In its push to peddle more Big Macs and fries, McDonald's increasingly depends on people like Andrew Blizzard. He's what the fast-food chain calls a "nocturnivore." He eats when most of the city is fast asleep. Dinner is a 2 a.m. run for Chicken McNuggets after ending his shift at a pizza shop.
"It's quick and easy and on the way home from work," said Blizzard, 27, of New Tampa, during a wee-hour visit to the McDonald's on 56th Street and Fowler Avenue last week.
Few places nationwide have been more aggressive in catering to late-night eaters than the Tampa Bay area, where the majority of McDonald's restaurants are now open 24 hours a day.
More than 70 percent of the 186 restaurants in McDonald's Tampa Bay Marketing Association co-op offer 24-hour drive-through or lobby service. That's up from about 50 percent just two months ago and significantly higher than the national average, which stands at about 40 percent.
"Times are changing. More people are out and about late at night,'' said Scott Tuell, operations manager for more than two dozen stores owned by the Caspers Co. "Look at information and technology. Everything is going 24 hours."
McDonald's estimates stores open all the time generate up to 10 percent more sales than stores that aren't. For restaurants with both drive-through and sitdown service, it's often a bit higher.
The late-night clientele includes late-shift workers like hospital employees and police officers, college students, partygoers and even tourists savoring every minute of vacation.
Many night owls like Sean Houser come for the free Wi-Fi. The 40-year-old sales rep doesn't have an Internet connection at his Tampa home and seldom goes to bed before 3 or 4 a.m. He camps out inside McDonald's a few nights a week to send emails, listen to music and watch shows on his laptop. Houser likes the convenience of McDonald's and the food. Depending on his mood, he'll order a McFlurry, burger, french fries or sweet tea.
For many restaurant owners, going 24-hour took some convincing. They worried about increased labor and electricity costs, as well as crime. They wondered, "Would anyone want to work the overnight shift?"
But owners found that those concerns never materialized. Surveillance cameras, frequent police patrol and more traffic deter crime. People need the work.
Never closing actually simplifies operations, said Chris Frost, who owns six Tampa Bay locations with his brother, John, and father, Jack. Stores don't have the extra expense of firing up the grill and fryers after they've cooled. Employees also don't spend time shutting down equipment and locking up the building.
Depending on the location, four or five people work the weekday overnight shift, up to nine on the weekends, Frost said. They earn a little bit more than daytime employees and are mostly part time.
Owners have not had a hard time finding employees to fill the shift.
"A lot people are looking for second jobs and doing whatever they can to make ends meet," said Frost, who added about 10 employees per store when shifting to a round-the-clock operation. "We haven't had high turnover."
Frost has 24-hour drive-through in five of his six stores in New Tampa, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and Wesley Chapel, and plans to test lobby service in a few months. Locations close to universities, hospitals and nightlife will get it first.
''We were skeptical going in … but we've gotten some great results," said Frost, who serves as vice president of the Tampa Bay Marketing Association. "We want to be there when our customers want us."
Round-the-clock hours are central to McDonald's attempt to gobble more share of the late-night eating market. It doesn't want customers to have to guess if a store is open. Owners want it to be ingrained.
JC Prado owns eight restaurants in Florida, including six in the Tampa Bay area. As of late June, all have 24-hour drive-through; three have sitdown service.
"We looked at it as an additional revenue source," he said. "You have to look for sales where you can get them, and we felt that it was an untapped market."
He likened it to the breakfast market years ago, when many owners scoffed at the notion of opening early. Today, the McMuffins, McGriddles and other breakfast items account for 30 percent of business.
Prado expects that eventually 20 percent of his business could come from midnight to 5 a.m. — a time frame dubbed the "fourth day part" in fast-food lingo. Right now it stands at 7 to 10 percent.
"People are working all the time and at different times," he said. "The traditional 8-to-5 job doesn't exist anymore for a lot of people."
McDonald's isn't the only fast-food chain targeting nocturnivores. Taco Bell promotes a "fourth meal" menu, and Wendy's has a smartphone app for finding the nearest late-night location. Burger King requires U.S. locations stay open until at least midnight on weekends and 11 p.m. weekdays, but hundreds are open all day and night.
Industry analyst Harry Balzer said fast-food restaurants are increasingly taking business away from gas stations and diners that used to be the only places open for night owls. People like to try new places and will become regulars if the restaurants save them time and money and meet their standards.
"We're moving away from sitdown restaurants and going to fast food," said Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group in Chicago, which puts out the annual report, Eating Patterns in America. "Fast food offers the option of not having to get out of your car in the middle of the night."
He sees the trend less about late-night eating habits and more about fast-food places trying to boost profits. Similar to a manufacturing plant, a McDonald's makes money when only it's cranking out fries or curing Mac attacks.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.