As the days grow longer and the sun sets later, consumers begin embracing leisurely evenings and seizing opportunities for socializing and imbibing at bars and eateries. And with college students picking up foodservice jobs during the summer months, restaurants are leveraging boosted staff levels and extended hours with revamped late-night menus, like Big Whiskey’s American Restaurant & Bar.
“After a few years of not meeting up at 10 p.m. during the pandemic, people are starting to come back to late-night,” says Paul Sundy, co-founder and COO of the Missouri-based franchise which just surpassed 10 locations. “We’ve always used summer to remind people about our program. It’s the perfect time to meet up with friends, especially on the patio.”
With its flagship location in Springfield open until midnight Sunday-Wednesday and until 1 a.m. Thursday-Saturday, late-night is a valuable daypart for Big Whiskey’s, and accounts for around 6-8 percent of the casual dining chain’s total sales. Sundy says the key to crafting a winning program is focusing on speed and efficiency with a paired down menu that can be executed by a skeleton crew.
“We’ve had to be aware of our kitchen staff and think about what we can accomplish in a quick environment without sacrificing quality,” he says. “You need a late-night menu that cooks can accomplish while they’re still closing up shop. We wanted to go far enough that if a manager wants to get the cooks off the clock for labor purposes, they could still go and whip things up themselves.”
He says the good news for a concept like Big Whiskey’s is late-night customers typically aren’t looking for heavy plates with large portions—which is why the company is leaning into popular appetizers with featured discounts for shareable options. “Old-school staples” like beer cheese pretzels and nachos resonate with late-night guests, Sundy notes. Another standout item on the updated menu is Buffalo Chicken Wonton Nachos, which features crispy wonton chips topped with buffalo chicken dip, melted mozzarella cheese, and gorgonzola cheese crumbles. “Wonton chips are wildly popular at our stores, so we’ve taken those and turned them into nacho appetizers, which is a great nontraditional spin that gives it a little more of a gourmet twist,” he says.
Big Whiskey’s is also leaning into craft cocktails like its Blood Orange Whiskey Sour, which combines bourbon with sweet and sour mix, blood orange fruit puree, and simple syrup, garnished with an orange wheel and a Filthy Black Cherry. “With late-night in the summertime, people are looking for drinks that are a little bit nicer, but still approachable and cost effective,” Sundy says. “What’s worked really well for us is adding a happy hour price range with discounted beers while still featuring a gourmet cocktail.”
For Norms Restaurants, a new late-night menu is part of a broader strategy to get more stores back to 24/7 service. The diner chain—founded in 1949 in Los Angeles, California, by used-car salesman Norm Roybark—is known for staying open around the clock, but a restrictive labor pool made those hours unfeasible during the pandemic.
David Cox, executive chef and director of purchasing at Norms, says stores that offer late-night service outperform those with limited operating hours. Getting more of its 22 restaurants open around the clock has been a key priority for the company. It’s also proved to be a significant challenge in the wake of COVID-19. “Coming out of the pandemic, it’s been increasingly difficult to staff our restaurants, especially for the late-night and graveyard shifts,” Cox says. “As we’ve been catching up on our hiring, we realized we needed to simplify things.”
Typically, with late-night, Norms is down to just one or two cooks. “Instead of three different stations on the cook line, we tried to think about ways we can close up one of the stations and execute everything from the remaining two stations, which limits the amount of steps and the amount of movement,” Cox says.
The company revamped its late-night menu using a Dog Star report, which segments each menu item into one of three groups: stars, workhorses, and dogs. Those insights led to an updated program centered around what Cox calls “the greatest boots.” There’s some classic breakfast items, like omelets, french toast and waffles, along with the Lumberjack Breakfast, which comes with three hotcakes, three eggs, three strips of bacon, and three sausage links.
“We also included things that we felt would appeal to the late-night customer base, which includes a lot of people coming out of bars and clubs,” Cox says. “They’ve had a few cocktails and are looking to absorb some alcohol.”
“Over the top” menu items like a Jalapeno Bacon Cheeseburger and a Double Bacon Cheeseburger resonate well with those late-night customers. Other highlights include Cajun Tots and the Chef’s Sampler Platter. “There’s a whole lot of fried goodness on that plate, and that seems to be something people crave late at night,” Cox says. “Appetizers have always proved to be popular with this crowd.”
Norms has been returning to 24/7 service on a store-by-store basis, and Cox believes the streamlined menu will help speed up that process. The company has two new restaurants slated to open this year that will offer the late-night menu from the start.
“We’ve been around since 1949, and we’re known for being that place that you can go when nobody else is open,” Cox says. “We’re the place you can go in the middle of the night or early in the morning, and we’ve always taken pride in that.”