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Breakfast at the Hotel

As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. However, there often is such a thing as a free breakfast on the road.

When I travel, which is mostly for business, I’m eager to get going early. To me, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day, despite what we keep hearing. At a big-city, full-service hotel, I’ll pass on breakfast downstairs and grab something at a coffee shop on the street because I hate the time-consuming morning restaurant ritual: wait to be seated; wait for coffee and menu; order food and wait; eat; wait for the check; and then pay $25, plus tip, for some eggs, bacon, and toast. 

However, much of my business travel is away from cities and upscale hotels, in places where the best lodging options are quality mid-scale chains. Fiercely competitive, nearly all offer free breakfast, usually in buffet spreads of varying quality but with one constant: you grab what you want —then you eat it and beat it. 

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BJT’s Joe Sharkey won the award for Best Column in a Consumer Travel Magazine in Folio:’s prestigious annual editorial competition.

Last year, on a combined business and leisure 13-day driving trip that my wife and I took along with our puppy from Arizona to New York and back, we experienced a range of free hotel breakfast buffets—some meager, some sumptuous. I usually ignore online ratings, but I pretty much agree with the NBC Today Show travel experts’ listing of the six hotel chains with the best free breakfasts: Hyatt Place, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, Residence Inn, and Country Inn and Suites. 

I’d almost add a seventh to that list: La Quinta, where we stayed on four nights because the chain is very dog friendly. I say “almost” because, while La Quinta has been aggressively upping its game through the top mid-scale niche since Wyndham acquired it early last year, two of the franchises we encountered evidently didn’t get the memo and offered wan buffet breakfasts consisting basically of coffee, cereal, yogurt, and questionable scrambled eggs.

The late gourmand Julia Child was famously grouchy about hotel buffets in general and buffet scrambled eggs in particular. “Eat the hot food. It is the least likely to poison you,” she once advised. “Scrambled eggs on a buffet? I am wary,” she added darkly.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering how those eggs get scrambled, the answer is that they often come frozen in “boil-in-the-bag” packs. A kitchen worker boils the bag, fluffs the eggs, and dishes them up. I checked hotel buffet wholesalers and the typical cost for 30 pounds of liquified scrambled eggs is about $35 (in six five-pound bags). Sausage? $31.99 per case of 200 links, 0.8-ounce each.

The notion that breakfast is the most important meal of the day stems in part from aggressive advertising in the early 20th century for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. In the 1920s, pork producers enlisted the public relations impresario Edward Bernays, who persuaded 4,500 physicians to attest to the virtues of bacon, rather than grains, as the basis of a healthy breakfast. Egg producers then got into the act and made it eggs and bacon.

There’s still a lot of debate about breakfast’s importance, though. I consulted a friend who knows the subject. Jeff Wilkinson is a retired Marine colonel who spent 2019 at the U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as project manager for DynCorp, a civilian contractor that supplies a range of military-operations logistics, including food service, which Wilkinson ran as part of his job. Last year, DynCorp served 3.4 million breakfasts at Kandahar.

“Breakfast is very important when you’re working seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” he said. He rattled off the most popular breakfast-buffet items at the dining halls DynCorp operates in Kandahar for thousands of troops and civilian workers. “Omelets to order, number one. Crepes with fillings. Pancakes and waffle stations. Pigs in a blanket. Hot and cold cereals. Shrimp. Grits, big favorite. Fresh bakery items. Fresh melons, bananas, grapes, pineapples, papayas, oranges, apples. Blended-fruit drink stations…”

“You do those boil-in-a-bag scrambled eggs?” I asked.

He looked aghast. “We have a nutritionist on staff,” he said.

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