Shaking up the grab-and-go market

For operators looking to stake a claim in grab-and-go, boxed sandwiches in a cooler might not cut it anymore. Those looking to stand out are using new techniques as a differentiator, in part to play to millennials and Gen Zers who want fast, convenient service and tech-based amenities from restaurants, including takeout. Here’s a look at how next-gen grab-and-go is changing up operations.

Planners welcome

It may seem at odds with the spontaneous nature of grab-and-go for a vending machine concept to launch an order-in-advance option. “We did some consumer research and found that … it was a little frustrating whenever they would come to the machine and their favorite salad is gone,” says Cristy Alvarado, culinary director of Farmer’s Fridge in Chicago. “When it comes to lunch, people are creatures of habit. They want to reserve something they know they definitely want.” So a mobile app that’s in the works will allow customers to view what’s in stock in real time at different machines as well as reserve and prepay for their salads, Alvarado says.

Farmer’s Fridge’s research also revealed that although its customers are pressed for time when it comes to grabbing their midday meal, “People make their decision for what they want to eat for lunch pretty early in the day, oftentimes around 10 a.m.,” says Alvarado. The app’s order-ahead feature will encourage customers to lock in that decision.

Cubby scouts

Emerging California chain Eatsa trades on an all-tech, low-touch approach to foodservice: Diners can order one-price quinoa bowls ahead through its app and collect their meal from an automat-style cubby upon arrival. When Kellogg’s launched its cereal restaurant serving bowls with multicereal combos and fruit and nut toppings in New York City’s Times Square, it followed a similar cubby-style format.

Guests order with a staffer and retrieve their to-go cereal bowls from cabinets—but that isn’t necessarily faster, says Sandra Di Capua, partner at Kellogg’s NYC. Rather, it’s a novelty that adds to the experience, she says. “We did it because there’s this thing about getting cereal, where it’s universal almost that you pull it out of the (kitchen) cabinet.” In this case, it’s a numbered cabinet in the restaurant: An expediter chooses the cabinet for each completed order to be placed in, which is communicated to the customer via a buzzer with a message screen.

Packaged to hold

At Herb & Eatery, a market-cafe adjacent to fine-dining spot Herb & Wood in San Diego, chef-owner Brian Malarkey is thinking beyond plastic-wrapped sandwiches and clamshell-packed entrees. His mason jar salads address the problem of grab-and-go options degrading as they sit. Lettuce and toppings are layered over proteins, with vinaigrette on the bottom. “[The proteins are] marinating and just getting better as the day goes on,” Malarkey says. When customers shake it up and dump it out at home, the salad goes first, then the veggies and protein, then dressing on top.

Offering them within the market also allows patrons to buy additional options to assemble a meal at home. “You’re going to take this salad, this tapenade, this chimichurri and buy two steaks from the butcher,” Malarkey says. The customer leaves with a jumpstart to preparing dinner, competing with burgeoning cook-at-home meal kit services such as Hello Fresh and Blue Apron.

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