first by expanding the grab-and-go options to include things like hot items in pre-plated individualized portions, and then by exploring buffet-style service, but with attendants with increased levels of sanitization and hygiene protocols," Phil Cordell, Hilton's global head of new brand development, said in an email.
Where room service is available, it will arrive in a shopping bag instead of a rolling cart, and the delivery will be contact-free.
As for those waffles, Cordell said Hampton Inn is now employing grab-and-go breakfasts, but will be "exploring ways to gradually bring back the made-to-order breakfast, although it may be with an attendant versus DIY, to make sure we can maintain consistent standards of cleanliness."
According to a 2018 news release, people eat nearly 27 million waffles at Hampton hotels in the U.S. every year, and douse them in 627,000 gallons of syrup.
"We are working to return to what our customers know and love as quickly as possible, but are doing so cautiously always with their safety, and that of our team members, in mind," Cordell said in the email.
The rise of the hotel breakfast as a prized amenity came about several decades ago, as hotels tried to find ways to compete without sacrificing prices, according to Scott Smith, an associate professor at the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management at the University of South Carolina.
"Everyone likes a little extra in the morning, and a breakfast is really something the hotel can do really well," he said. "It can add value to the guest stay and both the leisure traveler and business traveler appreciate a good breakfast."
Smith, who worked in hotel management for 20 years, includes what he calls "the breakfast wars" in lectures. The battles started with a free pastry and fruit, he said, and escalated to include a hot entree over time. The clear winner, he said, was the full cooked-to-order breakfast, included in the room rate, at Embassy Suites — a perk that Smith said made the chain "the easiest brand in the world to sell" when he was a sales manager.
The competition over breakfast foods inspired Hampton's make-your-own waffle option as a way to help the brand stand out, according to a history provided by Hilton. Challenged to find "cool, different" features, a team considered and rejected items such as breakfast on a stick and plain premade waffles before deciding on fresh waffles.
After piloting the idea, the brand realized the concept had an unexpected benefit, albeit one that no longer flies in an age of social distancing: encouraging guests to share techniques and tips.
"The team hadn't anticipated how much that tiny bit of social interaction would enhance the experience," the Hilton history says.