Where Have All the Bagels Gone?

Bruegger’s absence reveals its success and its customer: the college student

By
Elliott Krause, Freelance writer

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- For college students, despite what their parents have tried to tell them, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. Juggling classes and roommates, students leave little time for breakfast, and they’re more concerned with what’s handy than healthy. They might grab an apple on the walk out the door, or pick up a granola bar from Starbucks, but they’re not making bacon and eggs at their apartment.

Although willing to spend $5 to $10 on the way to campus, they’re dissatisfied with their choices, with Bruegger’s as the lone exception. At least that was the case in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa.

Based in Burlington, Vt., Bruegger’s has more than 300 bakeries in 26 states. Founded 28 years ago, Bruegger’s started with bagels, and as the company has expanded, so has its menu with sandwiches, salads, soup and dessert. But its breakfast was the reason college students in Iowa City flocked to the bakery-cafe.

That is, until last September, when a fire cost Bruegger’s its building and college students their favorite--and, for many, their only--place for breakfast.

“Bruegger’s burning down really hurt us,” says Alex Powers, a junior at the University of Iowa. She and her sorority sisters have adjusted to Bruegger’s absence not by eating somewhere else but by eating more meals at home. Blessed with a fast metabolism, Powers would chow down on her cinnamon bagel with honey walnut cream cheese from Bruegger’s, while your correspondent, who was not similarly blessed, would order an egg-and-cheese sandwich on a whole-wheat bagel, which was enjoyed on the walk to class or in a booth on a lazy Sunday.

Since that blaze, five months have gone by. The lot that used to hold Bruegger’s is now empty. Bruegger’s has plans to rebuild, but no one, including Tracy Aiello, a spokesperson for Bruegger’s, knows exactly when. Bruegger’s absence creates a void in breakfast options and reveals a lot about its customer, the college student. To lure the college student, you need to offer convenience, nutrition and something light.

But mostly, it’s convenience. Most students walk to class, so the first thing they look for in a breakfast stop is a convenient location, somewhere on their route to campus. Located downtown and therefore in between a number of students’ homes and campus, Bruegger’s had an ideal location. But it wasn’t the only place in the neighborhood. The Wedge serves a full breakfast menu, and the downtown coffee shops offer small snacks such as pastries and mixed nuts. But Bruegger’s was the only fast-casual establishment, the only place that offered something quicker than a sit-down restaurant but more substantial than a glazed doughnut.

Although healthy loses out to handy, even college students don’t want to start the day with doughnuts or, on the other hand, anything too filling. “A big, hearty meal like eggs makes you tired, so it’s counterintuitive to eat that for breakfast,” says graduate student Emily Ha, 25. Willing to eat out if she could find something both healthy and handy, such as homemade granola, Ha instead cooks herself oatmeal. Many coffee shops in Iowa City serve oatmeal, but what they offer--a single-serving cup that looks like something from a vending machine--is neither quicker nor tastier than what can be made at home. Something nutritious and light, such as a yogurt parfait or a breakfast burrito wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla, offers the convenience and nutrition college students are looking for yet won’t induce a nap before noon.

The wish for more breakfast choices that are convenient and healthy is not a local phenomenon. According to a survey at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 73% of the student population wants healthier options within the dining program. Although parents might be discouraged by their child’s breakfast habits or looseness with cash, at least health is part of the equation. And we can all agree on one thing: We’d rather have them paying a stranger to make their breakfast than paying a friend to take their tests.

Elliott Krause is a graduate student at the University of Iowa and an intern at CSP Information Group.