80 percent of McDonald's in Palm Beach County, Treasure Coast to stay open 24/7 this summer

$1 Big Macs from 11 tonight to 4 a.m. Saturday

The familiar glow of the golden arches after midnight may seem an unusual comfort for the Palm Beach County consumer.

But more McDonald's restaurants are pulling all-nighters as they adapt to a labor force with irregular shifts, people working more than one job to make ends meet and changing habits in a world where the Internet never sleeps.

This summer, about 80 percent of the McDonald's in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast will stay open 24/7, double the amount nationally, according to the McDonald's Corporation.

A decade ago, just 4 percent of McDonald's nationally were open all night.

A push this week to advertise the night-owl hours comes with at least one special meal deal — $1 Big Macs between 11 p.m. tonight and 4 a.m. Saturday.

"We're just trying to spread the news here at the beginning of the summer that if you're out and about late, we're here for you," said Mark Watson, a partner with WBF Management, which owns 17 McDonald's from Royal Palm Beach to Boca Raton.

Watson said his firm started experimenting with 24-hour operations eight years ago when it kept its drive-through windows open all night.

Beginning last spring, all but one of WBF's restaurants moved to an all-night schedule, including keeping their lobbies open where people can access wireless Internet or watch flat-screen TVs. The only store not open 24/7 is in the Mall at Wellington Green.

The increase in hours meant WBF was able to hire about 110 more employees. According to Joe Chabus, communications manager for McDonald's Florida region, starting wages for McDonald's employees vary by job and location but typically exceed minimum wage. The minimum wage for Florida is $7.67 an hour.

"Maybe people are working two jobs and they don't want to go home and make a lot of noise trying to cook," Watson said about the lobbies staying open. "They can come in here, catch up on the Internet, read, whatever."

Convenience, reasonable prices and new items are the driving forces in the restaurant industry, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm. That might explain the push to all-night services.

"Did you make my life easier? If you did, I'll be back," Balzer said.

But the increasingly late-night habits of local diners are not necessarily a national trend, said Sam Oches, managing editor of the North Carolina-based QSR Magazine, a trade publication for the "fast casual" restaurant industry.

He said it's more likely a regional move made to cater to specific consumers. What he is seeing is more fast-food restaurants adding breakfast menus, which may mean earlier hours and eventually all-night operations.

"Breakfast is booming right now," said Oches. "If they're not open 24 hours, they may be opening earlier because they want to get into the breakfast market."

In January, Taco Bell launched "FirstMeal" in limited restaurants. The new breakfast menu with items such as a $1.99 steak and egg burrito, means stores are opening an hour earlier, usually by 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. Subway began offering breakfast items in 2010 with some stores opening at 7 a.m.

National Restaurant Association spokesman Annika Stensson said restaurants have been extending hours for the past several years as Americans adjust to schedules that may not include the traditional three meals a day.

But whether a restaurant is open 24 hours often comes down to simple math — are there enough diners to justify the operating costs of staying open late?

Watson says there are. And while his biggest concern in the beginning of the 24-hour push was dealing with drunken late-night revelers, he said that hasn't been a problem.

"You may get a carload of folks who are partying hard, but will have a designated driver making the order," he said. "For the most part, you have a fair number of people just looking for a snack and a place to relax."

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