With sales generally remaining sluggish throughout the foodservice industry, an increasing number of operators are targeting the breakfast marketplace as a promising opportunity for growth.

The breakfast wars, in fact, are heating up as foodservice chains look to stake out their piece of the expanding daypart business. Most recently, Taco Bell bolstered its new breakfast menu when it rolled out Grilled Breakfast burritos, supported by its series of commercials featuring men named Ronald McDonald—a humorous reference to breakfast giant McDonald's, whose early daypart sales are said to have generated $10 billion 2012.

At the same time, giant breakfast brands like Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks also have their sights set on maximizing opportunities in the morning period.

“It's a very competitive marketplace,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. “More players are focusing more effort on the breakfast daypart.”

Nevertheless, he adds, “It's still underpenetrated.”

According to Technomic, breakfast sales in the United States increased by an average of 4.8 percent annually between 2007 and 2012, while overall sales remained generally flat. Breakfast sales for the foodservice industry totaled $84.4 billion in 2012.

One way in which brands are attempting to drive traffic and sales during breakfast is by offering options that appeal to consumers concerned with more healthful dining habits. Increasingly, chains are menuing items that speak to these nutrition-minded diners.

But while health is top of mind for many, experts emphasize that the dishes themselves must be flavorful or they will end up languishing unsold. To help maintain higher flavor profiles, more operators are turning to leaner turkey products at breakfast, notably turkey sausage and turkey bacon.

Technomic's MenuMonitor reports that turkey sausage was included in 567 menu items during the second quarter of 2014, an increase of 5.6 percent year-over-year. Turkey bacon appeared in 785 menu items for the same period, up 5.9 percent year-over-year.

Dunkin' Donuts has been a serious breakfast player since its inception, but in recent years the Canton, Mass.-based brand has expanded the number of food items on its menu to a point where they now account for about 40 percent of total sales.

Executive chef Jeff Miller says the 7,677-unit chain has been offering a variety of turkey options—particularly in the form of highly portable sandwiches—since 2008. One of the chain's early entries was the Egg White Turkey Sausage Flatbread, which contains an egg white omelet with turkey sausage and reduced-fat Cheddar cheese served on a multi grain flatbread. The sandwich also can be served on a six-inch tortilla as a Wake-up Wrap.

“Dunkin' Donuts was an early mover with the egg white sandwich,” Miller says.

Last year the chain launched its Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich featuring an egg topped with a turkey sausage patty and a slice of reduced-fat Cheddar cheese served on a toasted English muffin. The sandwich contains fewer than 400 calories, and the patty can be added to a number of dishes, Miller says.

Then, earlier this year, Dunkin’ Donuts expanded its health-centric DDSMART menu with the introduction of a Sliced Turkey Breakfast Sandwich and a Whole Wheat Bagel. The 310-calorie sandwich contains three slices of turkey, an egg and a slice of reduced-fat Cheddar cheese served on multigrain flatbread. It also can be served as a Wake-up Wrap on a warm tortilla, for 160 calories. 

Shane Schaibly, corporate chef for First Watch Restaurants, the 120-unit breakfast, lunch and brunch specialist based in University Park, Fla., says the chain balances such breakfast favorites as pancakes and waffles with more adventurous, indulgent menu items like its current LTO, the BLT Benedict with poached eggs, bacon, tomato slices, hollandaise sauce, lemon-dressed arugula and avocado on toasted ciabatta.

At the same time, First Watch caters to customers looking for better-for-you alternatives, says Schaibly, adding that turkey products have a presence “everywhere at breakfast. Turkey sausage and bacon have come into their own and taste great.”

Some First Watch breakfast items featuring turkey include Power Wrap: Egg whites, turkey, spinach, roasted cremini mushrooms and Swiss cheese in a sun-dried tomato basil tortilla, served with fresh fruit and housemade salsa; Biscuits and Turkey Sausage Gravy with Eggs: Housemade biscuits with turkey sausage gravy, served with two eggs any style and seasoned potatoes; and Lean Machine: Cholesterol/fat- free eggs, a seasoned turkey patty, tomato slices and a dry English muffin.

Schaibly says the chain is testing turkey bacon in several markets.

Candyce Hedlund, communications manager for Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, Inc., the parent of Einstein Bros. Bagels in Lakewood, Colo., says the 720-unit bakery-cafe chain has been offering turkey sausage breakfast items since Einstein's early days. The 720-unit chain currently has two breakfast sandwiches featuring turkey sausage, which accounts for more than 3 percent of total sales, Hedlund says.

The Santa Fe Turkey Sausage Egg Sandwich contains pepper jack cheese, all-natural turkey sausage, ancho lime salsa, egg, and jalapeño salsa shmear on a toasted asiago bagel. The Turkey Sausage & Cheddar Egg Sandwich is served on a toasted, plain bagel thin with reduced-fat plain shmear, egg white, zesty green tomatillo salsa, all-natural turkey sausage and a slice of pepper jack cheese. This sandwich is part of Einstein's “Smart Choices” menu, and contains less than 350 calories and 15 grams of fat.

To cater to the customer looking for better-for-you options, Einstein also offers bagel thins, which were renamed “Thintastics” earlier this year. Thintastics are available plain, whole wheat and “Everything,” and contain 35-percent fewer calories than a standard bagel.

When 624-unit Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in Lebanon, Tenn., decided to introduce a line of better-for-you items to its breakfast, lunch and dinner menus last year, one of the goals was offer dishes that would reflect the “Cracker Barrel experience” but as lower calorie options, says nutritionist Pam Smith, who worked with the family dining chain's culinary team.

“We wanted dishes that were lighter but were flavorful and ample, as people would expect from Cracker Barrel,” she says.

Together with six lunch and dinner options that weigh in at less than 600 calories each, Cracker Barrel's Wholesome Fixin's line also features five breakfast dishes with less than 500 calories. 

Among the Wholesome Fixin's breakfast line is the Good Morning Breakfast, which includes two scrambled Egg Beaters, a choice of turkey sausage or turkey bacon, sliced tomatoes, cheese grits and a fruit selection that will change seasonally.

Another dish is Fresh Fruit and Yogurt Parfait, with yogurt, strawberries and raspberries layered in a mason jar and topped with granola containing almonds, dried cranberries and cinnamon. The dish also can be accompanied by two scrambled Egg Beaters and three slices of turkey bacon, all of which together contains only 470 calories. “It feels indulgent but is the best of all worlds,” Smith says.

Diners can choose to accompany all breakfast dishes with turkey bacon or turkey sausage as a side option. “Sometimes people have to compromise flavor for health,” she says. “But we didn't want them to have to do that. We sought out quality ingredients that deliver on flavor and experience.”