IS ANYTHING ON YOUR MENU GOOD TO GO?

IS ANYTHING ON YOUR MENU GOOD TO GO?

You really don't need consumer surveys to confirm that people now eat more frequently in their cars. Just look at how auto manufacturers equip vehicles to accommodate on-the-go eaters. Yes, multiple cup holders now come standard. But manufacturers like Toyota now equip some models with tray-like gear in the center armrest of their cars. Other carmakers sculpt openings in front-seat center consoles that are configured to hold not just cups, but a bag or two of food. The automotive aftermarket offers additional bolt-on options for those who wish to dine while on the move.

Who are the dashboard diners? It's our old friends, time-starved families with two working parents and active kids. The typical American spends more than 100 hours each year commuting to and from work. Add to this the time spent hauling kids and running errands that, while unmeasured, is higher. Ask any soccer parent whose kid plays on a travel team. One recent survey found that nearly one-third of Americans eats in their cars once or twice a week.

But these are broad-brush numbers. More telling data comes from a national telephone survey of 1,000 adults ages 18-54 conducted by an independent research firm for smoothie chain operator Smoothie King. Released in late July, the study found that more Americans eat lunch in their cars (15 percent) than in restaurants (14 percent). It's truly a sobering number for full-service restaurant operators. Other results from the study found that the primary lunch-eating sites are home (30 percent), desk at work (29 percent) and lunchroom (25 percent).

Exactly what do these customers want? A study funded by Taco Bell and conducted by independent survey firm Kelton Research found they're looking for "car-friendly" products. Which is to say, something that can be eaten while held in one hand and that won't leave behind crumbs, spills or other in-car messes. Move over Zagat's; customers in this segment rank food by its messiness potential.

In the case of Taco Bell, where 70 percent of its business comes via the drive-thru, the company has redesigned some menu items to appeal to this niche. Its Crunchwrap Supreme is a hexagon-shaped tortilla stuffed with the usual Taco Bell ingredients (tostada shell, seasoned beef, nacho cheese sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream). The item is wrapped in a flour tortilla and grilled to seal the ingredients in. The company serves it in a lap-sized box with an attached lid. It's easy to eat, easy to handle and even easy to throw away. It's a triumph of food engineering and design, and, at $1.79, should be a formidable competitor for this business.

Of course, the convenience store segment is the reigning champ of the dashboard dining segment. They've been feeding on-the-go consumers for decades, and they aren't about to give up this key market segment to QSR folks or to you soon. And while you may think of, say, C-store food as roller dog fare at best, some companies have upgraded their offerings of late. 7-Eleven, for example, now offers Chili-Lime flavored Big Eats Griller Sausage and Blue Corn Wraps with Turkey and Tomatillo Sauce. It's a contemporary approach to food that a lot of QSRs could learn from.

So where does full service come in? Operators in this segment have a built-in advantage in food taste, selection and quality. If you can rethink one or more of your menu items to address the portability issue-the key to the dashboard dining market-you'll be in the game. And if you can figure out the packaging part of the equation-which many full service operators did so expertly in developing their curbside dining clientele-you'll have a good chance at winning it.