Remember when Taco Bell brilliantly coined the term "Fourth Meal," referring to that well-after-dinner meal you sneak in before bed? This daypart took a big hit in 2020, but now many chains are reporting nighttime numbers even higher than those pre-pandemic. Recent data shows an overall increase of 7.5% in Q2 sales just in the last year.

Late-night dining is seeing a resurgence — and not just for the bar crowd. Events are back, which means everyone's looking to fill their bellies afterward. Plus, Uber Eats found in a recent report that deliveries to college campuses ring in mainly between 12 and 4 a.m.

So, think about keeping those doors open a little longer and snag the witching hour sales you've been missing. Hint, hint — you may not even need a FOH staff on the clock to crush it.

Cater to Clientele

Late-night food doesn't have to be unsophisticated. Your demographic might be groups looking for guilty pleasures to indulge in after a few tipples, but it could also be second-shifters coming in wanting a full-blown steak dinner or oysters on the half shell. Ask yourself, "Who exactly am I serving, and what will they spend money on?" Narrow your late-night offerings accordingly.

Excel at Efficiency

You can save on ingredients, time, and money while extending hours. After-bar groups will appreciate a share-friendly menu with baskets of apps or giant pizzas to split. This will ensure the speedy service they — and the cooks — are looking for. If you're a restaurant that offers full dinner service at — ahem — normal hours, look to your leftovers. Slice the rest of that slow-cooked brisket and add it to a flatbread with some veggies that are on the back end. What can you create out of what you already have on hand?

Play with Food

42% of millennials in a recent survey said that games at a restaurant influence their decision to go. Think of what kind of experience you can add to draw customers in beyond food. Host a late-night comedy set or let karaoke sing into the wee hours. Hold old-school board game nights or themed trivia. Serving up a fun, engaging late-night event once a week will make your place the spot to be and allow you to capitalize on the growing trend without committing to seven days a week.

Venture into Virtual

75% of Denny's locations nationwide are now back to 24-hour service. They credit a lot of their success with this by now offering virtual brands — separate entities you create that operate exclusively online via third-party delivery services. We’re not suggesting you go all night long, but dabbling in this approach could help you reach thousands of additional local customers — especially Gen Z — without the overhead costs of FOH staff, dining space, or rent.

You're essentially maximizing your existing operations while adding sales with one (or more!) additional brands with their own advertising power. This route also allows for more trial and error with menu planning. Get a couple varying brands out there and test the market. You can cater to different demographics all within the same brick-and-mortar location. With no need for FOH personnel, your labor and maintenance costs will be remarkably reduced, and you can reach an entire group of loyal customers you never would have — just through a virtual brand that delivers. As a partner in the Performance One Source program, Virtual Dining Concepts can help provide easy solutions to maximize your kitchen space and generate extra to-go sales.

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