How the Breakfast Sandwich Went from Humble to High-End

March 14, 2018

Portable, comforting, and undeniably delicious, we're celebrating the breakfast sandwich with our partner Panera Bread. From the simple bacon, egg, and cheese to the outrageous, over-the-top creations you see on Instagram, there's no way you can go wrong.

There are more than 94,706 posts tagged “#breakfastsandwich” on Instagram. Here are a few from just one day: fat hunks of homemade pastrami awash in molten cheese inside challah rolls; bacon, sausage, and an omelet wedged between gluten-free waffles, with maple syrup on the side; a triple-stacked breakfast-meat Dagwood situation, topped with an oozy fried egg; and whatever the hell LA’s Sqirl put together here, a tower of ingredients so tall and impossible to eat with one’s hands that it’s held in place by a steak knife.

If you live pretty much anywhere in America, or have glanced at food on the internet over the past few years, you’re probably not surprised. Extravagant breakfast sandwiches—excessively photogenic, portable morning meals meant to shock you with outsized deliciousness—are everywhere now, in all their fanned-avocado, syrup-drizzled, hot-honeyed, bacon-deluxe glory.

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Which is a beautiful thing, considering that just 10 or 15 years ago, we had nothing of the sort. Back then, breakfast sandwiches were invariably humble. So how did we get from Egg McMuffins to Eggsluts?

A New Era of Eating

Let’s take a trip back to the mid-aughts, before Facebook was a media monopoly and Twitter was just a twinkle in Silicon Valley residents’ eyes. Back in those halcyon days, we blogged. About everything really, but especially food. By 2005, a little restaurant-recommendation engine called Yelp emerged on the scene, where citizen journalists could jot down their restaurant thoughts for the world to see. College kids were toting DSLRs into back-alley noodle joints to spread food news the big papers never touched, and parents were taking to Wordpress to share their family recipes. Food52 was up and running in 2009, along with Serious Eats, Eater, Grub Street, and other food enthusiast sites. Food blogs that started small were now wildly popular. Suddenly, we were all foodies.

We were also kind of broke.

The 2008 recession was the hardest on the American economy since the Great Depression. Budgets tightened and unemployment skyrocketed, marking a new era of thrift and the beginning of a tectonic shift toward greater freelance and part-time labor. While there was a newfound interest in eating good food (and in sharing it online), we also wanted to eat within our means. Affordable, easygoing comfort food fit the bill: fried chicken, mac and cheese, and of course, breakfast—which was already on the rise.


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With low prices and familiar, portability, and comforting flavors, the breakfast sandwich was the perfect affordable indulgence for the times—and the perfect canvas for scrappy upstart chefs looking to seize on the breakfast opportunity. “Until recently,” New York magazine noted in a 2009 feature, “the breakfast sandwich has remained largely the province of the drive-thru and the Kraft Singles–slinging corner deli. Lately, though … the humble egg sandwich has been subject to ingredient upgrades and fancy-chef tweaks.”

When late Brooklyn sandwich shop Saltie opened in 2009, its Ship’s Biscuit—creamy scrambled eggs sandwiched between slices of olive oil-soused focaccia—was an instant hit. Cochon Butcher opened around the same time in New Orleans; its limited-edition, weekend-only chicken biscuit breakfast sandwiches became a kind of food blogger trophy. A year later, Scratch Bakery in Durham, North Carolina, won national media attention in part for its retro fried-bologna breakfast sandwich on a poofy homemade roll.

Larger restaurant groups and fast-casual chains took notice, too. As Tom Sadler, vice president of product development at Panera Bread put it: "We've transitioned from breakfast being baked goods, bagels, and a cup of coffee to a much more contemporary offering that has breadth—quality breakfast ingredients like bacon and eggs done in multiple ways." Which, sure enough, includes breakfast sandwiches.

Alvin Cailan, chef at the wildly popular Eggslut and creator of possibly the most Instagrammed breakfast sandwich on Earth, started noticing the rise of breakfast sandwiches in Los Angeles in 2012, as part of a boom in high-end cafes, food trucks, and consumer interest in fancy charcuterie and jam; he opened a food stall in the Grand Central Market a year later. “Breakfast culture wasn’t big here before this,” he said. “People would just jump into their cars to beat traffic. Now there’s breakfast sandwiches everywhere, and people are making time for them.”

Photo by Julia Gartland

The Social Gaze

It’s no coincidence that the breakfast sandwich boom hit during the rise of another millennial fixation: Instagram. For Cailan, “Instagram and Eggslut go hand in hand. Social media has played a tremendous role in our success; any time customers have anything to say about our food, we know first through Instagram.”

Colorful, relatable, and viscerally pleasurable, food has been key to Instagram’s growth since the platform’s launch in 2010. The app has also networked our appetites: A trending dish in Australia can go gangbusters in America faster than any traditional press push could hope for. So while breakfast and breakfast sandwiches may have been a topic of interest for restaurants, media, and amateur bloggers, it was the replicative, memetic power of Instagram that brought those spheres together. Suddenly, chefs, bloggers, and home cooks were all posting their food trophies on the same platform, building on each others’ successes and learning each others’ techniques. And that platform became the perfect place to test out and share the breakfast sandwich’s increasingly outlandish formulations.

But Instagram is such a powerful force because it does more than network popular ideas about food; it also fundamentally transforms how those foods are constructed and consumed.

After working in test kitchens at Saveur and Tasting Table, culinary content creator Jake Cohen is now devoting himself full time to building a business out of his Instagram followers. Like many other accounts racking up likes, Cohen’s feed is full of accessible, everyday foods manipulated into aesthetically captivating forms: avocado roses on toast, an ouroborus of citrus on a bed of yogurt, and breakfast sandwiches and brunch burgers stacked to such Brobdingnagian heights that they require a knife and fork to eat them. That these dishes are tasty is besides the point. His snapshots elevate them into ephemeral folk art, food to consume with your eyes, not your mouth.

Competitive Instagrammers, Cohen explained, “have to photograph foods from places they know their followers will love.” But once you pick up the tricks for food-porny photos, “you can make that work with any dish,” whether eaten at a restaurant or whipped up in your own kitchen. He shared some of the visual techniques he employs to keep those followers engaged: stacked layers of food with eye-popping colors, moments of tension with a pull of cheese or a drizzle of syrup, and attention-getting ingredients like runny eggs and perfectly fanned avocado halves. Carbs, eggs, cheese, and sandwiches are always popular, and what do you know? Breakfast sandwiches combine all of these elements.

This “photograph first, eat later” ethos is a strange turn of events for a no-nonsense, blue-collar food originally built for convenience and portability. But if the breakfast sandwich is anything, it’s an evolving reflection of the times.

Which is why the breakfast sandwich will endure even after our current bubble of socio-culinary performance bursts. The photogenic version may be filled with luxe ingredients of the moment, but the comforting base on which they rest is as familiar as it is timeless.

Our partner Panera Bread loves breakfast sandwiches just as much as we do—in fact, they've just added a new one to their menu: An elevated take on the classic bacon, egg, and cheese. Curious? You can try one for yourself right here.

Are you team bacon, egg, and cheese or would you rather have a 10-layer breakfast sandwich? Let us know how you make your own in the comments!

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Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, Food & Wine, Playboy, GQ, and elsewhere. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.