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Food Trends: After Midnight
food trendsOne of today's hottest food trends is late-night restaurant hours. Will staying open after midnight boost your eatery's sales?

Hunger can—and usually does—strike at any hour. But unless you live in New York (the city that never sleeps) or other large city, there’s often no place to go when you’re hungry and it’s after midnight.

But that’s changing. In fact the late night/early morning hours are one of the fastest-growing dayparts in the restaurant business. If you own a restaurant and you’re thinking about extending your hours, I talked to a couple of late-night restaurant veterans to find out what you should consider.

At Checkers and Rally’s Restaurants, Jennifer Durham, vice president of franchise development, says nearly all units (92 percent) are open until midnight or later. On Friday and Saturday nights, 96 percent of the chain keeps those late hours. Durham says the hours of the fast food restaurants vary, depending on their locations and night of the week. Checkers and Rally’s have some units that are open 24 hours, while others close anywhere from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Kevin Sanders, vice president of brand marketing from Pita Pit, says its units vary their closing times as well, with some closing at 8 or 9 p.m. while others are open until midnight or 3 a.m.

Durham says many of their restaurants have always kept late hours, but “about five years ago, we really started pushing the envelope, testing how long our restaurants could and should stay open to meet the needs of our guests and increase sales.”

Similarly, at Pita Pit, keeping late hours has been standard practice from the beginning in some locations. “It’s part of how we’ve been able to grow our brand,” Sanders says. “We have a strong presence in college towns so we cater to a crowd that is looking for healthy options in the later hours of the day.” (For more on college locations for restaurants, check out last month’s food trends post.) Since Pita Pit got its start in college towns and late-night districts of cities, Sanders says, being open late has “been part of the brand’s identity since day one, [and] continues to drive a significant portion of our sales.”

Durham says the menu (bold-flavored burgers, fries, wings and ice cream treats) makes Checkers and Rally’s “the best place to spend your $5 late at night. We’re fast and convenient, and our walk-up windows and patio seating stay open long after other brands close their dining rooms.”

If you’re thinking your restaurant isn’t near a college town so staying open late wouldn’t be worth it, think again. Durham says they first thought their urban locations should stay open later than the suburban ones. However, they discovered, “There are other factors driving late night success. Shift work, evening events and even retail can be traffic generators.”

The key is to test the concept. For Pita Pit, Sanders says, “It’s not uncommon for our late-night locations to see half or more of their sales come after midnight.” At Rally’s and Checkers, Durham says, “Late-night hours have significantly contributed to our overall success.” Over the last five years, late-night sales (defined as sales after 10 p.m.) have grown from 10 percent to more than 20 percent of the company’s sales.

Of course, to reach these after-midnight diners, you have to create a separate marketing effort. At Rally’s and Checkers they “launched a variety of marketing initiatives around late night, tagging many of our television spots with our late-night hours, and implementing an on-lot [point-of-purchase] campaign that leveraged our Do Late Night Right position.”

For Pita Pit, marketing to the late-night crowd varies from location to location. Some units “target the audience looking for food after the bars or after some late-night studying.” They also use social media to appeal to the Friday and Saturday night late night crowd. And Sanders adds, some of their efforts are  “more college marketing than late night marketing.”

Sanders says however one thing to look out for if you stay open late is “sometimes you get a rowdier crowd, so while it can be a fun, vibrant environment, there’s always a need to be cautious and aware of any problems.”

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Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at rieva@smallbizdaily.com, follow her on Google+ and Twitter.com/Rieva, and visit her website, SmallBizDaily.com, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.

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