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Take On Takeout

Take On Takeout

Your guests may not want to cook, but that doesn't necessarily mean they want to invest the time it will take to order, consume and pay for a meal in your restaurant, either. To serve customers who value convenience or the freedom to chow down in their home theatre or kitchen, you need to think outside the box — your box — and figure out a way to make your takeout user friendly. The stakes are large.

Some 36 percent of Americans told the National Restaurant Association in a survey that buying takeout food “is essential to the way they live.” Among those aged 25-34, that percentage is 46 percent. And more than half of those surveyed said they would be likely to use a full-service restaurant's curbside-to-go option if it were available. And the numbers continue to grow. According to Technomic Information Services, full-service takeout has grown at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent over the last three years, almost twice the pace of overall sales growth in the casual dining segment.

Technomic research suggests that heavy users of takeout — those who do so at full-service restaurants at least once a week — grew from 12 percent to 21 percent between 2005 and 2007.

“The industry used to say it was America's dining room,” NRA's research senior v.p. Hudson Riehle told USA Today recently. As takeout takes a bigger share of the business, he notes, “it's becoming America's family room.”

How can you play a bigger role in that family room? Read on.

Do part of the work. The proliferation of meal-preparation facilities a la Super Suppers has proven that there's a demand for help getting dinner on the table. You can tap into that market by offering items that can be easily transported and finished off within the limitations of the typical home oven or stove; lasagne or mac-and-cheese would be perfect examples. A number of operators already sell take-and-bake pizza ready for customers to pop into their home ovens.

Get creative about putting your menu in the hands of those outside your four walls. Some 37 percent of consumers told Technomic they place their food order from somewhere other than the restaurant or their homes. You need to help steer that demographic toward you. The internet and cell phones have opened up a whole electronic universe of touch points for your regulars and would-be regulars. In the NRA survey, 13 percent of all adults had used the internet to order food; 27 percent of those aged 18-24 had done so.

Lasan Eatery, an Indian restaurant in Birmingham, England, recently launched a service that allows cell users access to its full menu on their phone. They simply text the word “lasan” to a telephone number and the menu turns up on the phone's screen. To order, they add a dish to their shopping cart on the phone. Not only has the technology heated up curry-to-go orders, its novelty has brought a lot of attention to the restaurant.

A number of chains, including Outback, have introduced online ordering for takeout. Zoup! Fresh Soup goes a step further, posting its daily menu online and e-mailing the soup list every day to its base of customers, who can then reply with an online order to pick up later. The system does double duty as promotion and labor saver, since it automates the ordering process.

Take a look at fourth meal potential. Late-night desserts to go? Appetizers as afternoon snacks? Pastries and beverages for afternoon tea or coffee breaks? Many nontraditional noshers are likely to be grabbing something on the run or en route and don't want the full restaurant experience — just a bite. Is there a section of your menu that lends itself to snacking or treats?

Cash in on off-premises catering. With many companies trimming their ranks to the minimum and with the cost of gas so high, businesses are asking local restaurants to deliver food for luncheons or meetings to keep their staffs happy and productive.

Make it easy for them. Mothers with young children are grateful when they can pick up a meal without unbuckling the kids. Curbside-to-go arrangements at a number of casual chains are tailor-made for that crowd, but with the price of gas where it is these days, practically any guest will appreciate rapid delivery of the goods.

Two, a San Francisco restaurant, offers “Two-Go” three-course box lunches for $12 that can be ordered online and picked up in a drive-through courtyard. The lunches include fresh sandwiches on house-made bread, salads and sweet treats. This is not your run-of-the-mill box lunch; a typical menu might include spicy salmon and egg salad on green onion focaccia with sweet pea and mint puree, quinoa salad with lemon and parsley and a mudslide cookie with milk chocolate malt filling.

More and more full-service restaurant designs are incorporating a separate entrance, counter and close-by parking for takeout customers.

PF Chang's China Bistro didn't really encourage takeout during its early years, but after fielding a lot of complaints about the lack of takeout services, the chain relented. Today, takeout is booming and Chang's is facing a good problem: the need to boost kitchen production and reduce the dining room square footage to accommodate to-go prep.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Everyone knows that grocery stores are grabbing more dollars from restaurants. They are positioning themselves as one-stop shopping meccas where customers can restock their shelves and refrigerators as well as their bellies. Friday's sells about 50 grocery items, most of them frozen, in supermarkets. Last year, for the first time, California Pizza Kitchen sold more pizzas in grocers' freezer aisles than in their own restaurants. Is there a way you can squeeze your brand into the retail mix?

Keep in mind that your takeout is an extension of your restaurant. If something won't travel well, perhaps it shouldn't be available to go — if you want to preserve your reputation.

“Some of your food is probably best when you serve it immediately and in the moment,” says David Scott Peters, a restaurant consultant. “If you have items on your menu that would suffer in quality through transit, then make sure people can only order those foods that will be as high in quality as they are in the restaurant.” For Amato's, a 33-unit Italian chain based in Portland, ME, where the vast majority of orders are to go, “every menu item we create is built for carry-out,” says Jeff Perkins, director of franchising and development. “We focus on the packaging and the ingredients — and do a lot of testing. We test the packaging: Did the item leak? Did it get cold? Did it get soggy? We also test how it stands up to travel time: Does it still look good? Does it still taste good?”

Same goes for the containers. “The materials send a specific message about quality,” Peters says.

Get it right the first time. In takeout, perhaps even more so than when you have diners in-house, there is no room for messed-up orders. Too often the takeout customer will be home before he or she discovers the pizza doesn't have the pepperoni or the veggie potstickers are pork — or something is missing altogether. “At home with their disappointment, you don't have a chance to win them back. They just won't come back,” Peters says. He recommends a checklist (see example) that employees can use every time an order is packed to ensure it is complete.

Finally, think about promoting the availability of takeout, and look at ways to boost your takeout check averages. “Make sure you brand your takeout program so that consumers know that it is available,” advises James Latimore, a senior marketing manager at The Coca-Cola Company who focuses on restaurant takeout. Restaurants can go beyond creating a dedicated space for picking up food, Latimore suggests, by creating customized to-go packaging, signage and point-of-purchase materials.

Takeout check averages tend to be significantly lower than their on-premises counterparts, so look at ways to suggest inclusion of sides, desserts and beverages with those to-go orders.

Packing To-GoOrders
Match item to order Inspect each item to ensure that it matches the items on the order slip.
Ensure quality standards Make sure each item is prepared and presented following our standards.
Clearly label items Write the contents of each container on the corresponding lid. Indicate any modifications, so similar items may be identified easily. Attach lids to items as they are completed.
Bag items Place all items neatly and carefully in to-go bags. Keep hot and cold foods separate.
Add condiments Place the appropriate number of condiments, plastic ware and napkins in the bag.
Prepare drinks Prepare beverages last. This will ensure they are fresh when the customer arrives.
Attach check and receipt Staple the top copy of the check with the customer receipt to the to-go bag.
Ready for pickup Place to-go order in the designated pickup area.
Making TakeoutEasy
Share of major full-service restaurant chains with:
Phone ordering 96%
Fax ordering 10%
Online ordering 6%
Saved customer profiles for reordering 6%
Dedicated takeout counter/register 78%
Dedicated takeout parking 42%
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