When he opened the gourmet pizzeria, Rocca, in January 2018, restaurateur Ozzie Fernandez knew that he would eventually have to serve brunch. It didn’t matter that pizzerias aren’t normally associated with brunch fare; Fernandez knew it was good business. He’d set up in one of the most brunch-centric parts of town, Mid City, and he created menu items that reinforced the restaurant’s theme while also fitting a brunch brand.
“There’s an expectation, especially among millennials, that full-service restaurants are going to offer brunch service in Baton Rouge, so we knew we would eventually do this,” Fernandez says. “It’s been a good move. We’ve seen a real increase in traffic on Saturday and Sundays because of brunch.”
A decade ago, brunch in the Capital City was limited to a handful of restaurants and hotels, but today, full-service restaurants of every type, as well as some quick-service spots, have jumped into the brunch fray, capitalizing on reliable crowds who seek it out every weekend. Along with places you’d expect, eateries as varied as T.J. Ribs and White Star Market are part of the game, as are bars like Olive or Twist, Duvic’s and The Overpass Merchant. More special event pop-up brunches have emerged as well.
“It has absolutely become a cultural phenomenon,” says attorney Franz Borghardt, who started a social media movement in 2015 called Baton Rouge Brunches as a way to raise money for charitable causes. “It’s the one meal of the week that people are willing to not order out, but to leave their house, go out and enjoy.”
City Pork Managing Partner Stephen Hightower agrees. The restaurant added Saturday and Sunday brunch shortly after the launch of the Perkins Road overpass location in 2013, and included it in its Jefferson Highway location, where it now also serves weekday breakfast.
“There’s no question that brunch has grown,” Hightower says. “Any restaurant that hasn’t done it yet is probably thinking about it.”
It’s not an easy task. Serving brunch is known for its frenzied pace, high volume surges and logistical challenges. But operators and consultants say it has two valuable upsides. It’s wildly popular today, delivering predictable traffic. And if done right, it can boost revenue without substantially increasing food and labor costs.
“Restaurants are fighting for every opportunity to get guests to come through their doors today,” says Danny Bendas, partner in the national restaurant consulting firm, Synergy. “So it makes sense to expand into this daypart as a way to increase your dollars per square foot.”
Jim Urdiales, owner of Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Restaurant, began serving brunch in 2012 “because I thought it was important to be open seven days a week to reduce debt and increase profit. It’s been successful, and we ended up also staying open on Sunday nights.”
Bendas says brunch sales are consistently higher than lunch sales because of the popularity of alcohol.
Paul McGoey, a 35-year veteran of the New Orleans restaurant business who opened Provisions on Perkins in September, agrees. “One of the reasons brunch is so popular is that it’s a meal where it’s considered okay to drink,” he says. “I would say that at 90 percent of our Sunday brunch tables, somebody is drinking. And throughout the restaurant, about 40 percent to 50 percent of guests are.”
“There’s no question that brunch has grown. Any restaurant that hasn’t done it yet is probably thinking about it.”
STEPHEN HIGHTOWER, managing partner, City Pork
Across the county and in Baton Rouge, brunch’s signature adult beverages—the Bloody Mary and the Mimosa—have been rebranded from simple static offerings to interactive consumer experiences, says Bendas, adding DIY Bloody Marys with variable toppings and liquors and so-called bottomless Mimosas are widely expected.
As for menu items, Bendas says it makes sense to offer a small number of brunch selections and execute them perfectly. While the reasons for doing so vary, here’s a key one: It keeps costs down and ensures a smoother-flowing kitchen.
That’s been the strategy deployed by Bistro Byronz, one of the area’s early brunch adapters. The restaurant’s original Baton Rouge location opened in Mid City in February 2006 and added brunch that September. Additional area locations that later opened at Willow Grove and in Zachary also serve brunch.
“We decided a long time ago to offer a targeted number of brunch items, some of which you can mix and match,” says Bistro Byronz partner Emelie Kantrow Alton. “We created items that looked like brunch, not breakfast, and that reflected our brand and had a wow factor.”
Alton says brunch can be good business because it gives a restaurant the chance to achieve high sales in a short period. She says the Willow Grove location’s brunch sales over a three-hour period can outpace its Friday dinner sales over a seven-hour period.
Bendas says restaurants are wise to cross-utilize ingredients they also use for lunch and dinner. Many Baton Rouge restaurants offer brunch burgers, which allows a kitchen team to put a brunch spin on a standing item. Urdiales uses his popular cauliflower mash, served in healthy bowls during the week, as a base for his brunch shrimp and cauliflower, a riff on shrimp and grits.
Operators acknowledge they can experience crushing waves of diners during peak brunch times. It’s not uncommon in Baton Rouge for brunch patrons to wait 45-60 minutes for a table, especially after church. And that’s actually the second wave of traffic for some restaurants, says McGoey, who sees a first surge around 11 a.m. At Mason’s Grill, arguably the busiest brunch in town, diners start calling when brunch opens at 9 a.m. to get on a waiting list.
High volume crowds arriving within a tight time frame mean restaurants have to bring their A-game when it comes to service and logistics.
“Sundays used to be a decent day. Now it’s consistently the second busiest day of the week for us,” says Hightower, of City Pork, which also serves brunch on Saturdays. “Staff are tired from the night before, so you know you’re going to have to keep everyone focused for that three- to four-hour period. The payoff, of course, is they can make a lot of money.”
Hightower says what has made brunch successful for City Pork is ensuring menu prep starts two days in advance.
“We do a lot in-house, like curing our own meats,” he says, “and we’re constantly finding ways to get ahead of brunch.”