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Wakeup call: Hotels hone the free breakfast

  • Cox Newspapers
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, at 12 a.m.

You awaken, and your brain quickly takes stock of where you are. You realize: It’s time.

You arise from your bed, brush your teeth, throw on some clothes – what you’re about to do is more important than how you look – and slip out your hotel room door, taking a deep breath for the mission ahead: attacking the free breakfast.

The free hotel breakfast is a rite of travel, and as much as we all love it, we also realize it’s fraught with perils: the long line to the iron-it-yourself waffle machine; the woman who carefully picks every strawberry out of the fruit tray; the guy who stands in front of the coffee, blocking everyone else, endlessly stirring in his selected sweetener, testing, then adding more.

And, yet, we put up with all that because we very much want the breakfast.

“It’s extremely important. Everybody eats breakfast,” says Jody Smith, who has for 10 years managed the Embassy Suites on Austin’s South Congress Avenue.“I believe it’s one of the reasons why people stay here.”

An acknowledgement of that assessment is the proliferation of free breakfasts at hotel chains and the fact that even full-service hotels that don’t offer free breakfast now often include it when they put together promotional packages. In the same way that coffeepots started making their way into the rooms of full-service hotels years back, those hotels are now starting to acknowledge that people like eating breakfast.

In addition to chains, some independently owned inns such as the Rochester Hotel in Durango, Colo., and Inn on the Alameda in Santa Fe, N.M., serve free breakfast (and both of those, I'll note, are excellent).

The Limelight Hotel in Aspen, Colo., has a restaurant but converts it into a breakfast buffet in the morning (although the breakfast is not truly free but one of the perks guests get for their 6 percent resort fee). Spokeswoman Sally Spaulding notes that comment cards got really upbeat when the hotel added hot breakfast items such as bacon.

“Bacon has a tendency to make people happy,” she says.

Full-service hotels might be dipping in their toes, but the free breakfast buffet remains primarily the hallmark of budget and midpriced brands that don’t have their own restaurants.

Embassy Suites consistently rates high when people are asked about their favorite free breakfasts, because, in addition to the pastries, fruit and cereal that most chains offer, it offers cooked-to-order hot items. Tell the person in the chef hat what you want – omelette, waffle, whatever – and he or she makes it.

Hyatt Place is another that travelers often name as a favorite, offering meat-and-egg biscuits, waffles, pancakes, fruit and pastries. Hampton Inns and Fairfield Inns also draw kudos for including some hot items.

“I’m a fan of Hampton Inn because there’s good variety, and they don’t let it run out by the end of breakfast time,” says frequent traveler Sheila Scarborough of Round Rock, Texas.

“Hyatt Place does great. Hampton OK,” says travel writer Joe Brancatelli, who runs the subscription business travel website joesentme.com.“But with so many crazed people getting their freebies, I usually skip it.”

Few others skip it, though, and because of that, chains seem always to be beefing up their breakfast buffets. Well, all except for a London hotel I visited where the free breakfast consisted merely of coffee and a trough – literally a trough – of hard rolls.

Super 8 recently mandated an“enhanced SuperStart breakfast” at every one of its properties, including its signature“Simply Super Cinnamon Roll” (warm it up in the toaster oven; it’s tasty), at least two cereals, Quaker oatmeal, fruit, bread, juice, coffee and do-it-yourself waffles.

Super 8 spokesman Rob Myers acknowledges that there were big differences in Super 8 breakfasts. The new mandate makes them standard, he says, although“there are minor regional differences.”

We know what regional difference he’s talking about, right? I ran smack into it at the Mount Vernon Super 8 this past summer and the Fairfield Inn DFW in Grapevine earlier this month: the Texas-shaped waffle. To my knowledge, no other state issues waffles in its own shape. Other states’ hotels, bless their hearts, must make do with round.

Hotel breakfast waffle irons, by the way, are clearly among the most popular features of the free breakfast, based on the lines that form when such a machine is present.

Of course, there’s always someone in line who has never ironed a waffle before. He or she can’t figure out how to get the waffle mix into the cup or doesn’t know that when the machine beeps like a truck backing up, you flip the waffle – oh, wait! Wait! You must hold onto the handle when you flip the waffle or … oh, there you go. There’s waffle goo all over the room.

Like I said. Fraught with peril. But worth it. A little strategy is needed, though. For me, it involves first making and consuming a cup of coffee in the room. Otherwise, there’s no way I can face that ravenous hoard. Second, be neither the earliest nor the latest free breakfaster.

Embassy Suites has very civilized breakfast hours of 6 to 9 a.m. – 7 to 10:30 a.m. on weekends, so people can sleep in – and Smith says she’s noticed that there are two big rushes: at the beginning of service and at the end, when the sleeper-inners wake up.

“Go at 8,” she says.“You'll often be all alone.” Helen Anders writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: handers(at)statesman.com.

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