Business ideas for 2018: Late-night food

With consumers eating patterns shifting significantly, and a growing trend for a fourth meal set to take off in 2018, cash in with an alternative food offering

Way back in 2007, US-founded burrito chain Taco Bell launched a huge ad campaign where they coined the term ‘Fourthmeal’. Aimed at the youth market, the fast-food brand wanted to ensure youngsters with late-night stomach rumblings went to them for their post-dinner (and potentially alcohol-fuelled) cravings.

While the campaign was eventually abandoned, the term did make its way into the Urban Dictionary. Fast forward over 10 years and it seems that 2018 could see the idea of a fourth meal finally go mainstream here in the UK.

According to The Waitrose Food & Drink Report for 2017-18, there “is growing evidence that we are starting to squeeze a small, fourth meal into our daily routine.”

Contrary to the typical perception of late-night eating where Brits head to Chinatown at 3am or grab a kebab post-night out, 2018’s fourth meal is not just for party-goers. Nor is it about greed.

As the report claims, “This is not about gluttony, rather it is about adapting our eating schedules to our busy lives.”

With an increasing appetite for food at all hours there’s an opportunity for start-ups to cater to this – fairly untapped – demand.

Starting a late-night food business: Why it’s a good business idea

There’s no denying the way of the world is changing.


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Society today is more fast-paced, impatient and on-demand hungry than ever before. Our days are jam-packed from start to finish and with trying to cram in workouts, a long day’s work and potentially socialising with friends in the evening, the manner in which we eat – and when – is shifting too.

Euromonitor International reported that “Consumers’ eating patterns have undergone fundamental changes, shifting from traditional family meals to a more fragmented and flexible eating style, encompassing multiple small meals, often eaten on the go or alone.”

The research, How We Eat: The Changing Face of Global Mealtimes, goes on to say that “consumers are moving away from a pattern of eating three fixed meals a day towards a much more flexible pattern of snacking and grazing during the day and eating at any time that is convenient.”

Not too long ago, scaremongering from the media insisted that eating after a certain time had a whole host of negative health implications, but today that myth has been firmly debunked. There’s no such thing as a set time you should eat dinner – or set times for eating anything at all, in fact.

And this seismic shift in eating habits opens up a whole host of opportunities for prospective business owners.

Late-night food business opportunities

In Waitrose’s report, it stresses that the fourth meal is more about the way in which we eat than a preference for one specific food offering, claiming it could be “a healthy snack or an indulgent treat” so there are lots of possibilities to explore this year.

In stark contrast to Taco Bell’s campaign, in 2018, the fourth meal can actually be tailored to health-conscious consumers looking for pre- or post-workout fuel.

Myles Smethurst, owner of healthy-eating bistro Eat Clean Cuisine, told Startups its busiest trade time was post-7.30pm. Smethurst commented: “The growing trend of eating a main meal post-workout is becoming ever more popular.

“Whether that be for extra fuel, or simply because busy professionals haven’t had time to sit down to a full meal at the conventional ‘tea time’, people are becoming a lot more aware of what food they’re putting into their bodies.”

Tapping into the mantra of eating little and often, Smethurst insists “a fourth meal definitely isn’t something to shy away from for those wanting to get fit or lose weight – it’s all about what you fill that fourth plate with and how much!”

With the growth of 24-hour gyms showing no sign of slowing down, opening a late-night/early hours healthy deli or cafe could provide the perfect complement to catch gym goers with nutritious-dense snacks and meals. You could even think about serving algae (another business idea for 2018 you can read about here!)

Or, you could go down the restaurant route. Famous for its view, but also its unique all hours opening, Duck and Waffle remains one of London’s only high-end 24-hour restaurants so there’s a definite market gap for eateries that provide high-quality food for city-dwelling night owls.

Opening a restaurant will require significant upfront capital but if you’ve been thinking about starting a restaurant and are looking for a USP to help you stand out, a late-night offering could be just what you need to grab the crowds.

And it doesn’t have to be bricks and mortar at all. UK start-up Feast delivers “great restaurant food through the night”. Available for delivery to your home and working in partnership with hotels to offer on-tap room service at any time, the start-up is another example of an innovative response to the growing demand for late-night food. While competing with delivery giants like Deliveroo might prove difficult, a 24-hour focus could help you carve a lucrative niche.

Lastly, as discussed above, the fourth meal doesn’t have to be a ‘meal’ as such, so you could focus on offering tasty snacks. Beigel bakery in London’s east end has become infamous for its 24-hour bakes, so while you might want to avoid bagels, there’s a host of other easy-to-grab snacks you could explore.

US start-up NightFoods was created specifically to tackle night-time cravings and provide a more nutritious and easy-to-grab alternative to leftovers from your fridge. Its bars are “easy on the calories” and high in fibre and protein to give you “zero guilt before bed.”

Insider opinion

Simon Pusey, director at FeastHQ, explains how immediacy and convenience are changing the eating habits of today:

“I think it’s the way the world is going generally: Attitudes as well as technology are shifting. Working through the night used to be thought of as pretty extreme. Now a pretty large portion of the population do it, be it in transport, in hospitality, for the emergency services or in the banks and law firms in the city.

“Most people also eat three times a day and usually those are the standard breakfast, lunch and dinner. But with international transport becoming quicker and cheaper, and even local transport (the night tube) opening 24 hours, the food industry is starting to catch on that there’s a market outside of those conventional meal times.

“From our experience it’s a pretty lucrative one; I’m sure many will agree the willingness to spend is rarely higher than at 3am.”