Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Breakfast Quandry

Are there not enough good breakfast places in San Francisco? I don't think San Francisco is alone in this, but really, why are the lines and waits so long for a top-notch breakfast? This seems like an obvious market opportunity.

The economics are simple - demand is outpacing supply. So if you open a great breakfast spot, spillover from the current group of breakfast eaters on any given day will fill up your restaurant without the need to even create more demand. This seems so obvious, that the only explanation must be that either the margins are terrible in that business, or it's a hell of a lot harder to make a good breakfast than you or I might think. I think it's margins, cause I make a great breakfast, if I say so myself.

Now here's the quandry the breakfast eater is faced with every weekend morning: "Is [Breakfast Place A] worth the wait?" Much goes into this quandry. Factors like the time of morning, the distance, your level of hunger, do you have to wait in line or can you put your name in, what else you have planned that day, and others all complicate the issue. But, strip most of those away, and it's a basic equation of Place A will take X minutes of misery to get seated and the breakfast experience will be of Y quality. If Y>X, you're probably going to go.

The most severe waits in town, which I think are Mama's on Washington Square and Dottie's True Blue in the Tenderloin, also have two of the best breakfasts around. For my money, Mama's is the absolute apex of breakfast food. However, these are the two places that make you wait in line and won't let you put your name in and walk around as you please. This is sadistic to do to hungry people.

The thinking behind doing this evil line idea probably has something to do with the theory of "moral hazard". This is basically the idea that people will over-indulge on a good thing unless they have some skin in the game. With breakfast, it's applied by raising the cost of entry in the form of physical misery so as to keep the crowds down. If you want a much better explanation of moral hazard, read this article by Malcolm Gladwell. Or don't, if you don't have 2 hours to spare. So it could be the moral hazard theory that's at work with breakfast places, but more likely is that these are truly mean-spirited people who run these places. As a result, I go to Mama's about once every six months even though I love their food. And for the record, the picture at right of Dottie's was taken on a Wednesday at 5pm.

Enough of that tangent. So let's take a typical Saturday morning at 10am. You're moderately hungry but not yet freaking out, and you want a top-notch breakfast experience. Here's where I think the following generally-popular breakfast places rank.

Worth the wait:
Tartine (Guerrero) - although I hate that they don't serve eggs
Polkers (Polk)
Ella's (Presidio and California)
Mama's - if you're wildly committed
It's Tops (Market)
Rex Cafe (Polk) and Perry's (Union) - rarely a wait at either place makes it worth it
Maverick (17th St) - don't tell anyone about this
The Grove

Not worth the wait:
Judy's (Chestnut)
Dottie's - a 2.5 hour wait at the situation I described
Boogaloo's (Valencia) - just disgusting
Pork Store (Haight) - another sadistic stand-in-line place
Savor (24th St.)

1 comment:

More or Less said...

Perhaps, the long lines for breakfast places are not a simple case of market supply and demand strain. It might be that part of going "out to breakfast" is to be part of a social scene and avoid sitting home alone staring back at two fried eggs. The city already has an abundance of breakfast places, many good ones with availability on weekend mornings, but people will invariable choose a place that is well-known and crowded in order to start the weekend with an event. The social ritual of weekend morning lines is a good reason for leaving our homes and our coffee makers. So, this weekend grab your paper, call a friend, and head on out.