Wendy's Returns To The Late-Night Game With A Vengeance

Ask any career bartender – it's no secret that a significant portion of nightly sales and tips come during the final hour of operation. Folks are closing out their tabs, ordering just one more round or a shot for the road. But, in fast food restaurants, the same paradigm largely applies, and now, Wendy's is coming for a piece of the pie.

After a four-year hiatus from the late night food game, Wendy's is back and flexing its after-hours flair. In Q2 2023, 90% of Wendy's locations were able to stay open until midnight or later for the first time since COVID rocked the food industry in 2020, and it was awesome. Late-night sales saw double-digit growth, reports QSR. In Q2 alone, same-store sales grew by an average of 4.9%. As the labor shortage begins to abate and Wendy's has the staffing to stay open later, the chain is doubling down on its late night game.

Late-night traffic is crucial in boosting the bottom lines of restaurant chains. On an earnings call in April 2020, Yum Brands CEO Dave Gibbs said that Taco Bell was the hardest-hit fast food chain during the pandemic because it relies so heavily on its late-night crowd. As Wendy's CEO Todd Penegor shared via Nation's Restaurant News, "Late night is a big opportunity for us. It is highly incremental, adding business we don't have today. It's a strong category that's been growing consistently for the last couple of years."

Catering to the night owls

Bar staffing levels have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, and evening activities like concerts and movie theater outings have seen similar resurgences this year. "Barbenheimer" rocked big screens this summer and live music is commonplace again. For all of these events, folks need fuel. In Q2 2023, late-night food sales across the board increased by 7.5% compared to Q2 2022 as foodies are leaving the house to satisfy their nocturnal munchies.

Penegor anticipates that this increased visibility and relevancy for late-night customers will bleed into Wendy's daytime sales as well, boosting traffic around the clock. "[T]he more that we drive awareness and the more that we get consumers to come to us and see that we're reliably open in the late-night daypart, the more we become part of that routine," he explained to QSR. Still, a number of external forces remain in play that could affect traffic numbers in either direction. Inflation is cooling and convenience grab-and-go food options are gaining popularity, but student loan repayment is about to hit.

Wendy's has not commented yet as to whether it will sell Frostys into the late-night hours, but this move could prove to be a substantial leg up over competitors. Fellow after-hours fast food joint Taco Bell doesn't serve ice cream at all, and 24-hour McDonald's locations shut down the ice cream machines for pasteurization at night. If you've been jonesing for a 2 a.m. soft serve, time will tell whether Wendy's is coming to your rescue.