The Continental Breakfast: A Guest Oasis or Mirage?

Continental breakfast - toast

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. When it comes to hotels, the breakfast bar offers the same opportunity for our guests. Yet, this area is typically one of the lowest scoring departments on guest surveys, it often exceeds the allotted cost per occupied room owner-operators want, and, despite being a standard at most hotels, what is put forth often feels like little more than an after-thought. The standard has become…standard.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way.

Let us never mind the irony that the origin of the term ‘continental’ breakfast referred to the continent of Europe, where travelers in the early to mid 19th century found establishments offered a lighter fare in the morning—think France’s petit dejeuner, consisting of a croissant, coffee, milk, and sweet bread choices which were robust enough to hold someone over until brunch or lunch. This was a sharp contrast to the full ‘English’ breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, toast, tea, and coffees–which are the staples of the American hotel breakfast bar experience that are technically mislabeled as a continental.

Instead, let us look at eight simple things we can do turn this outlet into something positive and memorable while reducing the expenses associated with it—even if the name is technically incorrect.


Initial perceptions are king. How do your guests know what items are on your continental breakfast? Try a restaurant quality chalkboard with kick-stand (yes chalkboard, not dry erase) and put that just outside of the breakfast bar. Using colored chalks, highlight the items you have available. Yes…people can find out once they get inside, but this extra step grabs attention, gives guests information before wading into the masses, and conveys that you have something worth checking out. Placards on the bar in front of food choices are nice (or required), but this is how you go above and beyond in a positive way. If guests don’t like what you have to offer, they won’t clog up the line to find out. It’s informative and aids efficiency.

Speed. Unfortunately, most breakfast bar designs are not helpful to guests in the morning. Most of us no longer wait in cafeteria lines to get food as we did in school, yet this is the design most properties employ. If you are stuck with a long-bar design and have some flexibility in positioning what goes where, place your items in stations—waffle station, coffee station, cereal station, cold beverage station, etc. Our tendency to go for what we want and skip the rest creates bottlenecks at key points in the standard long-bar line format, thereby creating confusion and long lines, all of which translates to unhappy guests and bad survey results. Break it up and eliminate the line!

Service. Guests rate us on the caring or helpful attitude of the staff. If the food is good but the staff is negative, inattentive, or altogether absent, even steak and eggs won’t get you a good score. Ensure you have that outgoing, smiling, happy person who can connect with people as your breakfast bar attendant. Breakfast is a chance to get real-time feedback about your hotel. If a guest had an issue during their stay, the breakfast attendant can find out before the desk clerk at checkout, when it’s often too late. Empower your breakfast attendant! This could be an opportunity to turn a bad experience into a good survey result or Trip Advisor rating.

Touchpoints. Whether staff are busy in the back or helping a guest, each moment of absence in the breakfast bar area is deafening. Someone needs to be touching tables regularly, saying good morning to guests, and offering to clear their plates (à la full-service restaurant) so guests don’t have to get up and throw their disposables away. Ask how their stay was, monitor what they like and don’t like about breakfast, and part with saying, “By the way, my name is _____, and I’m here until __ time and if you need anything, I’m here to help.” Helpful, caring, and friendly—key ingredients to a good score and a positive guest experience.

Quality. Is yours a breakfast bar that does “what the brand makes me do”? If you’re an independent, are you just copying what branded hotels do? Your food vendor may not outright tell you, but they will usually give you a case of something as a sample to try on your breakfast bar, for free, to see if guests like it. When trying something new, highlight this to your guests. How? Mention breakfast at check-in and inform guests, “We are sampling some new items on our breakfast bar in the morning and we’d love to have your feedback.” What did that do? You’ve identified a change, informed them, sought their involvement, and engaged them. If guests like what you’re offering, you’re improving the selection and possibly the quality of the breakfast bar. Involve your guests and exceed expectations!

Efficiency. Some hotels looking to reduce labor often squeeze the time allotted for breakfast bars so that it’s just enough to set up, staff, and break down, often in a four to five-hour window, putting more emphasis on the job instead of taking care of guests. There can be a silver lining. Have your night auditor handle any pre-work related to the breakfast bar that can be done on their shift just before the breakfast bar person arrives. But beware, auditors untrained in breakfast are not readily capable breakfast attendants. If things are moved around, put in the wrong place on the bar, etc., then the breakfast bar person becomes inefficient and must reset, reposition, and rearrange things, which wastes labor.

Audits and cost control. Where is the one place you can consistently and reliably go to know what guests like and don’t like on your breakfast bar? Your guests? Your breakfast attendant? Your food purveyor’s invoices? No. It’s the trash can! That’s right. Check the trash to see what is being thrown out. The breakfast bar attendant might be making eggs over and over and the pan on the bar is typically half empty which may seem like eggs are popular–but maybe guests are taking them, then finding out they’re gross and throwing them away, giving you a false positive of a popular item. If it’s in the trash, it wasn’t consumed. Now, find out why and maybe save yourself a dollar or two on your next order.

Penny saved, penny earned. Brands might require certain items or prohibit the use of certain products like styrofoam, but more often than not, hotels knowingly or unknowingly exceed standards and lose money doing so. For example, there are multiple different “grades” of plastic silverware. Which one does your hotel use? Has your food vendor sold you on a sturdy fork costing way more than the same fork produced in a medium density plastic, still brand compliant but more expensive? It’s a one-use item and then it is thrown away. Be sure you aren’t throwing profits right in the trash can!

Whether yours is a true continental or the American version of the full English breakfast, there is no reason to accept mediocrity and resign yourself to poor scores. Take these tips and employ them at your facility and perhaps you can deliver a positive oasis at the end of a guest’s journey, instead of being the recipient of disappointment.


About the Author
Daniel A. Johnson, CHA, is a hotel analyst for Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible and vice president of Argeo Hospitality, an Anthony Melchiorri Company.

Previous articleCarillon Miami Wellness Resort To Open After $10 Million Renovation
Next articleThe House Barbados Reopens
Daniel A. Johnson, CHA, CHIA, is an award-winning hotelier with decades of industry experience. He currently serves as a consultant to hotel owners and developers throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.