When Michelle Parks first started working in hotels, she was an auditor, which meant she monitored guest bills and balanced overbookings. She also was in charge of setting out continental breakfast.

As job duties go, that one was a breeze. All Parks had to do was pull cellophane-wrapped Danishes, muffins and doughnuts out of a supply closet. “The biggest thing I did was heat up water,” she recalls.

Now Parks is the general manager at Country Inn and Suites in Summerville, a case study in how far free hotel breakfast has progressed over the past two decades. On a recent Saturday morning, despite being located within blocks of morning institutions such as Cracker Barrel, Waffle House and IHOP, the hotel’s dining room was swarmed with guests looking for available seats so they could tuck into their western omelets with salsa, biscuits-and-gravy and granola-topped yogurt.

“I never make an omelet at home,” said Carrie Gaso, a member of a United Methodist Women’s group staying at Country Inn and Suites. “I make oatmeal. That’s why I am glad for this.” (For the record, Country Inn and Suites also keeps a warmed vat of oatmeal on its buffet counter.)

In a nation where only 34 percent of adults eat breakfast, it seems unusual to come across scores of enthusiastic breakfasters in one place. But continental breakfast has become so popular at U.S. hotels that Country Inn and Suites earlier this year did away with a guest suite so it could make more room for its spread: The expanded room feels like a bizarre bar, with strangers chatting good-naturedly about the news on the big-screen TV, and staffers fussing over guests.

Gaso had never before encountered a self-service malted waffle maker, so she asked Parks for help; Parks volunteered to take over the project and deliver a hot waffle to Gaso’s table. While the waffle was cooking, she cleared tables and checked milk levels for Nita Kent, one of two employees whose sole responsibility is continental breakfast service.

Whenever Kent (or her alternate, Mary Glover) is name-checked in a Yelp review, Country Inn and Suites adds a bonus to the woman’s paycheck. “Breakfast gives us a great opportunity to make a final connection,” Parks says. “Our goal is to have them leave singing our praises.”

Sweet bun slump

Country Inn and Suites, one of seven brands in the Carlson hotel group, isn’t the only chain that’s figured out how much guests like getting back part of their room fee in bagels and bacon. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 62 percent of hotels nationwide offer complimentary breakfast, almost always described as continental breakfast. The amenity is concentrated in upper-midscale and economy hotels, with about 80 percent of properties thus classified participating.

But midscale hotels, defined as the middle 30 percent of all hotels, sorted by average price per room, are the continental breakfast champions. A whopping 96 percent of midscale hotels try to feed their guests before they leave for the day.

The wellness factor

The strategy makes sense in the age of AirBnB, which costs New York City hotels alone $450 million in annual revenue, the Hotel Association of New York City reports. Temporary rentals may offer a homier experience than hotels can conjure, but very few of them come complete with a Greek yogurt bar. And with interest in high-quality, highly unique food nearing peak levels, there is no better way for an hotelier to show he or she cares than putting locally grown berries on that bar.

“The traditional coffee, croissant and sweet bun is sort of in decline,” says Jack Riepe, communications officer for the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “You’re more likely to find full-grain waffle mix and egg white omelets. We have discovered that business travelers today have a very strong wellness agenda: They don’t want to deviate from their diets when they’re on the road.”

A study commissioned by Riepe’s group showed 46 percent of business travelers listed work-life balance as a growing priority, one element of which is healthful eating. But leisure travelers aren’t inclined to settle for white toast either; the continental breakfast scene is becoming increasingly competitive in Charleston, where hotels have to win over tourists who chose the city specifically for its culinary achievements.

“We’ve got some scrumptious locally sourced products,” Barry Hutto of the Andrew Pinckney Inn says. “We have Normandy Farms and Charleston Roasters, so everyone starts with fresh Charleston coffee: It’s a roast that’s specifically for the Pinckney. Callie’s Biscuits, we rotate in and out. We’re also doing Charleston teas, with Savannah Bee Co. honey to drizzle, whether on their granola or hot tea.”

Threat to pie

Continental breakfast in its current form is so beloved by hotel owners and guests that Parks, the Country Inn and Suites general manager, can’t even muster a complaint about customers who appear to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat system. “We just try to make sure we get their day started out right,” Parks says. “If that costs me 20 bags of oatmeal, that’s OK, and maybe they’re that hungry and need it, and that’s OK, too.”

Still, there is one problem with continental breakfast that almost everyone involved with it cites: The name is puzzling. “There is not a universal definition,” Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, says.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele famously mocked the term on their sketch comedy series, Key & Peele, with a fatuous character who mistakes continental breakfast for a reflection of Europe’s most sophisticated meals. “Well la di da,” he says, picking up a mini-muffin. “Paper and everything.”

Actually, continental breakfast does come from across the Atlantic, although it’s changed radically since it was first served. In the 1890s, when it was fashionable for Americans to take European vacations, they often returned with horror stories about inadequate breakfasts in Germany, Italy and France. (Their British counterparts, also accustomed to eggs and chops, had already filed their grievances against the basic menu they’d christened “Continental.”)

“It was even narrated that an Italian gentleman thought he had eaten a very hearty breakfast when he put cream in his coffee,” a syndicated American columnist griped in 1896. Fearing that coffee and a roll would make inroads closer to home, he pleaded with readers to banish continental breakfast “from a hemisphere where the Monroe Doctrine and the pie should reign supreme.” Around the same time, The Atlanta Constitution related the story of a French boardinghouse where Americans were forced to smuggle in their own jars of jam.

“Not a concession, but a courtesy”

Thirty years later, Americans still hadn’t gotten over being denied buckwheat cakes and beefsteak in the morning.

“The Continental breakfast is a perpetual novelty,” The Boston Globe reported in 1928. “Rolls and coffee, with perhaps a little jam; do they expect a male man to keep going on that until 1 o’clock?”

Within a few years, though, the American economy was in rough shape. Suddenly, the promise of a hard roll and coffee became significantly more appealing. The first major hotel to realize the free meal’s potential was New York City’s Barbizon-Plaza at Central Park South and West 58th Street. (Today, the building is known as Trump Parc.) In 1930, the Barbizon-Plaza started taking out full-page ads in Life magazine, explaining the continental concept.

“Breakfast on the host instead of on the bill,” one ad was headlined. It continued, “What home would put up a guest for the night and let him leave without breakfast in the morning? So we evolved The Continental Breakfast, sent to the room with the compliments of the host, not a concession but a courtesy.”

A few entrepreneurial hotel owners were immediately inspired to follow suit, including Bert Selden up in Rochester, whose breakfast experiment was briefly noted in Variety. Yet continental breakfast remained a rarity throughout the first half of the century, except in Miami Beach, where a free morning meal was a common tourist come-on, along with swiveling bar stools, individual air conditioning units and lobby waterfalls.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s travel editor explained in a 1960 column intended to demystify American hotels for foreign visitors, “United States hotels, for the most part, do not offer a Continental Breakfast.” Confusingly, they operated on what was called the European Plan, meaning no food was included, while European hotels stuck to the Continental Plan, serving “beverage(s), rolls, butter, and some preserve.”

Bringing home the bacon

According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, one of the earliest chains to introduce free breakfast was Hampton Inn, which adopted continental breakfast across its portfolio at some point in the mid-1980s. Complimentary breakfast took off in the early 1990s with the creation of “focused service brands” aimed at business travelers, such as Holiday Inn Express.

The amenity was received so readily by customers that it’s now largely assumed all the way along the luxury spectrum. In downtown Charleston, The Spectator considered not offering a free complimentary breakfast, partly for the very legitimate reason that it doesn’t have a kitchen. Unlike hotels with on-site restaurants, The Spectator doesn’t have the incentive of teasing guests with what awaits if they return for dinner.

“We looked at it,” general manager Brent Greshem says. “There are so many great places, would we really need to do it? But the feedback from the traveling public is breakfast is still up there. They want location, customer service, safety, but breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

At The Spectator, breakfast choices might include kale quiche, WildFlour Pastry’s granola, wild-caught salmon, French cheese, organic yogurt and a hard-boiled free-range egg. To drink, there are bellinis and mimosas made with freshly squeezed orange juice. “We spend a lot of money on food,” Greshem says; he estimates 95 percent of guests take breakfast at the hotel, and a good number of them post their opinions of it online.

“We realize there’s a lot of epicurean-minded visitors in Charleston, so we put an emphasis on breakfast specifically,” says Greshem, who also oversees the French Quarter Inn’s breakfast, which is grandly arrayed in the lobby. “It’s great to say people say, ‘I was at Charleston Grill or FIG’ and then to see them rave about us as well.”

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