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Data shows that more consumers are now dining out at 6 p.m. versus 7 p.m. or later, which was more common pre-pandemic.

How 6 p.m. became the new 8 p.m. (and breakfast became early lunch)

The pandemic incited seismic changes in the restaurant industry, including and especially digital adoption. One change that's a bit more nuanced is the slight shift in restaurant usage times.

We’ve documented changes in restaurant consumer behaviors since the pandemic, including and especially the sharp shift toward digital adoption, which has clearly impacted everything from real estate formats to promotional activity.

Another change has manifested throughout the past few years that is a bit more nuanced – the times consumers are using restaurants. In this post-pandemic environment and as historically defined in this business, breakfast no longer peaks during “traditional” breakfast hours. The same is true for dinner. Consider restaurateur Danny Meyer’s recent post on X (formerly Twitter), stating: “When did a 6:00 reservation become the new 8:00, most prized table of the night – and will it last?”

Meyer’s observations about dinner don’t come without supporting data. According to Tara Lewis, Yelp’s trend expert, diners are choosing earlier reservation times; in 2023, 10% of all diners were seated between 2-5 p.m., which doubled from 5% during the same period in 2019.

Yelp also looked at weekdays and noticed that the percentage of diners being seated from 4-6 p.m. versus 6 p.m. to midnight jumped from 17% in 2019 to 26% in 2023.

“We continue to see diners choosing earlier dinner times, especially compared to 2019, before the pandemic began. With the continued rise of hybrid and remote work, late in-office hours are less common, making late business dinners a thing of the past. Instead, those later weekday dinners are shifting to earlier times, often during what would be considered happy hour,” Lewis said.

Circana’s data also supports this shift, and David Portalatin, SVP, food industry advisor, also attributes it to a changing workplace dynamic. He said the hybrid model creates “more fluidity in the when and where of eating behaviors.” The change isn’t huge, Portalatin adds, but it is having an impact on the dinner daypart.

“When we do have workplace dinners, they’re happening earlier,” he said.

R.J. Hottovy, head of analytical research at traffic analytics firm, said this change is affecting fine dining more than casual dining, pointing to the more urban-centric locations of fine dining concepts. Hottovy adds that casual dining chains have historically seated guests around that 6 p.m. benchmark.

“Across the board, we’re seeing fine dining traffic earlier and 5-6 p.m. is the hot spot. It’s less at 7 p.m. or later,” Hottovy said, attributing the shift to work from home and migration patterns. Since the pandemic, about 2 million people have moved from cities to suburban locations, for instance. Further, data shows that August office visits were at about 65% of the level they were prior to the pandemic, which has freed up employees’ time on their morning and evening commutes.

“This in turn gives them more flexibility to dine at different times,” he said. “With work from home and more flexible schedules in general, people don’t want to have to wait to get home later.”

That said, shifts are also happening during breakfast, which is especially impacting the coffee segment. data indicates material growth between 2019 and 2023 from 9 a.m. to noon at Starbucks, Dunkin’ and Tim Hortons – traditional coffee players. By comparison, their early morning visits – from 6-9 a.m. – have either decreased or stayed flat.

“Every subcategory seems to be having its own trend going on. Coffee and late morning is having a resurgence, and late morning/early afternoon is strong. That’s one shift and it’s definitely pandemic related,” Hottovy said.

During a recent webinar, Hottovy and Emily Durham, senior vice president, brokerage, food and beverage advisory at commercial real estate company JLL, said this change is a big reason the coffee segment has grown by double digits year-over-year.

“I’ve never seen so many coffee users in a market ever. There is a trend of consumers going to a specialty coffee spot for lunch now, not just breakfast. There is a finite shift in how consumers are using coffee spots,” Durham said.

Indeed, most chain visits are down throughout the past four years except for coffee concepts, Hottovy said. This segment’s growth may be impacting the afternoon daypart as well, as Starbucks, Dunkin’ and Tim Hortons all experienced traffic growth from 12-3 p.m. from 2019 to 2023.  

Whether driven by the pandemic-induced hybrid work model, a migration to the suburbs or something else, the data points to a blurring of dayparts in a way not quite seen before. These changes may have permanent implications on restaurants’ business models – labor scheduling, menu innovation, promotional activity and so forth.

“A good way to string this all together is there are more dayparts. It used to be breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now we’re seeing more segmentation,” Hottovy said. “There is an element of behavior on a daily basis that has changed and that usually takes a seismic shift like the pandemic to happen. The way you market has changed, different products, menu innovations for these different dayparts, restaurant formats is another one; it’s all intertwined. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to where we were before and there will need to be adjustments.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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