Commentary: Coffee wars shift to oatmeal
By Mark Crawford
Aside from press releases and a few consumer blogs, I haven’t seen an industry article comparing the oatmeal offerings from big players. McDonald’s recently threw its hat into the morning oatmeal bowl, joining the 2009 intro from Starbucks and Jamba Juice, and Caribou’s 2010 offer. There’s certainly something to talk about when it comes to this breakfast staple's emergence.
I saw oatmeal 4 years ago in a clandestine food development R&D lab for one of the biggies. At that point oatmeal seemed like an unlikely offering. It didn’t seem like it could play in the protein-laden, grab-and-go world of morning daypart. These leaders have lifted it out of the home pantry and put it front and center in hospitality. In hindsight, its easy to connect the dots.
It’s indisputably healthy -- it drives down choresterol and gives you clean calories. You don’t hear about anyone getting fat on oatmeal. It’s got a low carbon footprint; you’re eating the plant, not the animal that eats the plant. And, it does stick to your ribs and last you until lunch.
Additionally, the ingredient cost of raw oats, per serving, is next to nothing, so someone’s making money. With consumers worried about their pocketbooks, it’s hard to beat starting your day for $2 to $4. And for the drive-thru, even though it’s not a one-hander, it fits in the cupholder.
We’ve had a 5-year ramp in coffee improvement in many of our market leaders, including quality of beans, equipment consistency and introduction of lattes and mochas. Add to that everybody’s brother knocking off the Egg McMuffin and it seems the next big morning thing would be…oatmeal. Good coffee, egg muffin and oatmeal: the new trifecta for morning? Maybe so.
All these offerings come in nearly identical containers. Starbucks is branded "perfect oatmeal," McDonald’s is ready fast and consistent, Caribou has some unique toppings and Jamba claims to be the "best tasting" with its steel cut oats. For a good early-on comparison of Starbucks and Jamba’s oatmeal, and passionate year-long discourse with dozens of customers, visit the Orange County Register lively discussion.
You would think everyone would prefer slow cooked to instant oats and fresh fruit toppings, but based on all the opinions I’ve heard, that’s not always the case. It seems like there’s not one take on what is "good oatmeal." Smooth or textural oats, fresh toppings or dried fruit toppings? Some people prefer the smoothness of instant (McDonald’s, Starbucks and Caribou) and others like the texture of steel cut (Jamba).
Some may prefer the convenience over the taste. For example, McDonald’s and Starbucks containers are about half filled, which looks not so good when you open it for the first time, but works well if you’re eating it on the run.
Players, price, presentation, preferences
Price, as tested
Hot water added to container, 3 minute wait; separate packets of nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), dried fruit and brown sugar. No charge for any or all of the packets. Cellophane packets are a great bonus pack, but unwieldy on the fly. 140 cal, add 50 cal for brown sugar, 100 cal for dried fruit, 100 cal for nut medley.
Tastes like good oatmeal. I like the nuts and dried fruit. Plenty sweet without the brown sugar packet. Double layer insulated lid.
Hot water added to container. Optional crisp apples, nuts, cranberries with dark and golden raisins and choice of barely sweetened or brown sugar. 260 cal or 290 cal with Brown Sugar.
Fastest served. Nice texture, perfect temperature, fresh crisp apples. Nicest quality lid. The apple’s crunch and tartness complemented texture well.
Hot water added to container. Varieties: Banana-Walnut, Blueberry Almond, Very Berry, Apple Cinnamon, Maple Brown Sugar Crunch. 450 cal for standard, 460 cal for high protein.
Waited 3 minutes while it steeped. Tastes good. Generous portioning of toppings. Loved the glazed walnuts.
$2.93 or $2.00 with a drink
Steel cut oats, bulk cooked. Varieties: Fresh Banana, Apple Cinnamon, Blueberries & Blackberries. Said it was cooked with soymilk. LTO bundled pricing with a coffee. 290 cal "as served," 40 cal brown sugar crumble, 60 cal fruit.
Took a while. Generous serving size. Most textural. Mine was served with fresh bananas and crunchy brown sugar. Had to get through the layer of bananas to the oatmeal.
Mark Crawford is director of business development for Mont Blanc Gourmet, formulator of custom beverages for national chains. He has 20 years of experience in the specialty coffee industry and has been involved in starting espresso coffee programs in many venues across the country. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.