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Looking for a late-night meal? America’s closed

<i>Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource</i><br/>IHOP eliminated its 'open 24 hours' policy amid Covid. Now
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource
IHOP eliminated its 'open 24 hours' policy amid Covid. Now

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

New York (CNN) — Hungry at 3 a.m.? Head home and go to sleep. You’re out of luck.

Shift workers, bar-hoppers and night owls don’t have nearly as many late-night dining options as they did during the pre-pandemic heyday of 24-hour diners and restaurants.

And it’s not just restaurants. Walmart, four years after Covid-19 prompted curtailed hours, still hasn’t gone back to “open all night.” Some supermarkets, electronics retailers, coffee shops and pharmacies that shuttered early during Covid-19 have never come back to late-night hours. Not even all of 24 Hour Fitness’ gyms — the promise is right in its name — are 24 hours.

But the worst hit are sunset-to-sunrise diners and restaurants.

The number of restaurants offering 24-hour service fell 18% from 2020 to 2024, according to data from Yelp. The city that never sleeps, New York, has lost 13% of its 24-hour restaurants. Los Angeles, which was also impacted by the Hollywood strikes, has lost a stunning 35% of 24-hour eateries, and Chicago 10%.

The slow recovery of “open all night” America highlights changes to consumer habits and the restaurant industry. Big shifts in customer behavior, including earlier dinner times and less booze late into the evenings, have held back a return to pre-pandemic patterns. Higher labor and food costs have led restaurants to close earlier as well.

Breakfast-based chains are rebounding, somewhat. Around half of IHOP’s 1,800 locations are back to being open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday, at the very least. About 75% of Denny’s 1,600 restaurants are open 24 hours again. And, in a comfort to bleary-eyed students everywhere, all of Waffle House’s nearly 2,000 restaurants run 24 hours again.

But 24/7 is risky, restaurateurs warn. “It’s very stressful to have a business open 24 hours,” explained Alex Barakos, the general manager of Pete’s Kitchen, a Greek diner in Denver with a countertop and retro vibe.

Pete’s was open 24 hours, seven days a week from the 1990s until the pandemic hit in 2020. When the pandemic forced Pete’s to close temporarily, Barakos didn’t even have a key, he said, because the restaurant had never locked its front door.

Pete’s is back to 24 hours, but only on Friday and Saturday. Nightlife is still not as busy as it was pre-pandemic during the week, said Barakos.

“24/7 [service] relies on events like concerts and games. It’s all tied together,” he said. “You have to really give someone a reason to go out right now. You have to give them an event.”

Higher labor and food costs

Staffing graveyard shifts has long been a challenge, and it’s even harder do so cost-effectively in the tight labor market of the last few years.

Food costs have increased 25% since March of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while wages in the leisure and hospitality industry have increased 29%. The industry has more than 1 million unfilled positions, according to the latest reading from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Operationally, the industry is in a different place than it was pre-pandemic,” said Hudson Riehle, the senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. “It doesn’t make sense for some of these operators to incur higher costs in traditionally lower sales periods.”

In 2022, restaurants cut back weekly operating hours by 7.5%, or roughly 6.5 hours, compared to 2019, according to market research firm Datassential.

Public safety concerns, in some cases, have also led restaurants and other businesses to close earlier. In Philadelphia, for example, the city council passed a bill last month that will force businesses in one neighborhood to close overnight in an effort to reduce crime and noise issues.

Earlier dinners

But late-night eating has been a symbol of American culture, from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting to films like “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”

In New York City, 24-hour diners rose alongside the growing nightlife scene during the mid-twentieth century, said Stephen Zagor, a restaurant consultant who teaches at Columbia Business School.

“That culture eroded over later part of 20th century,” he said. “The examination point was the pandemic.”

Consumer behaviors have changed since the pandemic. Many people are eating meals earlier, restaurant reservation data shows. In 2023, 10% of all diners were “early birds,” seated between 2-5 p.m. — up from 5% in 2019, according to Yelp.

Many younger Americans are also skipping booze, weakening demand for customers looking to sober up with a meal after a night of bar-hopping.

Sixty-two percent of adults under age 35 say they drink, down from 72% two decades ago, Gallup polling shows.

‘Do we really need to go to one more place?’

In San Antonio, owner Pete Cortez still has not brought back 24-hour service at Mi Tierra, an 80-year-old Tex-Mex restaurant known for its breakfast tacos and Mariachi band.

Cortez’s grandparents started Mi Tierra. For years, Mi Tierra had a neon sign outside its restaurant saying “We never close.”

Before the pandemic, people would come in to eat after weddings and other events. Now, people are eating dinner earlier and not staying out as late.

“There’s been some shift in the mentality,” Cortez said. “People are saying ‘We already partied tonight. Do we really need to go to one more place?’”

Cortez wants to bring back 24-hour operations at Mi Tierra, but he doesn’t believe the nightlife and events can lift demand. Instead of opening the restaurant, he is testing a food truck in the parking lot to see if that will attract interest.

Before the pandemic, “a lot of our after midnight guests were mostly local — people going to dinners, weddings and Chamber of Commerce events. It was not uncommon to see people coming in tuxedos after midnight,” he said.

“It will take that kind of energy and activity to get back to 24/7.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Business/Consumer

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