This spring, a bird flu virus wiped out millions of chickens on commercial farms, resulting in rising prices for eggs. Ever since the H5Ns avian flu virus started to show up in the Midwest, egg prices have been climbing everywhere in the country.
“In Virginia we haven’t had any strains of avian flu, but we are affected in terms of our prices,” says Maya Vincelli, assistant director of retail operations for dining services at the University of Richmond. At U of Richmond’s cafés, dining halls and grab-and-go venues, eggs—especially in breakfast sandwiches—are the belle of the ball at breakfast.
“I’m trying to figure out a worst-case scenario or even a plan B, because so much of our breakfast menu is dominated by eggs,” she says. “For Americans it’s hard to think about breakfast without eggs. It’s just what people want in the morning. How can I provide a price that’s reasonable? What if we couldn’t offer eggs at all?”
Vincelli has decided to take a proactive stance, facing the “what if” head-on, by researching and testing possible ingredients that could replace eggs, some of which have surprised and intrigued her.
Vincelli, a self-described “data person,” oversees operations for five dining locations on campus. She and her colleagues keep a close eye on commodity prices.
“I’ve been reading the commodity reports and Cathy Moran (director of purchasing) is good at witnessing food trends from a data standpoint and letting us know which commodities are looking a little dicey,” Vincelli says.
Dining services, up until recently, had purchased liquid eggs, a common practice for large-scale foodservice operations. The price climbed until the purchasing team was referring to them as “liquid gold.”
Now they’ve switched to buying shell eggs, more labor-intensive, less foolproof for food safety (they’ve been high-temp pasteurized or have added citric acid, plus potentially salmonella-carrying shells are present), but cheaper than liquid. However, even conventionally grown shell eggs have gone up in price, Vincelli says.
“Liquid eggs are $4.19 for a quart now, versus the old price of $2.67. It doubled,” she adds. “When it got to $4.19 per quart, we started to look at shell eggs. Shell eggs are now $2.51 per dozen and this is from our broadline food distributor, so even shell eggs are super expensive.”
So working on an egg-free breakfast menu began with the breakfast item that’s a favorite on-the-go morning ritual for college students: the breakfast sandwich.
Vincelli’s thought process: “Breakfast sandwiches are hot because of their portability, but if the main goal of a customer buying a breakfast sandwich isn’t just portability, then it’s protein, especially in a vegetarian diet.”
Proteins like quinoa or a tofu scramble could definitely fit the bill on a breakfast sandwich. Many of the first items Vincelli developed were just tweaks to existing in-house items.
“Grilled cheese could work for breakfast…and avocado toast is a huge trend right now,” Vincelli says. “We also have a caprese sandwich that we can add bacon to, so you’re getting protein from the bacon and cheese.”
Other repurposed items include an Argentine sandwich with chimichurri (“It’s herbaceous and savory without the egg,” Vincelli says), and also croissant breakfast sandwiches with no eggs, instead highlighting some new local sausage.
And to mimic eggs, Vincelli went beyond tofu as a substitute, finding some interesting ideas that she’s currently experimenting with in the kitchen and at home, with the help of her sister, who works at a vegan café in Richmond.
“Aquafaba—the liquid that you find in chickpeas—has a viscous quality that you can whip into an egg-like consistency,” she says.
Aquafaba is definitely “Internet famous,” being hailed as a true vegan egg-replacer that can be whipped into a scramble, a mayonnaise substitute and even a meringue.
And from a cost-saving perspective, “it’s something that you’d throw away so it’s a way of stretching your dollar,” she adds.
Traditional non-egg items, like yogurt parfaits from grab-and-go cases, Nutella paninis, oatmeal (even in the hot weather, it sells well) and chia cups will also be a way to rely less on eggs.
For now, these measures aren’t in play, since it’s summertime and there are fewer students on campus, “so now we’re absorbing the cost of increased egg prices so we can encourage participation.”
“We’re not panicking; we’re trying to future-think,” Vincelli continues. “If the quantity of eggs didn’t meet the demand, it’s up to foodservice professionals to encourage experimentation and adventure.”