McDonald's 24 Hours a Day


Jan 29, 2007

It is 3:36 a.m. Thursday at McDonald's in Garner, N.C., a bedroom community just beyond the city limits of Raleigh. Although the town's taverns closed more than an hour ago, the last clubgoers are straggling home. Their cars barrel by ones driven by waitresses, commercial cleaners, musicians, nurses, and computer analysts heading home from work. The McDonald's sign, posted high along a commercial strip of big-box stores and chain restaurants, is one of the few still glowing.

Inside the McDonald's kitchen, Julia Diaz is mixing buttermilk biscuit dough by hand in a giant stainless steel bowl, while Silvia Roldan is grilling sausage patties and eggs for breakfast, which begins in 24 minutes. Outside, at the drive-through window, D.C. Chavis is picking up a Premium Crispy Chicken Ranch BLT sandwich and a large order of fries. Chavis, 24, has just clocked out after 12 hours at a nearby food warehouse. He used to pick up an after-work snack at an all-night convenience store or diner. Now he swings by McDonald's at least five times a week for the premium sandwich combo meal or, if it's later, a McGriddle and a side of hash browns. The food is a lot better at McDonald's, he says, adding that the prices are cheaper and the brand is one he trusts. Says Chavis: "I was raised on McDonald's."

McDonald's went 24/7 in Garner in April, 2005, after a push by corporate headquarters to boost profits by extending store hours. Franchisee Fred Huebner had doubts at first. He doesn't anymore. By catering to the area's night owls and early birds on U.S. Highway 70, Huebner, who put on his first McDonald's uniform almost 35 years ago, figures he has increased his restaurant's revenue by 4.5%, or $90,000, over a year. "There are so many customers out there all times of the day," he says. "We have to be out there, too."

Over the course of an average day, 1,500 people -- the equivalent of 1 out of every 16 people in the middle-class suburb of 24,095 -- drive in to the Garner McDonald's. The clientele is every bit as diverse as the town's population. Old-timers joshing with one another over morning coffee. Office workers zipping from the pickup window for breakfast behind the wheel. Repairmen on a midshift break. Mothers taking a breather while their preschoolers scamper in the Play Place. Families ordering dinner in Spanish. And, in caravans, twentysomethings after a night of carousing.

It wasn't always like this. When Ray Kroc launched his first drive-in in 1955, McDonald's was a two-meal place, opening just before lunch and closing not long after dinner. It kept those hours for the next 20 years. Then, with the national introduction of the Egg McMuffin in 1975, the company turned breakfast into a fast-food meal, too. Now the world's biggest restaurant chain wants to take over the rest of the day. Since 2003 more than 90% of the 13,700 McDonald's in the U.S. have extended their hours beyond the basic 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. day. Nearly 40% operate nonstop, up from 0.5% in 2002. Breakfast is busting out of its old boundaries. It now stretches up to seven hours at many locations, and the company is considering making it an all-day option. Next on the agenda: snack foods and fruit smoothies for between-meal refuelings and late-night munchies.