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July 22, 2013

Bring It On: Attracting The Late Night Diner 24 Hours a Day

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If you live in a town where the sidewalks roll up at 10 p.m., you’ve probably been frustrated by the lack of dining options. There’s a McDonald’s maybe, and then there’s…Well, you see the problem. But after-hours dining has become a hot topic in restaurants. Some see it as a way to cash in on an unfulfilled niche: late night workers and the post-concert crowd. Others say it plays into the way we eat now: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are no longer set times; people like to dine when time allows or when the mood strikes. Although a lot of restaurants stay open late – and by late, we mean 11 a.m. or midnight if you’re lucky - they usually involve the words “do fries come with that?” or “I’d like that straight up with a twist.”

Is late night dining a viable option for more upscale restaurants? Tom Ryan thinks so and he’s already taken the plunge. Ryan, a Ph.D., is the successful founder of the Smashburger chain; the man credited with the stuffed pizza crust for Pizza Hut and the dollar menu at McDonald’s. His new venture, Tom’s Urban 24, is located in a hip locale in Denver. And as the name says – no, not the Tom’s part – it’s open 24 hours a day. Ryan calls his restaurant “polished casual,” delicious food; comfortable atmosphere; hip vibe. He describes the food as “hand-crafted comfort food with an urban twist.”

In order for a 24-hour restaurant to work, he says, it has to be successful at every meal – not just late night. Hence he taps into the latest trends: locally sourced food, hand-crafted cocktails (with a mixologist on hand), small plates. Likewise the food follows suit, offering something for everyone – “knife and fork sandwiches,” Mexican-inspired dishes, Asian-inspired dishes such as pho, burgers, salads, and the latest in comfort food, chicken and waffles. The suburbs generally can’t support a 24-hour restaurant along those lines, but a densely populated urban corridor can.

“Consumers are fueling this with their lifestyle,” says Ryan. He calls it the difference between old school thinking and a new school of thought. In the past, all-night restaurants thrived mostly along major thoroughfares, a respite for the travelling man (and woman). Think truck stops and Howard Johnson. The new model establishes a 24 hour restaurant where people “live, work and play” – Ryan’s new mantra.

With suburbanites moving back into the cities and millenials lapping up the urban life, just about every major city has such a trendy locale. Ryan breaks down his customer base by the time of night. Between 10 p.m. and midnight, there’s the post-venue crowd, hungry after a sporting event or concert and the folks who are just out and about. In addition, “there the people who work in other service businesses, waiters, hotel people, valets, cook staff – they like to hang because their own work is closed.” From midnight to 4 a.m., you get the post-bar crowd and nightclub crowd in addition to the others. After 4 a.m., the customers shift to folks who have the early shift, cabbies, and people who want to eat on their way to the airport.

Ryan is confident that he can tap into the untapped and expand the business to other locales, just like Smashburger. “We think it’s an unfilled niche; we built our model to expand. Expansion would be outside of Denver in major urban settings, he says repeating his mantra, “where people work, live and play.” .

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