Advocates of the so-called “night economy” say the Marketplaces Industry could benefit by offering more shopping, dining and services from 6 p.m. into the wee hours. “The night economy is the same as the daytime economy; it’s just dark,” said Toronto City Councillor Paul Ainslie, the mayor-designated “night economy champion” for Canada’s largest metropolis.
Cities like Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Paris, Sydney, Amsterdam and London also are pushing for economic and cultural activity after dark. Their goals include better serving night owls and shift workers, making smarter after-hours use of vacant spaces and restoring traffic to downtown areas that can be a bit quiet after sundown. “I have had conversations with people who sleep during the day and have nowhere to buy groceries when they get off from work at night,” Ainslie said.
Reappointed as the night economy booster this year by the new mayor, Olivia Chow, Ainslie has focused on Toronto’s night economy since 2017. He is part of a growing WhatsApp discussion group in which “night mayors” and “night champions” from all over the world swap ideas.
Conflicting opinions and old rules can complicate efforts to kick-start the night economy. Some residents want quiet at night, while others clamor for more concerts or public transportation, which could be noisy. Officials might tell a city-run museum that it’s prohibited from holding a nighttime jazz-and-cocktails event. A restaurant that clears away tables for an after-hours dance floor could be reclassified as a nightclub, triggering tighter government restrictions. “In Toronto, you can open a nightclub from something like 7 p.m. until 1 a.m., but the rules are strict about what food you can serve,” Ainslie explained. “Basically, you might be able to buy a hot dog or finger food, but you could no longer sit down at a table and order food. The restaurant owner is like: ‘Well, hold on here. We’re a restaurant.’”
This past spring, Toronto surveyed residents, businesses, shift workers and others about how the city’s night economy should function. Part of the goal was to determine how to update licensing categories and requirements for bars, restaurants, nightclubs and music and entertainment venues. The research could lead to new zoning regulations, along with recommendations for supporting the night economy while balancing concerns about safety and noise. Licensing and economic development officials will review a report on the findings this November, Ainslie said.
Other cities could create possibilities at night by revisiting their regulations and zoning practices in a similar way, said Rebecca Godfrey, senior vice president and practice lead of CBRE Tourism Consulting in Canada. A flexible framework can make it easier for property owners to experiment with nighttime uses of their existing — and often underused — spaces. “In Shanghai and Singapore, there are a number of offices where they have the workday and then at 5 p.m., part of the building becomes a nightclub,” she noted.
That might not work as well in North America, Godfrey said, due to regulations like noise bylaws and the cost of obtaining alcohol permits. Still, simpler options could include alcohol- and drug-free “healthy clubbing” and events like art shows, yoga and meditation groups, musical performances and bars that serve mocktails and alcohol-free beer. “There is a big focus right now on wellness tourism and wellness in general,” she said. “It creates opportunities to create different types of pop-up spaces that offer something to do in the evening.”
Staging the right nighttime cultural activities in malls or offices could spur traffic and contribute to downtown revitalization, she added. “A lot of the downtowns remain pretty empty, particularly in the evenings now. The landlord or building owner might have something else in mind for that space over the long term, but in the meantime, they could be utilizing it and providing more exposure to artists, events and performers. It’s a win-win.”
Advocates say cities also can support the night economy by, ramping up police patrols, extending transit hours, staging cultural events, funding marketing campaigns and redeveloping streetscapes to make them safer, brighter and more appealing. Such changes can spur retailers, restaurants and retail and mixed-use properties to stay open later.
Even without a municipal push, some businesses might want to extend their hours after taking a second look at nighttime opportunities in their trade areas. Synergy Restaurant Consultants managing partner Danny Bendas encourages restaurateurs to look carefully at their after-hours potential. When nighttime events at stadiums, theaters and concert halls let out, he noted, people often look to continue the fun at nearby bars and restaurants. “Universities also can be quite good,” Bendas said. “College students have varied schedules. They tend to stay up later, study and get hungry.”
If the trade area has a sizeable number of waiters, cooks, bartenders, hotel clerks and other service workers, staying open later might be a smart move. “After getting off at 11 or midnight, restaurant people are notorious for wanting to go out for a cocktail to talk about their shift,” the consultant said. “Could you promote yourself as the place to come and hang out?”
Businesses also could target their promotions, discounts and social media messages toward local shift workers like emergency medical personnel, firefighters, police officers and factory employees. “Any place where you have people getting off of work at interesting times in the evening could present an opportunity,” Bendas said.
Late-night restaurants do face unique challenges. Bendas said they should make sure staff stay productive by doing prep or cleaning if business is slow, train employees in the safest ways to deal with security threats like would-be robbers or drunk partygoers, frequently check patrons for inebriation and refuse to serve them if they’ve drunk too much. “God forbid that patron hits someone and injures them,” Bendas said. “You’ve got to make sure there’s a high degree of awareness about this.” Late-night restaurants also have to find and keep managers and staff to cover those shifts.
But staying open later can be worth the effort. Bendas cited Dallas’ Bad Chicken, which operates until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Its owners eventually want to stay open until 2 or 3 a.m., he said. “You’re already paying rent and, generally speaking, some of the utilities, so a higher percentage of whatever you can make in a nighttime scenario flows to the bottom line.”
Architecture and design can help property owners supercharge nighttime traffic and sales, said Mitra Esfandiari, an architect and partner at RDC. “Today’s consumers want more than just a place to eat and shop,” she said. “They are looking for curated, memorable experiences.”
RDC aimed to design a date night-friendly magnet in Sky Deck at Del Mar Highlands Town Center in San Diego. Completed in 2021, the multi-restaurant addition to the 30-year-old shopping center was the brainchild of former Donahue Schriber Realty Group chair and CEO Pat Donahue and the culmination of the company’s $120 million redevelopment of the property. First Washington Realty acquired Donahue Schriber, including Del Mar Highlands, last year.
For inspiration, Donahue Schriber flew some of its own people and some from RDC to Barcelona to see the city’s El Nacional culinary destination. Packed with patrons late into the evening, it boasts four bars serving an array of beers, cocktails, wines, preserves and oysters, along with four restaurants focused on Iberian Peninsula recipes. Each zone is an experience unto itself, with high-end finishes and separate seating areas, Donahue said. “I thought it was one of the coolest places I had ever been.”
Sky Deck offers 26,700 square feet of alfresco-style culinary zones on multiple levels, with a unifying “nautical industrial” aesthetic inspired by the nearby California Coast. Operators include Craft House, Kiin Extraordinary Thai, Parfait Paris, Marufuku Ramen and Urbana Mexican Gastronomy & Mixology.
Outdoor seating and rooftop bars are part of the draw at Sky Deck. The multilevel culinary destination has ramped up nighttime traffic and sales at San Diego’s Del Mar Highlands Town Center. Photo credit for images above and at top: Benny Chan.
RDC tasked lighting designers with adding drama and ambience to the night experience through lanterns, firepits, string lights, indirect lighting and suspended sconces, pictured at top. Artworks and found objects echo the maritime concept. Additional elements include a central bar on the ground level with lit trees, suspended artworks and a 100-foot-long mural. The net effect of these experiences, the architect said, is to “attract visitors and keep them staying for longer.”
Indeed, Sky Deck has driven nighttime traffic higher. The property has achieved record-setting sales per square foot, according to Donahue. “After we opened, I would go and watch what was happening,” he said. “Sky Deck would start getting busy at about 7 p.m., while the rest of the center was winding down. By 8 p.m., our inline restaurants were quiet but Sky Deck would be packed to capacity.”
For such a rethink to work, the developer noted, the demographics have to be right. Decades of densification in Del Mar’s trade area, where the average household income has grown to more than $230,000, made it a strong fit for the night-focused addition. “None of our 60 shopping centers had anything close to the same income and education levels,” Donahue said.
Staying true to the original vision was also important. Del Mar’s other restaurants already did brisk business at lunch, so the focus at Sky Deck needed to be squarely on dinner and date night. Toward that end, Donahue rejected suggestions to add play areas or other kid-friendly amenities. He also stayed faithful to the separate seating for each restaurant that he likes so much at El Nacional. “If we had put in a traditional food court with common seating, the performance would have been marginal at best,” he said. “The currency at lunch is time, getting in and out quickly. The currency at dinner is the experience.”
The night economy can bring dual benefits to those who take the right approach, Donahue concluded. “It extends your hours of operation, which is economically efficient, but it also expands your trade area because people will come farther for that experience. Taken together, those two things are a big deal.”
By Joel Groover
Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today
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