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The decline of the 24/7 restaurant

Across the country all-day diners are closing or cutting their hours. Will they bounce back?

When Colorado restaurants were ordered to shut their doors on March 17, 2020, Alex Barakos found he didn't have the keys to actually close the 24-hour Pete's Kitchen in Denver. It had always been open, every day, all day, since 1962, rendering locks superfluous.

"We didn't have a key because we never closed. We were sticklers: We wanted to be there for everyone at any time," said Barakos, the general manager of Pete's Kitchen and Pete's Satire Lounge next door. Now, he added, the locks are used five days week since the diner never went back to the 24-hour model save for Fridays and Saturdays.

"Nowadays there might be some 24-hour taco shops, but it's not as big a part of the culture as it was."

Pete's Kitchen isn't the only spot to change hours. In Denver alone there's been a decline of all-night diners over the past few years, including the shuttering of the cult-favorite Breakfast King at the beginning of 2022, and Denver Diner, which closed in November 2021 and today houses a bank. Tom's Diner, opened by Tom Messina in 1999 as a 24-hour restaurant, got a makeover in 2022. Now dubbed Tom's Starlight, the restaurant only serves weekend brunch, dinner, and late night drinks and snacks until 12 a.m. or 1 a.m.

"The hardest part of running a 24-hour diner for me was finding the staff, and [with] the staff there are, we have a lot of no-shows, drama, and scrambling to cover shifts," said Messina about why he shifted away from the 24-hour model. "As a family business it tends to spread you very thin, and your [lack of control] over that third shift can make your product and reputation take a hit."

Also, because Messina's restaurant is in downtown Denver on the busy and somewhat notorious Colfax Avenue, he said the crowd coming late at night wasn't the easiest.

"Between the homeless trying to get out of the cold and the after-the-bars crowd, it becomes quite exhausting," he said. "After COVID, I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to work that late-night shift."

Staffing in general has always been a problem in the restaurant industry, but especially since 2020, and it's not just Messina who took that issue into consideration when choosing to cease the 24-hour model. According to Denny’s CEO Kelli Valade in an interview with National Restaurant News in December 2022, staffing has been one of the main reasons to keep many of the famously 24-hour diners shuttered late at night. Still, Valade added in that interview, the company wants to eventually bring back the 24-hour schedule.

“The 24/7 model has been tough, though we keep opening more restaurants every day,” said Valade in the NRN interview. “Late night was one of the slowest dayparts to come back […] But there is unique equity in the 24/7 model and we are working on getting them staffed fully for all dayparts.”

Many International House of Pancakes (IHOP) and Waffle House locations have started closing at night as well, and now visitors can't rely on them all being 24-hour restaurants like they once were. Both IHOP and Waffle House declined to comment on the shifting trend, though an IHOP spokesperson did state opening times vary from restaurant to restaurant.

According to a recent 2022 report by menu and restaurant research firm Datassential, restaurants have cut back weekly operating hours by 7.5-percent, or roughly 6.5 hours, compared to 2019. The overall 24-hour model in the United States has declined too: In 2022 there were 21,345 places open for 24 hours, compared to the 25,449 in 2020, according to Datassential.

In New York City the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka hosted customers 24/7 for almost 30 years before the pandemic hit. It's still not back to the old schedule, and instead operates from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight, depending on the evening. However the goal is to go back to 24-hours, co-owner Jason Birchard said.

Over at Pete's Kitchen, Barakos, who is a member of the Contos family that owns Pete's Restaurants, wants to bring back the 24-hour, seven-days a week model. It was, he said, part of his family's vision for opening the diner in the first place.

"My family built a lot of this business as a place for people to go at night, on holidays, just a good place to get some eggs and coffee any time," he said. "We do have a need for it, [but] until the weekday crowd comes back to eating and drinking and going to shows, the need is not fully there."

Until then, Pete’s Kitchen will still be open all night on the weekends, but for those looking for a late-night or early-morning bite during the week, they may be out of luck for now.

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