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Amid Rising Egg Prices, Restaurateurs Bite the Bullet

What do you do with breakfast and brunch service when it stops being cheap to make?

Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

What is brunch without the eggs? Those amazing, creamy Benedicts — now just biscuit, ham, and hollandaise. Your favorite sunny-side up platter with only home fries and toast. Even when they aren’t the star, eggs are still flitting at the edges: Say goodbye to the plate-sized pancakes and giant stacks of French toast from your corner diner, which aren't the same when you sub in applesauce. Brunch, sans eggs, is hardly brunch at all. So what do you do with brunch when it stops being cheap to make?

2015 was a good time for egg farmers. According to the American Egg Board, at last year's end, American consumption of eggs had risen to an average of 263 eggs per person, a record high. Exactly what caused that increase is up for debate — it might be the rise of brunch, the pro-protein craze, or because health research no longer demonizes the little guys. "We've noticed a tremendous increase in the usage of eggs," says John Howeth, the senior vice president of foodservice and egg product marketing at the American Egg Board. He credits much of the rise to chains' newfound emphasis on breakfast: Just last week, McDonald's announced its new all-day breakfast, the newest outpost of the nation’s edible past time. "It’s less expensive and more profitable," Howeth says. That is, before the avian flu destroyed chicken populations and sent prices through the roof.

Average consumer cost for a dozen eggs jumped to nearly $2.50, and restaurants are "feeling a big pinch."

Avian flu has decimated chicken populations in mid-2015, turning one of brunch’s cheapest indulgences into an expensive commodity. In February, just 112,000 cases of avian flu had been reported in commercial chickens, but by mid-June, almost 48 million birds had died in the epidemic nationwide — 40 million of them commercial laying chickens — sending prices skyrocketing. Average costs for a dozen eggs, for the consumer, jumped from around $1.15 to nearly $2.50 in the span of a month. Restaurant owners are "feeling a big pinch," Howeth says. While most are taking a wait-and-see attitude, a rapid series of per-carton increases cuts into their profit margin, leaving the restaurant industry — already a fragile business model — in dire straits.

Some restaurant-goers might see surcharges for egg-heavy dishes: Colorado-based breakfast chain Le Peep is raising its prices to counteract the surging costs. But for most owner-operated, mom-and-pop breakfast spots, it’s simply a matter of crossing their fingers and cutting corners where they can. Raising prices is a last resort, and for many, passing the increased costs onto their customers just isn’t an option. What do restaurants do when the price of a vital commodity — a necessary ingredient in most, if not all, of their dishes — doubles?

Data research: Vince Dixon/Eater

The USDA's Consumer Price Index indicated a 17.8 percent increase in egg prices between May and June (the biggest jump since 1973), and predicts a continued rise of 12 to 14 percent in 2015. The predicted increases shouldn't be endless — after 2015, they should level out — so it makes sense that many restaurants hesitate to charge more for a short-term increase. For Jennifer Piallat, owner of San Francisco brunch spot Zazie — known for its plethora of scrambled and poached options — a case of egg now costs $50, more than double what she paid in 2014. "We haven't raised prices or anything like that, though," she says. "This business is so full of flux, I usually just absorb temporary price increases."

"It's not going to affect our prices," says Susan Kaplan, the co-owner of Seattle's Boat Street Cafe & Kitchen, whose menu is laden with Benedicts and poached-egg-topped salads. "It's going to scare us." Kaplan pays 37 cents per egg — already much higher than the average because she exclusively buys organic — which makes up approximately one-third of the restaurant-side cost of a standard eggs Benedict. "Everything is more expensive than an egg," she says. "We don't price by our ingredients. If we make something super expensive or inexpensive, it's all priced the same."

"What are we going to buy instead? There’s nothing cheaper than an egg, and there’s nothing better than an egg."

Kaplan doesn't foresee a drop in the egg price anytime soon, if ever. "Probably, eggs will never go back down," she says. Still, she sees the increased costs as an inevitable byproduct of the restaurant industry, especially considering the egg's relative cheapness. "What are we going to buy instead? There's nothing cheaper than an egg, and there's nothing better than an egg."

Other restaurants are hunkering down on unnecessary egg usage — and that means cutting out eggs in dishes where they're non-essential. National chain Panda Express, which discontinued its hot and sour soup and cut out eggs from its fried rice, is swapping in corn instead. Ice cream retailer Rita's Italian Ice announced it will offer soft-serve ice cream instead of custard for the duration of the shortage. And in a big hit for breakfast fans, Whataburger blamed the national egg shortage for cutting back its breakfast hours back in June.

Photo: kennejima/Flickr

Eggs Benedict, a popular dish, at SF's Zazie. Photo: kennejima/Flickr

Felipe Garcia, the executive chef at Ringolevio, a Mediterranean restaurant in Brooklyn, has gotten creative in response to rising prices: He modified the restaurant's standard custard, using just heavy cream and cinnamon instead of egg whites and milk. "We wanted to try something totally different than using eggs," says Paul Harris, the restaurant's owner. "It came out fantastic." It's a big risk — that eggy custard can make or break a French toast — but restaurant owners looking to cut costs often find that trimming out the fat (or the protein, so to speak) is a quick way to save on costs.

Even omelettes are taking a hit: Soon super-sized, restaurant-style versions might soon be a thing of the past. Until recently, using three eggs in a two-egg omelette was common practice, according to Leonard Sanchez, the general manager Flo Cafe & Bar in Chicago, where guests can order omelettes stuffed with everything from chorizo to mushrooms to black beans. But restaurateurs eager to trim are ensuring reality reflects their menu. "We were making three-, four-egg omelettes, but now we really have to watch how many eggs we use," Sanchez says.

"We were making three-, four-egg omelettes, but now we really have to watch how many eggs we use."

Egg white fans, however, might just find themselves with a lighter wallet. According to Sanchez, finding bulk egg whites has grown near-impossible. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Foods, which manufactures egg byproducts like liquid egg whites, would be forced to discontinue several product lines amidst a $20 million earnings shortfall caused entirely by the avian flu. When chefs can find liquid whites, the prices are astronomical: Prices jumped from 50 cents to $1.78 per pound, according to independent food price-tracking firm Urner Barry. Howeth says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a dollar surcharge for egg white products on many menus. "We still offer egg whites, but now we have to hand-separate the yolks," Sanchez says. Chances are good egg white fanatics are used to a tacked-on charge for their yolk-less omelets, but don't be surprised if that price goes up. Even for a talented cook, separating whites adds unnecessary time to the making of omelette — and might sacrifice the yolk in the process.

Data research: Vince Dixon/Eater

But for most egg dishes, there's not much proprietors can do besides absorb the cost and wait. Commodity prices change constantly: Chubby pigs spiked ham costs during the 2014 holiday season; beef cost drastically more after the droughts of 2013. It's an unfortunate byproduct of the business. "We shed a tear every time we have to throw out an overcooked poached egg," says Donnie Dalessio, the owner of Queens Comfort in Astoria, New York, whose selection of Benedicts ranges from the standard to the ridiculous ("Hobbits Salty Pork" with bacon, fig jam and brie). When raising menu prices isn't an option, mitigating the drastic cost increase comes down to careful management. "Hey, what can you do?" Dalessio asks. "We have just remained cool and served brunch the same as usual. People want their eggs, so we hook them up with eggs." He hasn’t adjusted Queens Comfort's pricing. And for Flo Cafe & Bar, which tears through six or seven egg cases every weekend, "it's something we’ve had to bite the bullet on," Sanchez says. "Hopefully the price of eggs will go down."

David Harvey, an agricultural economist at the USDA, says the worst is likely over: Farmers have begun replacing flocks lost to the flu, but "they're not replacing the whole operation at once," Harvey says. "It will take them time to expand until they’re fully back into operation." But there's still one more bump in the road before 2016: The holiday season, when egg demand increases ("lots of people are baking at home for Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays," says Harvey). Historically, we're likely to see another small bump in egg prices then — but after that, expect smooth sailing.