Moderated by Kay Taylor, director of training at Success Solutions (the training arm of Progressive Group Alliance), the panel featured operators whose companies have built strong takeout programs and who’ve learned key lessons along the way. They were Stacy McPhillips, brand communications director at Max & Erma’s/Damon’s Grill, Columbus, Ohio; Geoff Alexander, vice president, managing partner at Lettuce Entertain You (LEY) Enterprises, Chicago; Aric Nissen, vice president, R&D, Famous Dave’s, Minneapolis; and Bill Lowe, Arby’s franchisee, Richmond, Virginia.
The most critical factor in any takeout program, the panelists agreed, is accuracy. Getting home and finding items missing or incorrect items in the package is the biggest source of customer complaints, and the primary reason they don’t return to a particular operation for carryout, according to McPhillips. To tackle that problem, Max & Erma’s is rolling out a program called “Check, Double-Check,” which has employees taking ownership by writing their name on each outgoing package to verify that its contents are accurate.
Alexander noted that operators committing to do takeout have to make it a priority and not an afterthought. “You have to treat it as its own business. Someone has to be in charge of it and empowered to handle mistakes correctly,” he said.
Takeout should be seen as a way to enhance an operation’s brand recognition, Alexander added. Packaging should have the restaurant’s logo on it and a lot of thought and testing should go into choosing packaging that works for individual menu items. It’s likely that not every item on the menu will transport well, and that should be considered carefully when deciding what to offer for takeout. “We sell a ton of fried calamari in one of our restaurants, but we don’t offer it for takeout because the quality suffers in transit. We’re the largest seller of oysters in another, but they’re also not offered for takeout,” he said.
Other packaging questions to consider are if it’s leak-proof, sturdy and microwaveable. Part of LEY’s strategy to deal with the accuracy issue is to utilize takeout containers with clear tops so it’s easy to visually check the contents before items go out. He said his company also includes a card in each takeout bag that thanks the guest for their order, provides handling/reheating information, and a phone number to call if there’s anything else they need.
Taylor emphasized the even small street accounts can and should be considering takeout and taking steps to do it right. “They may not have enough resources to do a full run of logo printed bags, but they don’t need to,” she said. “They can now just go to Office Depot and get some nice labels to print their logo on and stick on the packages. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should represent the brand.”
At Famous Dave’s, where takeout has grown to represent 20 percent of sales, takeout is not seen as selling products, but as offering convenience, according to Nissen. “We also look at our menu to determine which items travel best and consider takeout as an extension of our reputation,” he said. Simple things such as packaging cold foods and hot foods separately are important, he added, as is having personnel dedicated to the takeout side of the business and taking ownership of it.
Other takeout tips from the panel:
• Recreate the dining-in experience as closely as possible. Pay attention to presentation; include bread and mints in the bag.
• Package French fries separately from burgers to avoid absorbing juices from the sandwich.
• Promote takeout as an option right on the menu, in check presenters, on the Web site, in advertising.
• Order takeout from your operation periodically and review the products and packaging as customers would once you get them home to see what works, what doesn’t.
• Target nearby offices for lunch business with freebies and flyer drops.
• Consider investing in online ordering systems. It’s a major convenience and the way of the future.
• Discuss with employees how mistakes will be handled.
• Offer sales incentives and promotions for staff, just like in the dinning room.
• Solicit guest feedback about how the takeout program could be improved and act on suggestions where possible.