Holiday Central

Restaurants target Thanksgiving shoppers...will they bite?

Source: Auntie Anne's

Eat, shop, eat…repeat: Such is the pattern many restaurants hope they'll see from Americans this holiday season.

As retailers experiment with extended Black Friday shopping hours, restaurants are responding by flipping on the "We're Open" sign in the hopes of squeezing out additional sales from hungry bargain hunters.

This early-bird trend is especially pronounced for restaurants located in malls, many of which are required by their leases to be open when the mall is.

For some restaurants, the strategy appears to be working. Last year, Auntie Anne's saw the highest volume Black Friday week on record when the majority of its stores opened between 10 p.m. Thanksgiving and midnight Friday after opening closer to midnight in 2011.

"We saw that sales went up—volume on Black Friday was up 9.04 percent," said Bill Dunn, the pretzel chain's president and chief operating officer. "When I look at the analytics, I find that it's incremental growth."

(Read more: Why it may pay to skip Black Friday)

Many of the company's mall-based locations will open closer to 8 p.m. this year, when several department stores, including Kohl's, J.C. Penney and Macy's, plan to open. This means workers will be arriving shortly after finishing their Thanksgiving feasts, as early as 6 p.m. or 7 p.m, Dunn said.

The payoff could worth it, according to results from a recent National Restaurant Association survey.

About 38 million people are expected to visit restaurants while hitting the Black Friday sales and another 8 million are forecast to dine out while shopping on Thanksgiving this year. That's up from 32 million Americans who planned to eat out while shopping on Black Friday in 2011, when the association last polled people. This is the first year, the group has asked about shoppers' dining plans on Thanksgiving since more retailers will be open then.

To help take the sting out of working on Thanksgiving, several restaurants, including Auntie Anne's and Cinnabon, will offer employees higher wages and catered meals at participating locations.

Starbucks-owned Seattle's Best Coffee has perks that extend beyond its own staff. The company will give anybody working on Black Friday—an estimated 20 percent of Americans, according to the chain—a free coffee.

(Read more: Black Friday survival guide: Have a plan, be early)

For Cinnabon, the sales generated in November and December, a period the company calls "Jollybon," are crucial, said Kristen Hartman, the bakery chain's vice president of marketing. Black Friday sales run about five times stronger than a typical Friday.

Twitter to track shoppers' habits

The company encourages franchisees to follow mall opening times. Many locations, nearly all of which are franchise-owned, will be open by 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., Hartman said.

As these locations extend their hours, "what will be interesting to see is: does the overall volume go up or does it stay the same and it's just spread out," Hartman said.

Bill Gellert, a franchisee who operates four locations in the New York City metro area, predicts the drawn-out hours "will have a mild increase but not that much."

While Gellert plans to buy his employees dinner and breakfast for working on Thanksgiving night, he said the move still isn't good for morale.

"It should be a day for family—that's my feeling, but I also have to pay bills," he said. "My rent doesn't change, and (my employees) have to pay bills too."

(Read more: And the slowest drive-thru is....)

At pizza chain Sbarro's, the earlier times have lifted sales, said the pizza chain's president Anthony Missano.

"It definitely provided a small boost to sales," Missano said. "It allowed people to take advance of slower times to get to the mall and we benefit from more people shopping."

Still, Troy Bader, chief operating officer of Dairy Queen, a Berkshire Hathaway unit, sees a possible downside to the ever-earlier openings.

"The key really becomes whether they are drawing significant traffic during those extended hours," Bader said. "It can actually hurt a store if you're not generating sufficient sales because you have added labor."

—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle.