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Columbia restaurant scrambles to succeed as breakfast destination


For David G. Albert, a good brunch includes eggs Benedict, and a good restaurant is one that can do the saucy egg, muffin and bacon dish well.

No wonder three good meals from a Canadian brunch restaurant two years ago prompted Albert to open the restaurant here in Columbia.

Eggspectation, off Route 100 at Snowden River Parkway and Waterloo Road, is the first U.S. location for the Canadian chain, but it won't be the last, Albert said.

He and his partner, Jon Hinkle, have purchased development rights for the northeast corridor, and are already looking for a second location to expand the chain.

They have hopes of opening up to 20 restaurants between Pennsylvania and South Carolina within 10 years, Albert said. Albert said other proprietors are developing Eggspectation restaurants in other parts of the country.

Open less than two months, the Columbia restaurant is already profitable, the owners said, and is drawing large lunchtime crowds. The restaurant is trying to make its mark in the casual upscale market as the place for brunch and a light dinner - like Houston's or Olive Garden.

"This restaurant is tailor-made for Howard County," Albert said. "There are people who appreciate a really well-done eggs Benedict. There's a segment that prefers full service, high quality as opposed to fast food, quick."

Although there are small chains across the country that are profitable in offering an elaborate breakfast fare, analysts say a restaurant like Eggspectation has a few key hurdles ahead.

For one, according to a study by the Chicago-based market research group NPD, only 3 percent of people eat out for breakfast.

Because of that, Eggspectation is in for a battle of market share with diners and other, less-expensive breakfast-focused chains such as Cracker Barrel and Bob Evans, said NPD Vice President Harry Balzer.

Maintaining profitability is another hurdle. Breakfast is usually the meal consumers are accustomed to paying the least for, said one analyst, and in order to make expanding the restaurants worthwhile, the company will still have to generate high revenue - a feat that will likely require many more customers than a restaurant such as Houston's would need.

"They're going to have to balance traffic with the unit economics," said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic, a food service consultant firm.

"It's obviously very possible for this to work, but the fact of the matter is, it's tougher to make it work," he said. "I'm a firm believer that if it would've worked, we would've seen the chain by now."

Albert and Hinkle are not so sure that's the case. Albert, a lobbyist and business consultant, and Hinkle, former manager of the Outback Steakhouse in the Long Gate shopping center, met when Albert also was a regional manager for the steakhouse company.

They said they thought Eggspectation was a winning concept because of the void in the market for breakfast in an upscale, casual atmosphere. But while even the best breakfast menu may not cover the costs of their elaborate 222-seat facility, they have take-out breakfasts, and make up the costs during lunch and dinner.

"We're a full-service restaurant," Hinkle said. "We have steaks for lunch or breakfast. You can have filet mignon at 6:30 a.m. or eggs Benedict at 6:30 p.m."

The restaurant boasts a variety of breakfast options, most of which, predictably, include eggs. But the breakfast favorite is often paired with the not-so-usual slab of Angus beefsteak or salmon, and a variety of crepes.

There are also lunch and dinner options ranging from taco salads and BLT sandwiches with avocado, to steak, crab cakes and pasta dishes. Even the fruit plate is presented with flair, and patrons can treat themselves to breakfast at any time - including 10 variations on eggs Benedict.

The European look and feel of the restaurant is similar to the Canadian locations, Albert said, but the partners added a few variations to cater to the business crowd that commutes along nearby Route 100, and works within walking distance at the surrounding office complexes.

For example, in Canada, the restaurants close at 2 p.m., but in Columbia, it is open from 6 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Also, the restaurant has a separate meeting room for business groups that can seat up to 45 people, a feature that none of the other Eggspectations have.

The room has a large plasma screen that can be used to watch videotaped or PowerPoint presentations. Albert said he's booked the room more than 40 times in the past month.

Another new feature is Internet-ready booths that are equipped with outlets that allow traveling businesspeople to plug in their laptops and work over a late lunch or afternoon drink. And the partners have added a local flavor to their menu. For example, crabmeat is added to standard dishes such as salads.

So far, customers are coming in bunches, Albert said, and many like Ellen Burgess are returning with family, friends or neighbors.

"It was good from the first time, and if it's good right off the bat, that [says] to me that it'll continue to be good," said Burgess, who was visiting for the third time and had brought a friend. "I'm dying to come to brunch."

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