When Greg Van Winkle walked into a McDonald’s in Manhattan, he just wanted to order two cheeseburgers off the $1 menu. But when he tried to, he couldn’t—it was past midnight.

“As soon as 12 o’clock hits, the $1 menu is no more until 4 o’clock breakfast starts,” says the manager at the store.

She says that during that four-hour period, any of the 14 entrée options that can be ordered as value meals are available.

That Manhattan store isn’t the only McDonald’s that limits its offerings for late-night customers.

“While we recommend restaurants serve a full menu during late-night hours, some restaurants may find certain menu items are more in demand than others, and they may customize their menu to meet their customers’ needs,” McDonald’s said in a statement to QSR. The company also said the vast majority of its restaurants choose to serve the full menu during late-night hours.

“In a lot of ways it makes sense,” says Eric Giandelone, director of research for foodservice at Mintel.

“Typically in the later hours you’re going to be working with the skeleton crew, so you’re not going to be able to field the entire menu. You’re not going to be able to cook it all at the same time. Add to that, traffic is going to be lighter, so you can’t have a lot of food just laying around.”

But a quick Web search reveals that Van Winkle isn’t the only one who’s walked away feeling cheated after experiencing a different menu than what he was expecting. Posts on various message boards report similarly upset customers who came in seeking value and felt that they’d been forced to make a bigger purchase than they’d originally planned.

“You may find that you’re alienating customers by doing that,” says Linda J. Lipsky, president of Linda Lipsky Restaurant Consultants Inc. “Having the one sale now may cost you the next 10.”

Lipsky says a few strategies can help operators reap the benefits of a limited menu—without angering customers.

First, a variety of options should still be offered.

“There should be a salad and a chicken and a beef, but also make it profitable so that one person’s still able to produce it,” Lipsky says. “So maybe certain products are already partially prepared in advance, like a base salad layer so you just have to grill chicken and put it on top.”

What’s available should also be clearly communicated to customers, whether it’s by offering only a particular section of the regular menuboard or by creating signage that explains which menu items can still be ordered.

And even though profitability is a concern during what can be a lower-traffic daypart, something that appeals to budget-oriented customers should still be on the menu.

“You may find that you’re alienating customers by doing that. Having the one sale now may cost you the next 10.”

To ensure that the items with higher profit margins still attract sales, Lipsky suggests offering customers incentives to buy them. Instead of requiring late-night customers to purchase a value meal, for example, offer those who buy one a scratch-off card that gives them a chance to get their next meal for free.

“That way they’re not being forced to buy the higher-priced item, they’re making a choice to buy it because they want to win that prize,” Lipsky says.

Offering one or two menu items that aren’t available during normal hours can also be a smart strategy (take quick-serve breakfast menus, for example, which make customers who order off of them feel special, not shafted).

Of course, offering a limited late-night menu becomes less necessary when traffic increases.

“Quick-serve operators need to specifically advertise that this is an option that’s available,” Giandelone says. This is particularly essential for concepts that aren’t part of a national chain.

“Generally it’s most profitable to communicate to your existing client base rather than trying to promote it beyond,” Lipsky says.

“Start with fliers in every bag that goes through the drive thru and also signage inside the restaurant.” She also suggests distributing coupons that are redeemable only during late-night hours.

Even quick serves with steady traffic during the graveyard shift should make a proactive effort to maintain and increase it, Giandelone says.

“This is an area that full-service is now focusing in on,” he says. He points toward Buffalo Wild Wings, which announced in April that it will start offering late-night dining Sunday through Thursday. “Understand that your competition isn’t just those that are in your vicinity or in your segment, but the restaurant industry as a whole.”

Consumer Trends, Menu Innovations, Ordering, Web Exclusives, Buffalo Wild Wings, McDonald's