The eggs have yet to be cracked, the croissants aren't ready to be served and yet a crowd already is gathering by the entrance to the Vie de France restaurant in The Mall in Columbia. It is just a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a Friday, and Columbians are awaiting anxiously the beginning of the breakfast hour.
"In Columbia, this is one of the few places that have breakfast," said 30-year resident Norm Jurkscheit, one of a cadre of Vie de France regulars.
The planned community of Columbia seems to have it all -- from tennis courts and nature trails to gourmet health food stores and a deluxe mall. Finding a home-style breakfast, however, is a different story.
While Columbia does have a number of bagel shops and hotel and chain restaurants with full breakfast menus, the community lacks a diner with traditional bacon and eggs-style meals. Anyone who is craving a diner breakfast has to go outside Columbia's town limits. At least four such diners exist within a 10- to 20-minute drive.
"I think there is a legitimate hole in the marketplace," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse Co. senior vice president for community development.
As owner of the vast majority of Columbia's commercial properties, the Rouse Co. ultimately decides which restaurants and other businesses may lease space in town. Rouse has negotiated with diners in the past, but the parties did not reach a final agreement. Scavo said the proposed diners so far have not met Rouse guidelines.
To open a restaurant in Columbia, Scavo said, several key elements must be met, including financial stability, managerial experience, quality food and service, affordability and whether it complements or supplements the existing market. Posing as customers, Rouse representatives go on exploratory missions, visiting a potential restaurant's closest venue to sample the food and inspect the service.
Once, when considering several cookie stores that were seeking to move into Columbia, Rouse staffers conducted blind taste tests to help determine which company should get the contract. More recently, Rouse employees found themselves sampling doughnuts.
While Columbia does have several independently owned restaurants, many of the city's food establishments tend to be local or national chains with proven records. "I don't think the word independent [always] says good food or good service," Scavo said.
For Columbia newcomer Jennette Miller, the absence of a nonchain, home-style breakfast is a difficult adjustment. Columbia, she said, would feel more like home if it had a diner serving big, home-style breakfasts.
"The first thing we do when we move is find the closest diner," said Miller, who came to Columbia from Florida.
Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray used to miss having a diner in Columbia -- until he started eating breakfast at chain restaurants such as Bob Evans and La Madeline. He generally holds breakfast meetings at the Hilton Hotel.
Like Gray, many veteran Columbia residents have found their niche in the breakfast marketplace and have made the local bagel shops and chain restaurants their own. At Vie de France, a sizable crowd of regulars, largely retirees and mall employees, gather at the restaurant each morning for croissants, coffee and companionship. One couple glides from table to table pouring coffee and chatting with the other customers.
"I don't come for the food as much as for the friendliness on a day-to-day basis," said Philip Waszkiewicz, a retiree who goes to enjoy peaceful morning moments at the mall with his newspaper and his coffee several times a week.
While he is not a diner aficionado, Waszkiewicz said he wishes there were more breakfast spots in town. "Breakfast is a special time of the day," he said. "You haven't completely awakened -- sometimes it takes a little conversation and a selection of simple foods."
The Bagel Bin, which has several locations throughout Columbia, is another favorite. The Wilde Lake location in particular draws a number of community leaders, such as state Del. Elizabeth Bobo and business owner Jean Moon.
Bobo, who acknowledges frequenting the Bagel Bin almost daily, holds at least one meeting a week at the bagel shop. During the legislative session, she misses her daily bagel runs. "It's is a gathering place," she said. "I see all kinds of people I know."
Moon, who runs a communications firm from her home, goes out to breakfast each morning and has sampled most of Columbia's breakfast spots, from the Bagel Bin to the Sheraton Hotel. Having a diner would be nice, but "Columbia has never been a breakfast town," she said.
"The marketplace really responds to the needs -- if people were going to make money out if it, it would have already been done," Moon said.
Jurkscheit, a retiree, is happy with the scrambled eggs, rolls and company he has found at the mall. He said he enjoys sitting with friends and "solving the world's problems."
"When I moved here," he said, referring to restaurants in Columbia, "I don't think there was anything at all."