The very late-night hours (or early-morning hours, depending on how you think about it) at a 24-hour diner are a peculiar intersection of all factions of humanity. Like the painting Nighthawks, guests gather on stools and in booths — yellow fluorescent light illuminating the varied cast of characters. College kids take pancake and coffee runs to break up all-night study sessions. Club revelers hunch over french fries to stave off an inevitable hangover. Early bird workers, mostly blue-collar, grab cups of black coffee and fill up on scrambled eggs with bacon, always nodding yes to a biscuit.
The 24-hour diner is an icon of modern Americana offering expansive menus, amiable service, and — typically — availability at all hours of the day and night no matter the conditions. But that world is quickly changing. Aging owners, a revolution in hospitality labor, the ballooning cost of ingredients, and an ongoing pandemic have all contributed to a rocky landscape for restaurants and impacted some of the oldest and most established mainstays. In New York, famous all-hours Ukrainian diner Veselka is no longer 24/7 because of overnight staffing issues; Atlanta 24/7 classic diner the Majestic is now only open for morning and early lunch hours; likewise, Nashville’s Sun Diner is now only open for daytime service. In Austin, too, older locals can’t forget the demise of Night Hawk and Frisco’s; Magnolia Cafe (whose Lake Austin location shuttered in April 2020), now operates with a severely truncated schedule despite maintaining its pithy “Sorry, We’re Open” neon sign and clever motto of being open “24/8.” More and more, it’s beginning to feel like the American diner — at least in its 24-hour form — is in its twilight era, fighting a losing battle to maintain the consistency that’s fueled its resilience and mythology for a century.
Kerbey Lane Cafe is an iconic Austin diner once known for its 24-hour service. CEO Mason Ayer inherited the family chain in the 2010s and says that, prior to the pandemic, Kerbey’s busiest hours typically were late nights and early mornings on Saturday and Sunday — especially at its South Lamar and Guadalupe locations (the latter of which services a neighborhood near the University of Texas at Austin with its hungry college students). Ayer recounts bustling scenes from that period. “The wait out the door at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning on Friday and Saturday night [was] comparable to the same we’d have at 10 or 11 in the morning” those same days, he says.
But the hunger for all-hours service was beginning to wane even before the pandemic. Ayer noticed that overnight sales began to slow down in 2016 and 2017. He speculates that it’s “a testament to some of the differences between millennials and Gen X and Gen Z.” Ayer, a self-described elder millennial on the cusp of Gen X, says that members of Gen Z have “a whole online world” he didn’t have access to growing up that almost eliminates the need for late-night spaces to congregate within for eating and socializing. That generational shift, compounded by the Guadalupe campus neighborhood becoming a “less desirable place over the course of the last half-decade,” has had an impact on how customers interact with Kerbey Lane.
The pandemic only complicated an already challenging business climate for family-style restaurants like Kerbey — and restaurants in general. “To say that the pandemic was catastrophic for our industry is an understatement,” he says. The customer base for diners — regulars and night owls and college students — disappeared virtually overnight. Likewise, many of these classic establishments that relied on word of mouth, reputation, and convenience had to compete with restaurants that were more accustomed to social media marketing, takeout, and delivery, and those better equipped to accommodate outdoor dining. People head to the diner for the harsh fluorescent lights, close indoor quarters, and crowded vinyl booths — not so much six-feet-apart patio seating.
Chef Drew Curren is still reeling from the pandemic, which undermined the foundations of his restaurant’s business model and name. Curren, with then-restaurant group ELM, opened 24 Diner, an all-hours restaurant near the bar-filled West Sixth district in Austin in 2009. Curren always loved the idea of a diner because of how it appealed to broad tastes. “You can always count on it,” he says. “You know what you’re going to get, you know it’s there and it’s reliable.” But 24 Diner is still struggling to return to its former hours as COVID has inched toward endemic.
Finding staff to work late-night shifts at 24 Diner has been particularly difficult. The restaurant increased its staff wages and pays premiums to overnight staffers to try and encourage more applicants. But as he points out, restaurants are now competing with alternatives available in a gig economy — where workers earn money on their own schedules through third-party companies such as rideshares and deliveries. “There’s not enough [people] to truly staff that shift.”
Shifting expectations of laborers, fueled by rising wage inequality and evolving views on the true value of restaurant work, have also impacted hiring. The pandemic brought to light how bad working conditions can be at dining and drinking establishments, as well as inequities in pay structures. This has led to many teams unionizing, or at least seeking to unionize.
Ayer has faced similar staffing issues. He notes that it’s now more difficult to hire people to work Kerbey Lane’s overnight shift, despite, in his view, offering a good company culture. “We treat our people well,” he says, noting the company offers above minimum wage to its staffers as well as health insurance and paid time off. “But it’s been a theme in our industry for three years now, where staffing has been a Herculean challenge” and “staffing overnight was pretty darn close to impossible.” He adds, “It takes a special kind of person who wants to work from 10 p.m. till 7 a.m.”
And staffing is just the beginning of the problem. “Building a late-night business from virtually scratch isn’t easy,” Ayer says. Kerbey’s Guadalupe location briefly restarted 24-hour services on Fridays and Saturdays in October 2021, but that halted because “the foot traffic that used to exist for late-night hours disappeared ... there weren’t as many college students on campus.” South Lamar is open for 24-hour service on Fridays and Saturdays as of March 2023. Other locations are now open until midnight. “We weren’t even able to do that a couple of months ago,” Ayer says. There were nights when no customers showed up, but slowly the chain has built back awareness that, yes, Kerbey is back open 24 hours (sort of). “It’s been with word of mouth, and a very conscious decision on our part, to just stick to it,” he says. “And, sure enough, with time, it’s grown.”
Ayer is open to expanding 24-hour service generally at his businesses but has no plans to return to operating 24 hours all the time. “Offering a restaurant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year is really, really hard to do,” he says. “It puts a lot of wear and tear on the space. It makes cleaning, maintenance, minor rehab, and whatever it is you need to do that isn’t guest-facing really challenging.”
For 24 Diner, building a late-night business has been tricky from the beginning. Curren recalls that Sunday into Tuesday the diner’s revenue was “pretty dismal,” leading management to question whether all-hours service made sense. Fridays and Saturday nights were busy, which made up for those earlier weekday evenings. ”We stuck with it, and it slowly gained traction,” he says. Eventually, the entire week became busy, with hundreds of covers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “It was just a very valuable piece of our revenue stream each week,” he says of that time.
Before the pandemic, 24 Diner didn’t offer preordered takeout food because of the fast-paced demands of the restaurant. Pivoting to takeout services during the early pandemic was challenging. Curren first had to get packaging (which was pricey) and figure out what dishes actually traveled well. “It was a huge learning curve for us,” says Curren. The team offered larger family-style meal packages like meatloaf dinners, and then added wine bottle sales when that was legalized. “We were just throwing darts trying to figure out what people wanted,” he says — but with a reduced team, just seven employees.
In the current dining climate, takeout remains at the forefront of American restaurant culture. “We’re seeing almost 30 percent of our sales at the diner in to-go food,” he says, of 24 Diner’s current business. “Something that we never even did in the past now represents almost a quarter of our revenue.”
Curren would love to reopen 24 Diner as a 24-hour business, because “it’s a huge void right now in Austin.” He feels like the new takeout culture and ordering technology would make it easier to be able to run slimmer overnight teams, which would make hiring easier. He could envision running a limited menu of the restaurant’s best-sellers — burgers, hashes, etc. — with a manager, a food runner, two cooks, and a dishwasher.
Curren believes that people are craving comfortable, affordable dining, too. “I feel like the general population is going back into that middle-of-the-road restaurant — it’s not fast food but it’s also not fine dining — people are more conscious about their checkbooks and what they’re spending and where it’s going, but still wanting to have that service approach to meals.”
There are reasons to be optimistic about the return of 24-hour dining as well. Out in Las Vegas, the famously 24/7 diner the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge recently got back to its all-hours routine, and in San Francisco, the 54-year-old Pinecrest Diner went back to running 24/7, but only Thursdays through Fridays as of fall 2022.
Another Austin 24-hour institution — which paused its all-hours services during the pandemic — has also returned fully to its all-hour services under new ownership. The iconic Stars Cafe diner (formerly Star Seeds) has been around since 1966 — Ethan Hawke used to dine there after meetings with director Richard Linklater. New owners Deitrich Armstrong and AJ Johnson were the ones to push the shift back to 24/7 hours.
The two bought the restaurant in 2022 from then-owners Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton (operators of comedy club Esther’s Follies and downtown bar the Tavern). Armstrong and Johnson say that the restaurant was going bankrupt and wasn’t open 24/7 when they took over the business. “We wanted to see it back open during its late-night overnights,” says Armstrong, who used to frequent Star Seeds during the very early hours in the mid-aughts when he performed downtown DJ gigs. “It was one of the few places I could go at that time period and still not have to wait for food,” he says.
Much like what happened with Kerbey, under Armstrong and Johnson’s stewardship, Stars Cafe slowly eased into running 24/7. They reached out to older Star Seeds workers to rehire them. “That allowed us to work to push it to overnight and to show people this look and feel that they love and appreciate.” The rollout was completed by December 2022. However, its overnight hours aren’t the same as what they were before the start of the pandemic. Instead, between 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., orders have to be paid in advance — a security measure that protects the restaurants from occasional late-night dine-and-dashers. “We wanted to really get back to that 24-hour feeling, but that was very difficult to do. People are not going out late at night like how they used to,” Armstrong says. Even so, getting back to the old routine has been a net positive. “[Going] 24 hours has worked for us in regards to getting our sales up,” he says. “We still do most of our heavy sales overnight compared to daytime.”
Back at 24 Diner, Curren is continuing to operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and says the restaurant will continue to evolve based on how people dine and what technologies emerge in the restaurant world. “I feel like getting back to 24 hours would be just a real positive thing for the industry in general,” Curren says. “Showing that, ‘Hey, it’s never going to be the same, but we’re pushing as hard as we can to get back to what we know works.’”