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As 24-hour restaurants pare hours, late-night bites are harder to find

When Kenisha Smith was in college in the late 1990s, she and her friends would usually end a night out with breakfast at Pano’s on Elmwood, laughing and socializing, calling out greetings to other friends who wandered in.

“That was the place to go. You went to Pano’s at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, you’d order breakfast and hang out. It was happy days,” said Smith, of Williamsville. “It was the club after the club. Everybody was hungry, because you ate dinner at 7 or 8 and now it’s 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Eventually she and her friends outgrew the late nights.

But Smith’s 24-year-old sister, Kayla Chapman of Amherst, won’t have similar memories of watching the sun rise over plates of pancakes and eggs, not at Pano’s or at the other once-24-hour table-service restaurants that have now reduced their hours.

She and her friends still eat; they just go to Elmwood Taco and Subs or Jim’s Steak Out, where they order at the counter. “That’s the only thing that’s open,” said Chapman. “Once you leave the club, which closes at 3 or 4, you don’t have many choices, just ETS or Jim’s. Nobody wants McDonald’s, you want to sit down together.”

Pano’s, the Towne Restaurant in Allentown, Kostas on Hertel and Tom’s on Sheridan Drive in Amherst are just a few of the longtime 24-hour sit-down full-menu eateries that now have reduced hours.

Of course, some restaurants, such as the Olympic Family Restaurant and the Royal Family Restaurant in Tonawanda, Alton’s in Cheektowaga, the Forestview and Hillview Restaurants in Depew and the Gardenview Restaurant in West Seneca, still offer full menus all night, most closing briefly between Sunday night and Monday morning each week. But as more established eateries cut back their hours, no new restaurants have stepped up to offer table-service breakfasts, lunch or dinner between 4 and 7 a.m. daily.

The Olympic Restaurant, at 1601 Military Rd. in the Town of Tonawanda, Monday, March 24, 2014. (Charles Lewis/Buffalo News)

The Olympic Restaurant on Military Road in the Town of Tonawanda is still open 24 hours most days. (Buffalo News file photo)

Restaurateurs who have made the change say the issue is many-faceted. They cite the loss of overnight shift workers, fewer people willing to risk driving after drinking, their own higher costs of doing business, the changing eating habits of the young, and even a general coarsening of social behavior that more frequently leads to trouble in the wee hours.

“We don’t have the kind of socialization we had in the ’70s or the ’80s, where the young people would go out to have a bite to eat and coffee,” said Dora Kukuliatas Wisniewski, who co-owns Tom’s with her husband, Eric. In the fall of 2014, after tracking their business trends for years, the couple made the decision to close overnight. “I’m not saying the kids aren’t going out, but they don’t have as much expendable cash and their habits have changed,” said Wisniewski. “They are not going out to bars, and a lot of the bars have closed up.”

“You used to have 40 Greek diners, and now just five of them are open 24/7,” said Nick Bechakas, an owner of the Olympic Family Restaurant, which stays open 24 hours a day most days of the week.

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Bechakas, who has been in the family restaurant business his entire life, can list the reasons.

“You don’t have the industry you used to,” he said. “In the 1970s, my father had GM guys at 2 a.m. lined up out the door, like a lunch rush.”

Police crackdowns on driving after drinking and state anti-smoking laws wiped out crowds that were coming from bars looking for a spot to drink coffee, have dessert and smoke, he said. “We had a smoking room here, back when you could do that, and at 10 p.m. the dining room would be busy but the smoking room was full,” said Bechakas.

Finally, he said, people who have to make a decision on where to cut back economically still go out, but head straight home afterward. “If they are going to eliminate one meal, it will be the late-night snack,” he said.

‘Not enough to justify it’

Wisniewski’s father opened Tom’s in 1968 in Riverside, “in the heart of the industrial corridor,” she said, and fed countless factory workers over the decades. After its move to Sheridan Drive, the restaurant attracted University at Buffalo students. “We have had the pleasure of serving everybody from the administration, the faculty and the service people to the students and the international students, a lot of whom have studied in here,” said Wisniewski. “We have lot of doctors, attorneys, professionals who may have moved out of town, and when they come home, they come in and say, ‘I spent many nights in here studying, all-nighters.’ Students don’t do that anymore. It’s not part of their routine.”

Tom’s still sees plenty of customers, including many older folks going to appointments on the developing Sheridan Drive medical office cluster. “Our region has aged,” said Wisniewski. “Tell your doctor you want to eat after 10 p.m. and see what he says.”

Tom’s now opens at 7 a.m. daily, and closes Monday to Wednesday around 8 or 8:30 p.m., between 10 and 10:30 on Friday and Saturday and around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tom's Restuarant on Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue cut back its hours of operation.

Tom's Restaurant on Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue cut back its hours of operation. (Buffalo News file photo)

“Our business model has changed,” said Wisniewski. “Over the last five or 10 years, we ran a lot of numbers, studied our business and assessed who was coming in and when they were coming in, we were paying attention with what was going on with our night business.”

With the increase in the minimum wage for tipped employees, restaurateurs are taking a hard look at staffing during slow periods, she said. “If you are not getting full productivity out of your people, there is no sense in being open,” she said.

Carroll Simon, a co-owner of Betty’s, which was never open late, said the rising cost of doing business prompted even her restaurant to reduce its hours. “We nipped and tucked our hours a little bit for that reason,” she said. “With all these increased costs, we had to say, how many dinners are we really doing between 8 and 9? The answer was not enough to justify it.”

Reliable help

Pano’s on Elmwood was open for 24 hours for years, but a list of issues led to the family decision to cut back the hours, said Alex Georgiadis, co-owner of the restaurant. “We got new furniture for the dining room and it was getting destroyed; we had the patio back then and people would just hop over the railing and skip checks; we had drunk people fighting. We knew there was no way we were going to spend a million dollars on this building just to have drunks trash it in the middle of the night.”

Having large groups of intoxicated people fill a restaurant after the bars close “creates a lot of liability for restaurateurs,” said Simon. “Things that happen after 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning aren’t usually too good.”

Pano's at 1081 Elmwood Avenue followed the trend of other local formerly-24-hour restaurants. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Pano's at 1081 Elmwood Avenue followed the trend of other local formerly-24-hour restaurants. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

Georgiadis said his family appreciated their many loyal customers. “We were very fortunate and grateful for all the patrons through the years that made us what we were, 24 hours,” he said. But as he studied trends, “we saw more profits at dinnertime, where people have wine, dessert, an appetizer. It costs money to keep the lights on and the grills going, so we decided to focus on the breakfast, lunch and dinner times.”

Finding reliable and trustworthy employees to work the overnight shift was a challenge, too. “You can’t be there 24 hours to watch your place,” said Georgiadis. “It was nice to have the register popping in your sleep, but it was causing a lot of stress on the family.”

“The labor pool is really small, and just finding enough qualified people to work is really hard,” said Simon.

Bechakas is fortunate, because the overnight staff at his Tonawanda location includes a woman who has been there for 37 of the restaurant’s 39 years and her junior colleague, who has worked there for 34 years. “I don’t know what I’d do without them,” said Bechakas.

At Pano’s, hours were first cut back to 1 a.m., with the hope that people leaving Theater District shows, concerts and events at Buffalo State might stop in for meals, but, Georgiadis said, “about six or seven months ago we decided just to cut it back to midnight because we weren’t getting enough business that late at night and the business we were getting included some elements late at night that we weren’t comfortable with.”

Now Pano’s is open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays. It’s part of what Georgiadis calls a “constant reappraisal: You raise the price here, you stay open later, or close earlier, you focus on the kind of business you want to run. I’m not opposed to a place being open all night, it’s just not for me. I know that I can go to Mother’s if I want a meal at 2 in the morning.”

The student lifestyle

Ellie Grenauer, who has been one of the owners of the Glen Park Tavern for almost 20 years and who started in the restaurant industry when she was 16, fondly recalls going out to eat late. “I too remember the days of going to Towne after a night out,” she said. “When I was in college, in the 1980s, we did do the all-nighters. Nobody wanted to go home, so we would go to a diner and sit and have a few laughs.”

Now she sees that her son, a senior at Hobart College, “wouldn’t choose to go out at that hour of the night, I won’t say he won’t go out and party, but he’s not choosing to go out until 6 in the morning because the demand on him to study is pretty great. They do go out, but not at 5 a.m. His group of friends, their preference is to go to craft breweries or coffee shops, which are huge. When he’s home he goes up to Spot Coffee and sits and does his homework.”

Like all restaurateurs, Georgiadis keeps a close eye on trends and is willing to reshape his business to accommodate them. “We’ll see what happens in the next 10 years,” he said. “Maybe enough young people will be living downtown that there will be a need for a place that’s open 24 hours and is convenient, but it doesn’t seem like anybody is doing it. Maybe your story will inspire someone. It would be great.”

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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