KANSAS CITY – The most important meal of the day remains a hot market for the food service industry. With restaurant breakfast day-part sales expected to reach $47 billion in 2013, according to Rockville, Md.-based research firm Packaged Facts, more chains are looking to gain entry or expand in the morning meal occasion.

Spotting an opportunity in a.m. eating, Taco Bell this year began testing several breakfast options, including the Waffle Taco, which features sausage and scrambled eggs served in a folded waffle with a syrup packet. Also this year, McDonald’s expanded breakfast hours at some of its restaurants, and Chipotle Mexican Grill began testing coffee in a few locations.

Restaurant breakfast sales have increased 5% from 2012 and are projected to rise more than 5% in 2014 and 2015, Packaged Facts said. Limited-service breakfast grew by 11%, double the growth of full-service breakfast, which increased by 5%, as consumers traded down and limited-service breakfast became more available. Menu innovation efforts, led by healthy, indulgent and portable items, as well as innovation in tea and juice platforms, are driving sales at limited-service restaurants, which account for two-thirds of total restaurant breakfast sales. Full-service breakfast may experience a rebound, however, as the industry begins to recover from recession-driven traffic declines and more family chains experiment with take-out and portable menu options, Packaged Facts said.

Still, not everyone is benefitting from the breakfast boom. Earlier this year, Wendy’s began discontinuing the day-part at some of its locations, and Panera Bread saw its breakfast sales drag down overall comparable performance as the bakery-cafe began focusing advertising and innovation in the afternoon.

“We believe this occurred at the expense of the a.m. business, all while several competitors focused their advertising dollars intensely on the a.m. business,” said Ron Shaich, chairman and chief executive officer of Panera Bread, during a July 24 earnings conference call with financial analysts. “In addition, competitors have stepped up their game at breakfast. As a result, breakfast has become a drag on our 2013 comp trend.”

All-day or late-night breakfast programs may help improve sales, according to Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, Inc.

"Opportunities to promote breakfast can extend far beyond conventional morning hours," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic. "Operators looking to promote this day-part can leverage consumer interest in all-day or late-night breakfast programs. There's also room to expand brunch options, and even get creative by applying traditional breakfast flavors to non-breakfast foods."

Coffee is critical to the day-part’s success, too, with 64% of consumers drinking the beverage at breakfast, and 30% who said they remain loyal to restaurants that serve their preferred brand of coffee, Technomic said.

Because consumers connect the morning meal with health, with 63% who said skipping breakfast is unhealthy, restaurants may benefit from adding better-for-you options, such as meat alternatives. Twenty-eight per cent of consumers said they want more restaurants to offer turkey-based substitutes for breakfast proteins, while 22% would like chicken-based options and 14% want vegetarian substitutes, according to Technomic.

Also key to breakfast success? Dunkin’ Donuts cited two ways in which the donut and coffee chain remains competitive.

“I think what really gives us the leg up as we go into new markets, and even in our existing markets, is two things,” said Paul Carbone, chief financial officer of Dunkin’ Brands, during the UBS Best of Americas Conference held Sept. 13 in London. “The first is we are world-class at speed. And so, part of the nice thing about breakfast that I talked about, it is ritual and low ticket, it is important to be fast. So if you are going to come to me every day and it’s only a $5 ticket you are not going to wait. So we are world-class at speed, focused on drive-thrus.

“And then secondly, we have this differentiated product menu, which nobody else has. I will stack up our breakfast sandwiches against any competitor, against McDonald’s.”