The Fast-Food Breakfast Wars

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) It's no secret that fast-food restaurants have struggled, throughout the Great Recession, to cope with declining demands and increasingly budget-conscious consumers. And, in response, many have turned to the morning meal as a means of capturing market share.

But which have truly succeeded?

Ahead of a slew of restaurant earnings reports out this week, the Shopping Spy took the streets to see just which eatery ranks highest on the following criteria: menu options, service, quality, price and nutritional value at breakfast time.

We matched McDonald's (Stock Quote: MCD) against Burger King (Stock Quote: BKC) and Starbucks (Stock Quopte: SBUX), all of which are revamping their breakfast menus.

Our first and, these days, arguably most crucial comparison was price: To that end, McDonald's has been making a push to become the go-to destination for a cup of Joe with its mass roll-out of its McCafe initiative touting a bevy of beverage options at cheaper prices than Starbucks' "luxury" drinks.

But what we found didn't exactly jibe with that: A small cup of McDonald's mocha latte (12 ounces) was $3.48 at an undisclosed location in New York. The same hot beverage at Starbucks was virtually identical at $3.50 and the quality at Starbucks was, to be sure, worth the two cents more. In our taste test, McDonald's version was overly syrupy sweet.

It was only with the higher-end drinks that we started to see a price savings at McDonald's, over Starbucks, of about $1 on average.

Starbucks was, not surprisingly, the most expensive choice. Our small mocha latte and spinach-and-feta egg wrap cost $6.75. The McDonald's mocha latte, McSkillet Burrito with sausage and hash brown was $6.39 and much more filling.

Starbucks has flip-flopped between offering breakfast and doing away with the meal. Currently, it offers breakfast food options at select locations with plans to roll it out nationally.

Ultimately, at least from our research, by far the best bang for the consumer buck comes from none other than Burger King. For those not concerned with looking for a fancy drink (BK offers only four options: regular, decaf, turbo and iced), two cheesy bacon wrappers, hash browns and small coffee are just $4.56.

Indeed, Burger King has been making a push to take over McDonald's at breakfast. The fast-food chain has been testing opening earlier (7 a.m. and 8 a.m. compared with 10 a.m.) and offering more breakfast options. These new initiatives will be rolled out in all location by November.

These are moves, of course, that rivals Wendy's/Arby's (Stock Quote: WEN) and Yum Brands' (Stock Quote: YUM) Taco Bell have also made, several times over the years. But breakfast is not as easy as it looks, and lagging sales eventually forced the two to pull breakfast from their menus.

As for the nutritional aspect of our comparisons, let's face it: very few consumers walk into any of these three establishments concerned solely with the nutritional value of their food or drinks. Still, out of the three, Starbucks was by far the healthiest. Its egg wrap, for starters, is just 250 calories, compared with 610 calories for McDonald's McSkillet and 380 calories for BK's cheesy bacon wrap.

To that end, this summer Starbucks revamped its menu, eliminating high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and food coloring in an effort to become more organic.

The only area in which McDonald's excelled in our comparisons was in its menu selection. It easily boasted the most extensive breakfast options.

Ultimately, though, McDonald's might not even need the best tasting or cheapest breakfast food in order to beat out the competition, because when consumers are rushing to get to the office, convenience might ultimately be the weightiest factor for their breakfast choice. Burger King just does not have as many locations. Starbucks is lacking in food options.

So now that McDonald's offers both a bevy of hot, caffeinated drinks as well as extensive food options, the Golden Arches could have all the edge it needs to win the breakfast war even if it wins by losing.

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