Whether it’s bacon, egg, and cheese on an English muffin, a sausage biscuit, or a breakfast burrito, portable breakfast sandwiches have become a staple of mornings nationwide. But have you ever wondered where these handheld breakfast classics came from? The origins of your favorite morning sandwiches might surprise you. From fast food innovations to savvy marketing campaigns, the history behind America’s favorite breakfast sandwiches is a fascinating tale of food, culture, and capitalism. So pour yourself a cup of coffee and read on—the story of how breakfast sandwiches took over the U.S. is one you’ll devour.
The Invention of the Breakfast Sandwich
Have you ever wondered who came up with the ingenious idea to put an egg and cheese between two pieces of bread? Well, believe it or not, the breakfast sandwich wasn’t “invented” until the 1960s.
A few people claim to have created the first breakfast sandwich. According to legend, in the early 1900s, a man named Charlie Nagreen was selling eggs and bacon between slices of bread from his food cart to make it easier for customers to walk around. Another story says that Oscar Tschirky, known as “Oscar of the Waldorf,” created the sandwich in the 1890s at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the breakfast sandwich really took off, thanks to two important factors:
(1) Pre-made, frozen bread and rolls made it easy for restaurants to toast bread for sandwiches.
(2) Fast food chains began serving breakfast, and the breakfast sandwich was the perfect portable, handheld meal.
McDonald’s launched their Egg McMuffin in 1972 and it was an instant hit. Within a couple of years, Burger King came out with their Croissan’wich. These popularized the breakfast sandwich and soon diners and drive-thrus all over the U.S. started serving their own versions with eggs, cheese, and some kind of breakfast meat on English muffins, biscuits, or rolls.
Today, you can find breakfast sandwiches everywhere and in so many varieties. Whether you like egg and cheese on an English muffin, biscuit, croissant, or bagel, or prefer to add bacon, sausage, or ham, the breakfast sandwich has become an American classic.
The Egg McMuffin: McDonald’s Claim to Fame
The Egg McMuffin, McDonald’s first breakfast sandwich, was a game changer. Introduced in 1971, it helped turn breakfast into a dining-out occasion and made McDonald’s into the powerhouse it is today.
The Egg McMuffin was the brainchild of Herb Peterson, a McDonald’s franchisee in Santa Barbara, California. Peterson came up with the idea after noticing the popularity of breakfast sandwiches among local diners. He created a handmade prototype with an egg, a slice of cheese, and Canadian bacon on an English muffin.
McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc tasted the sandwich, loved it, and added it to the national menu.
The ingredients were simple but brilliant.
- A freshly cracked grade A egg: Protein-packed, familiar, and comforting.
- A slice of melty American cheese: Savory, gooey, and kid-friendly.
- A sausage patty (later swapped for Canadian bacon): Hearty, meaty, and satisfying.
- An English muffin: Familiar, butter-able, and perfect for sopping up yolk.
Within a year, the Egg McMuffin was available in all McDonald’s locations and sales were through the roof. It showed the world that fast food could do breakfast, and do it well.
Today, the Egg McMuffin remains a menu staple and American icon. Countless breakfast sandwiches from other chains are modeled after Peterson’s creation, but none can match the original’s nostalgic appeal and timeless simplicity. All hail the Egg McMuffin, the OG of on-the-go breakfast!
The Rise of the Biscuit Sandwiches in the South
The Rise of Biscuit Sandwiches
The South is known for delicious breakfast biscuits, so it’s no surprise that biscuit sandwiches grew popular there. Biscuits paired perfectly with country ham, fried chicken, eggs, and cheese. As people looked for quick and portable breakfast options, the biscuit sandwich was an obvious solution.
Two popular Southern biscuit sandwiches emerged: the fried chicken biscuit and the sausage biscuit. To make a fried chicken biscuit, people would take leftover fried chicken, slice it up, and layer it on a split biscuit with cheese and hot sauce. The sausage biscuit featured a split biscuit topped with a sausage patty, cheese, and often an egg. Both were hardy, savory, and inexpensive to make.
These biscuit sandwiches gained mainstream popularity in the 1970s. Hardee’s introduced the first fast food biscuit sandwiches, adding egg and cheese to their fried chicken and sausage biscuits. Their affordable and delicious biscuit sandwiches were a hit, propelling Hardee’s to become the fourth-largest fast-food chain. Soon, other chains followed, rolling out their own versions of hot, cheap biscuit sandwiches for breakfast.
Today, biscuit sandwiches remain popular, especially in the South. Hardee’s, Bojangles, Popeyes, and Chick-fil-A all offer biscuit sandwiches for breakfast. The fried chicken biscuit and sausage biscuit have endured, along with egg biscuits and bacon biscuits. While fast food versions abound, many Southerners still prefer homemade biscuits split open and topped with their favorite meats and cheeses. For a taste of Southern comfort and tradition, you can’t beat a classic hot biscuit sandwich.
Bagel Sandwiches Take New York by Storm
The Bagel Takes Over
In the 1960s, bagels started gaining mainstream popularity in New York City. Bagel shops began popping up and New Yorkers fell in love with the chewy, circular bread. It wasn’t long before sandwiches made on bagels became popular for breakfast. And if you’re thinking “where is the best breakfast sandwich near me?”, well if you’re in Brooklyn that would be Filthy Flats.
The Classic Bacon, Egg, and Cheese
The bacon, egg, and cheese bagel sandwich is considered a classic New York breakfast. Crispy bacon, a fried egg, and melted cheese on a freshly baked bagel—what’s not to love? This hearty sandwich is the perfect mix of savory and salty flavors to start your morning. Many delis in NYC are known for serving up delicious BEC bagels.
The Breakfast Bagel Sandwich Goes National
As bagel popularity spread from New York to the rest of America in the 1980s and 90s, so did the breakfast bagel sandwich. Major chains like Einstein Bros. Bagels, Bruegger’s, and Panera brought bagels—and bagel sandwiches—to the masses. Brooklyn is still considered to produce the best bagels. Of course, they all claimed to have the best breakfast sandwiches. In the end, Brooklyn is considered the best bagel worldwide, and any bagel shop in New York City will have a breakfast bagel sandwich. As to who is the best, well, that is really subjective, and everyone will have their own favorite spot.
Regional Variations Emerge
While the classic BEC still reigns, regional variations of the breakfast bagel sandwich have emerged:
- In the South, a biscuit often replaces the bagel, and sausage or chicken tenders are added.
- In the Midwest, egg sandwiches feature cheese, bacon, and avocado on whole wheat or asiago bagels.
- In the West, sprouts, veggies, and cream cheese are popular bagel sandwich additions.
- In New England, bagel sandwiches frequently contain lobster or crab meat.
Whether you prefer a classic New York BEC or a regional twist, the breakfast bagel sandwich has secured its place in America’s morning routine. Nearly every cafe, coffee shop, and bakery now offer its own version of this iconic handheld.
Breakfast Burritos and Wraps: A New Take on an Old Favorite
Breakfast burritos and wraps are a newer take on the classic breakfast sandwich, but they’ve quickly become favorites. Who doesn’t love a warm tortilla wrapped around their favorite breakfast fillings?
The Breakfast Burrito
The breakfast burrito likely originated in New Mexico or Texas, where large flour tortillas are commonly used, inspired by Mexican cuisine. It’s basically an oversized burrito filled with typical breakfast ingredients like:
- Eggs – scrambled or fried
- Cheese – cheddar, Monterey jack, or cotija are popular
- Potatoes – hash browns, home fries, or diced potatoes
- Meat – bacon, sausage, ham, or chorizo
- Salsa – for extra flavor and spice
- Beans (optional) – refried or black beans
Roll it all up in a large flour tortilla and you’ve got a seriously satisfying breakfast. Burritos are highly customizable, so add in your favorite veggies, hot sauce or guacamole.
Breakfast wraps are similar to burritos but use smaller tortillas, lavash bread, or flatbreads. They tend to have lighter fillings focused on eggs, cheese, and fresh veggies. Some popular options include:
- Egg white wrap with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and feta cheese
- Breakfast burrito-inspired wrap with scrambled eggs, black beans, salsa, and avocado
- Mediterranean-style wrap with eggs, hummus, cucumbers, and olives
Whether you prefer a hearty burrito or a lighter wrap, these handheld breakfasts are perfect when you’re in a hurry but still want a wholesome meal. They’re also highly portable for eating on the go. No matter how you fill them, breakfast burritos and wraps satisfy like a traditional breakfast sandwich in a deliciously different way. However, my favorite spot for Mexican cuisine in Manhattan is Rosie’s at 29 2nd Ave on the corner of 2nd Street in the East Village. You’d have to ask if they still have it, but I had had the egg and chorizo and egg previously, with a terrific coffee too!
So there you have it, the origins of some of America’s favorite breakfast sandwiches. Whether you prefer egg and cheese on an English muffin, bacon and egg on a biscuit, or sausage and egg on a bagel, breakfast sandwiches have become an iconic part of the morning meal — referred to as the most important of the day. They’re portable, filling, and satisfying – the perfect combination of carbs, protein, and fat to start your day. Next time you grab your favorite breakfast sandwich, take a moment to appreciate its history and how it came to be such an integral part of the American breakfast tradition. These handheld breakfast creations may seem simple, but they have a storied past and play an important role in the country’s food culture.
Check out the American breakfast sandwich at Filthy Flats Brooklyn NY.