Where the stars of location and lack of competition align, late-night dining can create a destination niche. Operators that keep their kitchens open can attract an underserved potential customer base of fellow restaurant and bar employees, among other guests looking for a late-night bite and beverage.
The most oft-cited reason for late-night dining programs is location and a chance to exploit an underserved niche. “Even in a city like this, you’d be surprised how few places there are to eat after 10 o’clock on a weeknight,” notes Adam Smith, general manager of Alla Spina, an Italian gastropub in Philadelphia.
The restaurant’s kitchen is open until midnight; 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Alla Spina, part of the Vetri Family restaurants, also offers a second Happy Hour from 10:30 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursdays.
“Ever since we opened, we wanted to be a late-night spot for food,” says Smith. “We decided to be a destination for people who wanted for whatever reason to eat later in the evening.”
Seattle-based Brave Horse Tavern, part of the Tom Douglas restaurant group, opened three years ago. Since then the upscale casual restaurant has served its entire menu every night until midnight. To bolster its nocturnal business, Brave Horse added a late-night Happy Hour a few months ago.
“If we were going to be open for drinks, it made sense to be open for food as well,” says bar manager Renee Somerset-Mucha. Also “there were very few options—still are very few options—in the South Lake Union neighborhood for late-night food,” she notes.
“Late-night dining is a huge growth vehicle for us; we are up 20% year over year in sales after 10 p.m.,” says Mike Herchuck, corporate beverage manager at Orlando, FL-based based Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill. At the 65-unit, casual-dining chain, late-night accounts for 10% to 15% of total sales, and in some locations it’s as high as 25% to 30%.
Smokey Bones launched the late-night daypart in January 2011 with an abbreviated food menu to make it easier on the kitchen. “Then we realized we were selling a lot more late-night food than we’d thought,” recalls Herchuck.
Now the chain offers the full menu as well as the late-night menu in all locations, and it’s about a 50/50 split in dollars between food and liquor. “Initially, we had assumed we would sell more liquor, beer and wine, now we realized our guests were coming in to eat at night,” he says.
Servicing the industry
Patrons frequenting restaurants in midnight hours are likely to be hospitality industry folks, as well as a goodly number of second-shift workers, locals in search of a nightcap and evening families trying to squeeze in some quality time no matter the hour.
“Our Late Night at Oak menu has been drawing a lot of industry people, and we also get a lot of the younger, foodie crowd as well. The mix is kind of all over,” says Bryan Dayton, bar director and co-owner of Oak at Fourteenth, an upscale, New American cuisine restaurant in Boulder, CO. In place since the restaurant opened three years ago, the exclusive late-night menu is offered Thursday through Saturday, 10 p.m. to midnight.
“We gear towards industry people to give them an option for late-night dinner—you don’t see that too much in Boulder,” he says. To prime the pump, Oak at Fourteenth passes out 12 free house-made pretzels at 10:45 p.m.—first come, first served. Late-night business, says Dayton, is nearly on a par with other dayparts.
“The service industry crowd is huge, and we do cater to it,” Herchuck says. The late-night crowd tends to be a little younger, more social and more active in social media, he adds.
But some Smokey Bones locations are hosting more families eating out later, he notes. “That’s why we keep the dining room open, so guests don’t have to sit at the bar. That was an ‘aha’ moment, that we didn’t foresee when we started,” Herchuck says.
The Scottsdale, AZ-based RA Sushi Bar Restaurant chain calls its late-night program a Reverse Happy Hour. It’s available in all 25 of the Japanese fusion cuisine restaurants, from 10 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Thursday.
The Reverse Happy Hour “captures the late-night owl and our guests who work in the industry,” says Samuel Foos, RA Sushi’s director of hospitality and store development. “We wanted to offer them an opportunity to enjoy fantastic items at a great price,” he adds.
Indeed, says Smith at Alla Spina, “people who work in the industry don’t have the opportunity to go to the regular Happy Hour; we do a late-night Happy Hour so that they could enjoy some good deals on drinks and food.”
Most of the food specials on these programs are snacks, small bites, tapas, but often backed up by the full menu. Brave Horse Tavern, for example, offers just four food specials, including a house-made pretzel ($3.50) with hot, apple, and beer mustards, a $4 Rub with Love snack mix, smoked wings, with a locally made hot sauce and house bleu cheese dressing ($6). “The biggest deal is a burger and fries for $6, which is normally $10,” says Somerset-Mucha.
Smokey Bones’ nine discounted specials are tiered at $4, $5 or $6, with Loaded Cheese Fries at $4; Chicken Fingers for $5; and a Pulled Pork Sammy at $6, for example. “Wings and Loaded Nachos (both $6) are huge; they make up about half of the items we sell late-night,” says Herchuck. Many guests order off the regular, undiscounted menu; signature burgers are especially popular, ordered right up until closing.
RA Sushi’s Reverse Happy Hour Menu is also tiered by price, with six levels of more than 30 food items. Prices range from $2.75 for Edamame to $7.75 for the Viva Las Vegas Roll.
At Alla Spina, most nocturnal guests order off the menu, but the restaurant offers many specials, such as $1.50 oysters, $2 Crab & Horseradish Deviled Eggs, $1 hot dogs and discounted salumi and cheese boards, according to Smith. “We are a neighborhood spot, so we get locals coming in for a nightcap or late-night snack.”
Oak at Fourteenth finds that burgers and chicken legs are the big late-night draws, Dayton says. The Oak-Grilled Double Cheese Burger ($11) comes with Tender Belly Bacon, Gruyere, Harissa Aioli and Housemade Tots; the Crispy Rocky Junior Chicken Legs with Parmesan Hot Sauce are priced $2 each after 10 p.m.
Other noshes include Crispy Fried Pickles with Green Goddess Aioli ($4) and a Shaved Apple & Kale Salad with Parmesan, Almonds and Lemon ($8). The late-night menu, says Dayton, was designed so that only one or two chefs are needed to produce it.
Late-night guests at Smoky Bones tend to order single spirits or draft beer, contrasted with bottled beer and signature drinks consumed at dinner, Herchuck says. To cater to that later-hour customers, the operator prints a list of shooters on the back of the menu: $3.95 for Three Olives vodka, Sailor Jerry rum, and Johnny Walker and Jim Beam whiskies.
Smokey Bones offers drink specials on an all day everyday basis: The house Margarita is priced at under $5; 22-oz. beers are $3.75; domestic pints are $2.75. “We call them out in a bigger way in our late-night program,” he says, with a section on the late-night food menu. “Those discounts are a big driver for the late crowd.”
Brave Horse Tavern discounts shots of Fernet Branca and Fireball whisky to $6 for late-night patrons. “The late-night drink specials are totally different from our afternoon Happy Hour,” Somerset-Mucha says. “When you get off work from a restaurant, what you really want is a crisp, refreshing beer and a shot of whiskey,” she observes. That’s why the $7 Boilermakers sell well, such as a pint of Rainier & a shot of Buffalo Trace bourbon, a can of Tecate paired with Zapopan reposado tequila and an Old German tall boy and Old Grand-Dad.
Alla Spina takes $2 off every draft from 22 taps (prices normally run $5 to $12). Happy Hour patrons can find as many eight drafts for just $3; other specials $2 Brooklyn cans and $4 Peroni bottles. “Since our taps rotate so often, they are all discounted—that’s much better than having the same drink deals every single day,” notes Smith.
Oak at Fourteenth concocted the Oak After Dark cocktail ($9) for late night; it’s made with George Dickel No. 12, Averna and Angostura bitters. Classics like the Negroni, Side Car, and Blood & Sand are also marked down to $6. Beer and a shot, like Averna & Stella Artois ($7) and the Moscow Mule ($5) are big sellers after 10 p.m., says Dayton. So are Coors and Coors Light, which are reduced to $2 each.
RA Sushi’s Reverse Happy Hour drinks are tiered by price. Hot sake and Bud Light and Miller Lite are priced at$3.75; 22-oz. Kirin bottles, Kinsen Plum Wine, draft sake and various cocktails are $5.75; a buck or two more gets guests specialty cocktails such as the Blushing Geisha, Shiso Naughty or Strawberry Saketini. Featured wines run $10 to $12 a glass. The most popular drink, says Foos, is the Baby Umami punch ($6.75), which includes Southern Comfort, cold sake and tropical fruit juices.
Wake Up Call
Smokey Bones’ experience with this dining occasion has revealed a few insights. “Atmosphere and staff are the two most important pieces,” says Herchuck. That’s especially true for the service-industry crowd. “They are demanding guests because they have been waiting on people all day and they are ready to be served.”
Another discovery the company has made is that late night is a good time for take-out. “What caught us off-guard was that we do more take-out late night than we’d expected,” Herchuck says. To fuel that, they drop off menus at businesses open second-shift—factories, 24-hour retail stores, police, firefighters, EMT crews.
Smokey Bones is testing some ideas in its home-state Florida market, such as wing specials, service-industry nights, half-price apps and more signature drinks. It’s also considering late-night specific events, such as trivia nights, DJ music and stein-hoisting and ugly sweater contests. The chain is looking for “off-center elements of excitement that go along with the Smokey Bones concept and give us something to speak to marketingwise,” Herchuck says. •
Promoting Late-Night Offerings
Much of the promotion for late-night offers occurs via social media and word of mouth. Brave Horse Tavern, for instance, promotes the daypart on its website, Facebook and Twitter and in-house. The Seattle operator also created a separate menu for late-night, which is a strikingly different color, “so it jumps out a little bit more,” says bar manager Renee Somerset-Mucha.
At Alla Spina, a Philadelphia gastropub, “we do a ton of social media, Instagram, Facebook and a lot of Twitter,” says general manager Adam Smith. “I will tweet the draft menu and add, ‘$2 off all drafts after 10:30.’”
Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill considers its $4/$5/$6 discount menu a good hook, “something we can talk about to our guests and market in print materials or email blasts,” says the Orlando-based’s chain’s corporate beverage manager Mike Herchuck. “Our marketing speaks more specifically to a late-night guest, instead of simply saying we are open late.”