Oatmeal goes upscale

Aug. 1, 2011 | by Melissa Abbott

Consumers often say they wish they had healthier options for breakfast, yet better-for-you, not to mention better-tasting, has been hard to come by when it comes to breakfast on the run. We're seeing a growing number of operators add simple fare oatmeal to their existing pastry and sandwich offerings. This nutritious grain is moving beyond its stodgy image as fast-casual restaurants and chefs around the country are improving on the classic oat preparation. This oat revival is due in large part to the promotion of whole grains for optimal health as well as a variety of formats beyond quick cooking oats, from less-processed steel-cut and whole oat groats to thick-cut rolled oats and the Scottish-style pin oats.

We've spotted several options, including prepared oats with standard or unconventional toppings:

  • Washington, D.C's Sweetgreen SweetFlow mobile truck updates oats by torching the brown-sugar top for a deliciously bruleed effect. Toppings include luxe cinnamon-baked apples and buttery scone crumbles. This is a great example of the larger movement toward more indulgent offerings on occasions previously designated for strictly health and wellness ingredients and preparations.
  • Bloop, a food cart in Portland, Oregon, devotes its entire menu to various oatmeal preps. Portlanders queue up for oats simmered in almond milk, pie spices and agave nectar.
  • San Diego's nouveau comfort food spot, Spread, gets savory with a curry oatmeal, enhanced with roasted bananas, caramelized onions and red carrots.

In an effort to represent the slightly more mainstream, our Taste Testers recently held a QSR and CPG oatmeal taste test focusing on the more traditional breakfast variety

Jamba Juice's steel-cut version proved to be our top pick from the QSR offerings. The oats retained their chewiness and the apple cinnamon flavor was more like an old-fashioned oatmeal cookie than food lab-derived artificiality. We just wish Jamba was as convenient as Starbucks and McDonald's to meet the consumer demand for on-the-go breakfast convenience.

Starbuck's Perfect Oatmeal with its customizable sides (nuts, dried fruit and brown sugar all come a la carte) was highly anticipated given the attention paid to its coffee beverages. But we were disappointed to see the barista open what looked like the same packet-style oatmeal our mothers bribed us to eat back in grade school and add hot water from a spigot. Without the add-ins, Starbucks oatmeal would have made for a very sad morning breakfast experience. These oats smacked of instant, rather than the heartiness of the steel-cut on most menus.

McDonald's Fruit & Maple, available throughout the day, is its first foray into cereal-based menu items. While it is suggestive of classic oatmeal flavors, teeming with apple pieces, maple and a butter-vanilla-like flavor, it was clearly derived from artificial flavorings. Even the state of Vermont took issue with the lack of real maple syrup in this menu item. If you're interested in a proper oatmeal experience, perhaps save it for another occasion and order the classic Egg McMuffin, with only 10 more calories, 6 more grams of protein and 27 fewer grams of carbohydrates when compared with the oatmeal, it may be the healthier and yummier option when dining at the Golden Arches.

Umpqua Oats thick rolled variety tasted the most homemade, meaning regular oat enthusiasts really appreciated the comfort factor, while the less oat-inclined found the taste and texture veering a bit too much on the natural side. From a "real food" perspective, Umpqua delivers. From a packaging and narrative perspective, Umpqua nails it. With names like Mostly Sunny, loaded with "Dried fruits from the Northwest" and its trail mix rendition on oatmeal, Take a Hike is a clever delivery of a higher-quality food experience. Umpqua includes flax seeds in a few varieties, yet it doesn't call it out on the label. Instead, it simply lists it in the ingredients as part of a real, whole food experience.

Trader Joes' frozen steelcut option surprised us with its pure, unadulterated flavor of lightly sweetened real maple syrup and brown sugar, as well as a combination of both steel-cut and rolled oats, giving a creamy yet separate quality to the oats. Some tasters found the taste a little too pure, preferring Safeway's pureed version of an apple raisin breakfast pastry.
Safeway's Eating Right frozen steelcut oatmeal with its single serving in a box was rather comical in terms of sustainability. The single-serve microwaveable bowl is certainly suggestive of a healthy option and comes in at 210 calories, under 4 grams of fat and 5 grams of protein. Kudos for the real sweeteners, but the artificial apple flavor gave it a whiff of fake breakfast treat.

Clearly oats are part of American food culture. Their healthful properties and cost-effectiveness are representative of the trend toward simplification. The key for QSR and CPG is to prepare them in an authentic way, while perhaps using a few indulgent ingredients such as real butter, real sweeteners, protein-rich nut butters, lush coconut products and even savory items, such as soy sauce and scallions, as suggested by New York Times writer and whole grains proponent Mark Bittman. We can't think of a better way to say Good Morning!

Topics: Bakery Cafe , Food & Beverage , Trends / Statistics

Melissa Abbott / Melissa Abbott, Hartman Group’s Director of Culinary Insights, dishes up the latest in food culture and its impact on the food industry. Hartman Group is a leading consumer culture consultancy and primary research firm utilizing a multidisciplinary approach to understand consumers, identify growth opportunities, re-energize brands, create relevant experiences and fuel strategic thinking.
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