Business of Brunch

Restaurants’ success dependent on a delicate balancing act

In February, Caroline Morrison looked into the dining room of her crowded restaurant on a Sunday afternoon and asked herself a question that would surprise many small business owners: Where else could she send all these customers?

Morrison is the head chef and co-owner of Fiction Kitchen, the ever-approachable and soulful vegan and vegetarian eatery tucked inside a shotgun storefront in downtown Raleigh. It was Sunday brunch, and, for the second time in a matter of weeks, customers were setting new sales records. But the space had reached its capacity, she realized, and Morrison knew the same was likely true for the other brunch destinations around the city.

“We have to cut off our wait at brunch, because we’re running out of food or people are going to be waiting past the time that we’re open,” says Morrison. “That’s not fair to the people that are waiting, but we just don’t have enough food. So, I was thinking to myself, ‘We really need more options.’”

If the so-called “Brunch Bill,” which would allow restaurants to serve alcohol on Sundays as early as 10 a.m. rather than noon finds its way to the governor’s desk (SB155 was filed last month), the need may soon grow bigger.  Help is on the way, at least.

This spring, brunch will return to Poole’s—the flagship of chef Ashley Christensen—after a four-year hiatus. Fayetteville Street’s new Pizza La Stella will soon launch brunch with the help of waffles. Vidrio, a lavish Mediterranean restaurant on Glenwood Avenue, is preparing to start its own brunch, while Soca, the South American sister restaurant of global hotspot Buku, will boast brunch, too. H-Street Kitchen has even launched a Sunday biscuit bar across from N.C. State.

“It’s become one of those favorite meal periods, especially after going out the night before. And it’s a good opportunity for a restaurant as a business, because most cooks don’t want to be up that early,” says Nunzio Scordo, the chef at the popular Lafayette Village restaurant Driftwood Southern Kitchen. “We’re packed every single Sunday from open to close.”

Despite those cramped conditions, the business of brunch is, in no ways, a surefire bet. Scordo, for instance, must plot the menu carefully, so that expensive items don’t eat into profit margins and cheap items don’t make customers feel shortchanged by the $16.95 price tag. “It’s a matter of balance,” he says of the menu, which includes eggs and biscuits, mac and cheese, salads, desserts and more.

Sean Degnan and his staff at Buku, which commandeers a corner of the Red Hat building downtown, spent four years working to perfect their buffet. The $21.95 spread is now one of the city’s most popular, loaded as it is with generous salads and carving stations, Southern standards and fusion specialties, custom omelets and generous desserts. They often sport a two-hour wait before noon and, Degnan says, turn people away every week. But it wasn’t always so lucrative. 

“We knew we wanted to be open for Easter brunch and Mother’s Day brunch that first year, so we practiced a couple of times. And when we opened, we opened with a menu,” remembers Degnan. “We did 79 people for our Easter brunch, and we went down in flames. We were trying to be pretty fancy with our brunch, but it didn’t work.”

Before Mother’s Day arrived back in 2010, Degnan gathered the managers and shifted to a brunch buffet, something many of them had actually suffered through at previous gigs. They gave it a chance, and, slowly, it grew into a favorite. Buku now serves between 300 and 500 people each Sunday. Degnan admits Buku took its lumps in reaching those numbers.

“When we were doing less than 150 guests, we were way over-prepped and overstaffed because we expected more,” he remembers. “We didn’t have any use for all of that food. We reached out to homeless shelters, but they don’t want prepared food. Mostly, that food went to our staff to take home, and they ate it for the next day or two.”

At Fiction Kitchen, which is much too small for a buffet brunch, Morrison has her own menu considerations for ensuring profitability. During dinner service, entrees average $13 or so, but only two brunch items surpass the $10 mark. Tables need to move more quickly, then, so that her limited seating can serve more customers in less time. That means the items, from the rotating “Funday Quiche” to the heaping grits bowl, need to be made and served fast. Otherwise, that means more customers waiting and potentially being turned away.

But Morrison is careful to balance that expediency with atmosphere. Fiction Kitchen began as a brunch operation, after all, hosting pop-up meals in bars and breweries across the Triangle. She wants to maintain that meal-among-friends feeling even as she tries to feed as many customers as possible.

“Brunch is a whole different experience than dinner,” she says. “It’s hard for restaurants to make brunch, first, profitable and, two, enjoyable for their customers.”

The best brunches balance those two considerations—welcoming guests for a generous Sunday meal but sending them away swiftly, stuffed and satisfied.

All About Brunch

Fan Favorites

Bu-ku

110 E. Davie St.

bukuraleigh.com

Driftwood Southern Kitchen

8460 Honeycutt Rd

driftwoodraleigh.com

Fiction Kitchen

428 S. Dawson St.

thefictionkitchen.com

18 Seaboard

18 Seaboard Ave.

18restaurantgroup.com

H-Street Kitchen

2420 Hillsborough St.

hstreetkitchen.com

Midtown Grille

4421 Six Forks Rd.

themidtowngrille.com

Coming Soon

Vidrio

500 Glenwood Ave.

vidrioraleigh.com

Just Open

Pizza La Stella

219 Fayetteville St.

pizzalastella.com

So-ca

2130 Clark Ave.

socaraleigh.com

Poole’s Diner

426 S. McDowell St.

ac-restaurants.com

Grayson Haver Currin

Grayson Haver Currin

Grayson Haver Currin is the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly and the former editor in chief of the Raleigh Agenda. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Pitchfork. He is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them, lives in Oakwood, and runs too much.
Grayson Haver Currin

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