Merely hours after gobbling up Thanksgiving dinner, millions of retail employees will head to work to greet the deal-hungry Black Friday crowds. Once their holiday fullness wears off, restaurants will be ready to pounce.
As the crucial shopping holiday creeps earlier this year, it is producing a ripple effect within the restaurant community. To cash in on the pre-dawn crowds, restaurant operators are targeting both Black Friday shoppers and big-box retailers that want catered meals for their employees who are working around the clock.
At some Moe's Southwest Grill locations, employees will arrive as early as 3 a.m. on Friday to prepare Black Friday meals for hungry big-box retailer employers. The extended hours are part of an initiative that launched last year to drive catering orders during the holiday and is marketed as a way to "acknowledge your employees' hard work with a delicious pat on the back."
"Since Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year, all of these places are opening earlier to get this Christmas shopping season going, and we know that these people — the big-box retailer staff — it's not easy for them to leave to get food," said Jamie Schlef, the company's director of catering.
For Moe's catering branch, Thanksgiving Week had typically been a slow period, because offices empty out as workers celebrate Thanksgiving, but the launch has helped make up for the dip in holiday catering sales. In the program's first year, sales rose 32 percent for the Thanksgiving week year-over-year. So far, the company has confirmed orders with Target, Kohl's, Verizon, Dick's Sporting Goods, and State Farm Insurance.
At Cosi, some workers will arrive as early as 4 a.m. to prepare for the early morning rush, said Keith Stewart, the company's director of marketing. About a dozen locations, which are mostly in plazas with big-box retailers, will open their doors early to serve food. Others will have tables with free coffee available for consumers who are waiting outside retailers to begin shopping.
"Initially, the day after Thanksgiving meant business as usual for us," Stewart said. But since many of their locations are located near retailers, customers asked for earlier hours so they could grab breakfast before or after hitting the Black Friday sales.
He added that the company's catering efforts on Black Friday have also resulted in repeat visits after the holiday is over by big-box employees during their breaks.
Hudson Riehle, senior vice president at the National Restaurant Association, echoed the rise in big-box retailers that are working with national restaurant brands to provide catered meals for staff.
"The savvy restaurant operators have definitely become more active in contacting retailers and marketing toward retailers to provide convenient meal solutions," Riehle said.
Since consumers are spending more time in malls and away from home during the Thanksgiving Week, this will result in a boost in restaurant sales, Riehle added.
Today's mall also contains a larger percentage of restaurants as companies, such asLongHorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden, concepts owned by Darden Restaurants, flock to the shopping centers. According to CoStar Group, the percentage of mall space being leased by restaurants has risen steadily to 15.8 percent through August of this year as malls strive to fill space amid slower retail store growth. This is up from 10.4 percent in 2006.
A large portion of these restaurants will mimic the crack-of-dawn operating hours that malls plan to hold on Black Friday.
Corner Bakery Café's retail locations plan to open as early as 6 a.m. to coincide with their mall operating hours — hours earlier than usual. Paul Hicks, the company's vice president of operations services, cited the increased traffic at the mall itself rather than the extended hours as the main driver of the sales boost his company sees on Black Friday.
"Really across the board, the hustle and bustle of this time of year really plays well for increases in traffic," Hicks said.
Although one of the main goals of catering by big-box retailers is to keep employees in stores, Seattle's Best Coffee, a unit of Starbucks, is offering employees an incentive to step away from their workplaces on Friday. The company is offering those who are logging hours on the shopping holiday free coffee.
"When we think of Black Friday, we think of the start of the holiday shopping season, crowds and incredible deals," said Jennifer Dimaris, the company's vice president of brand management, in a press release. "We often forget that there are millions of people working long hours to make this holiday happen."
—By CNBC.com's Katie Little; Follow Her on Twitter @katie_little