Raising the bar on takeout

Show of hands. Is the food you send out to be eaten off site as good as the stuff people eat at your restaurant?

Didn’t think so.

It’s not like anybody’s been breathing down your neck to make things better. Heck, there’s actually evidence that takeout customers don’t mind sacrificing food quality for convenience. A recent survey by research house Technomic showed 34 percent of respondents expected that takeout food wouldn’t be as hot or as fresh as the dine-in version.

Thing is, you can almost guarantee that expectations won’t stay where they are. “Eventually,” says Technomic senior consultant Kathleen Chase, “the bar will be raised.”

And a lot of folks are trying to be first in line to make that happen. Retail giant Whole Foods is offering takeout options. Damon’s Grill has installed video cameras and weighted sensors to alert servers when somebody drives up to get a takeout order. Buffalo Wild Wings is testing dedicated takeout areas in some of its locations.

Chains like California Pizza Kitchen and Boston Market are selling branded foods in supermarkets. And the “family meal preparation” segment—where customers cook their own food and take it home—is exploding.

“People are still eating at home, but they’re no longer cooking there,” says Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, who’s been tracking consumer eating patterns for more than 20 years. According to NPD, in fact, in 2005 only 58 percent of all main dinner dishes were prepared from scratch, representing a steady drop from 65 percent just 10 years earlier. Into the breach have leaped “home meal solutions” of all different stripes and provenances, from both retail and restaurant sources. “Home,” Balzer contends, “has become the battleground for meals.”

Are you fighting for those customers?

We want the takeout experience to be just as good as the on-premise one,” says Steve Silverstein, founder of Not Your Average Joe’s, a suburban Boston-area casual chain that counts about 12 percent of sales from takeout, mostly via carhop service. “So we’ll advise people on what does and does not travel well—the person in charge of takeout is trained very carefully on that point. We also have different specs for items that are prepared for takeout, like putting sauce on the side of a pasta dish. Our goal is to replicate the quality of the dine-in experience.”

“You need to know how to control the food quality once something has left the premises,” says Vicki Lee Boyajian, owner of Vicki Lee’s Bakeshop, Catering and Take-Away in Belmont, Massachusetts, who is drawing on 25 years of catering experience to design menu items that travel well. With just 20 seats in the small café, most of the shop’s sales come from items sold by the pound or piece from the retail case, as well as daily specials.

“A dense item like chicken picaata or a stuffed burger will hold heat well, especially if you undercook it just slightly so it finishes cooking en route; other items can be held under refrigeration with specific instructions on how to reheat them,” says Boyajian. Working with a small menu on any particular day also helps ensure quality and freshness.

But you have to be careful about tinkering with menu items for the sake of transportability alone, cautions Nick Vojnovic, president of Tampa, Florida-based Beef ‘O’ Brady’s family sports pubs. O’ Brady’s has leveraged the takeout appeal of its signature Buffalo-style chicken wings into a more concerted marketing effort, including Web-based ordering where appropriate, and separate designated takeout areas in higher-volume locations.

Formulations have to work equally well for dine-in and takeout,” Vojnovic says. For instance, when the company switched to a starch-coated french fry that would hold up better, it also made sure that dine-in customers liked the new product just as well. Now O’ Brady’s is also testing a boneless wing with a heavier breading that will hold and travel well, but the primary motivation is customer demand for a product that’s easier to eat, no matter where it’s eaten.

After an aggressive marketing campaign last fall to focus customers’ attention on takeout, Eat’n Park, the Pittsburgh-based family restaurant, saw double-digit sales growth. But with that growth, and with its entire menu available for takeout, more focus had to be placed on the quality of food to go.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at temperatures, and at the correct size packaging for various items,” says Kevin O’Connell, senior vice president of marketing. “Clear plastic containers looked great, but in a sealed environment, the food steams and overcooks, so now we’re back with Styrofoam clam shells—they perform better. French fries go in a fry bag, rather than a sealed container, because even if it’s vented the fries sweat.”

Packaging is one of the biggest challenges the takeout sector faces, and everyone seems to have their own preferred way of doing things. “The important point is to find what works, and then get it in the proper package, immediately,” says Afton Romanczak, director of R&D for Steak-Out, which specializes in steak delivery. One little secret: packing the cooked steak with the baked potato, which acts like an insulating hot stone in the package.

The difference in price between traditional disposables and more purpose-built containers can be appreciable, from a nickel or so for a standard foam container, to 40 or 50 cents for a dual-colored, hinged one-piece microwaveable piece that also helps merchandise the contents, according to Mark Spencer, manager of new product development, foodservice for Pactiv, which produces a large line of specialized packaging. Spencer and others point to the European and Japanese markets as a possible model for the future, where a lot of work is being done to create custom packaging solutions as well as stock packaging that focuses on extended shelf life.

At Chop Chop Shanghai Bistro in Los Angeles, all food is packed into colorful recycled paper containers, then arranged bento-box style on a custom-designed tray if it’s for consumption there, or stacked into a translucent logo’d takeout bag that is sized to hold the boxes in two stacks. If people don’t finish all their food in the dining room, they simply close up the boxes and take them with them, says owner-founder Doug Lui. Takeout for the year-old restaurant is about 10 to 15 percent of sales, but is growing about a point a month.

Staff training and support is also an important piece of the puzzle.

Denver-based Noodles & Co., with about one-third of its sales from takeout, features menu items like Pesto Cavatappi and noodles with Mushroom Stroganoff that can be tricky to transport without quality loss. In response, says Dwayne Chamber, vice president of marketing, the company initiated a number of new measures—some high-tech and some no-nonsense. The phone is right on the front counter, for instance, not in the back somewhere, and the P.O.S. system allows the person answering the phone to punch in not only the order but the customer’s name, for easy identification. The order-taker also asks the customer how soon they will be there.

“We know it takes only about four minutes to cook the food, so we time it so it’s not sitting there for a long time,” notes Chambers. “Even asking a question like that demonstrates our level of commitment.”  

Raising the bar with…Packaging


It’s not rocket science, but the way Cosi handles takeout packaging, you’d think it was.

“You have to look at the form and all the features,” says Paul Seidman, vice president of food and beverage for the Deerfield, Illinois, chain, which has grown from one quirky Manhattan sandwich-and-salad shop to a 90-plus-unit chain in 15 states. “Operators need to take the same amount of care with takeout packaging that chefs take marrying food to the proper plate in dine-in service.”

For Cosi, which counts well over 50 percent of its sales through takeout, this has meant years of testing and refining, resulting in functional, distinctive, sophisticated packaging.

A case in packaging point is the chain’s salad bowl, a large (48-oz), tall crystal clear APET (soy-based amorphous polyethylene terephthallate) container that is more than 4 inches high and 6 3/4 inches across its domed, snap-on top. “It’s our most distinctive piece,” says Seidman.

In its own low-tech way, the packaging for Cosi’s signature made-to-order sandwiches is every bit as considered. First of all, notes Seidman, the sturdy, hearth-baked bread, which is not cut until a sandwich is ordered, helps to contain fillings. At the end of the build, one end of the sandwich is tucked into what Cosi execs call a grazing bag, a greaseproof, 6-inch-deep waxed paper sleeve, and then the entire sandwich is wrapped in double foil. “It suits the way busy urban diners use the product,” explains Seidman. They can tear off the foil piece by piece and have a drip-proof, insulated holder for the rest of the sandwich, even in a car or walking on the street.

Raising the bar with…Online ordering

Takeout sales are out there, and the management of Chan Dara, a hip, forward-thinking Thai restaurant in trendy West Los Angeles, is going to get every single opportunity—including the computer-generated kind. Once the province of deep-pocketed and well-networked chains, online ordering is moving into the mainstream thanks to second-party providers, who manage Internet sales for clients in much the same way that reservations services handle table bookings.

According to Chan Dara general manager Dieo Supannarat, the restaurant decided to inaugurate an online ordering system about two years ago. “People are using their computers for everything else nowadays, so why not takeout?”

Chan Dara uses a hosting company which designed the online-ordering interface on the restaurant’s existing Website to spec, and for a monthly fee administrates the service and routes orders virtually instantaneously to a fax machine by the cashier’s station.

In addition, Chan Dara uses an outside delivery company that handles orders for a number of other local restaurants.

At about 10 percent of sales, takeout is not “enormous,” says Supannarat, “but we want customers to have every option available to them.”

Raising he bar with…Delivery

Off the Grill, a Franklin, Tennessee-based chain, sees only 20 percent of its food eaten on-premise; 70 percent is delivery, and the remaining 10 percent is takeout. Everything about the concept is geared to mobility.

Like the menu, for instance. “The key is serving food that travels well, and then knowing how to package it,” says founder and COO Alan Thompson, a former Steak-Out franchisee. “We don’t even have fryers, because fried food doesn’t travel well, period.

”What does travel well are grilled items like steaks, salmon, chicken breast and sandwiches, along with salads that can be combined with grilled toppings once they reach their destination.

For example, one of Off the Grill’s most popular items used to be a 6-oz. ribeye. “When we started the concept [in 1999], you could get a small, thick ribeye that held its temperature well after cooking.” Now beef is bred larger, and a 6-oz. ribeye would be too thin to hold up during delivery, so the item is off the menu. Instead, the menu focuses on cuts that tote well in a number of different guises, such as steak tips.

There are also separate “make” lines for delivery/takeout and dine-in, because the assembly process is different.

“We got all kinds of packaging and other inventory on the to-go line that we don’t need for dine-in,” notes Thompson. “We don’t want our dine-in customers to compete for grill time with delivery and takeout orders.”

Raising the bar with…Big orders

Takeout’s fine as far as Carlos Rodriguez is concerned, but what he really likes to see are those big orders for parties, business meetings, company picnics and other special events. Self-service catering, in fact—where the customer picks up food in bulk and takes it back to the party site—represents a huge opportunity for La Cazuela, a Mexican cantina with eight neighborhood locations in Atlanta.

“Customers were always asking for something like this,” says La Cazuela’s owner. “So last November we decided to create a new service called La Cazuela At Your Place. We have eight kitchens with full crew and inventory, and this was an opportunity to add sales volume.”

The AYP menu consists of three “party bar” packages representing foods that are fun, popular and easy to transport and serve—all were originally introduced in La Cazuela’s private party rooms—including a Taco & Nacho Bar ($7.50 per person), a Fajita & Nacho Bar ($9.75) and a Burrito Grande Bar ($7.95). Customers get everything they need to bring back a party to their work or home, including the makings of build-your-own tacos, nachos and so on, side dishes, garnishes and all disposables. There’s a minimum order of $150, and because the AYP menu requires no additional inventory, it can be available on short notice. Delivery is also available within a five-mile radius.

Sales are building nicely, according to Rodriguez, and the best part is that they are almost entirely incremental. “We’ve got lots of $250 and $300 orders going out. We also believe that it’s promoting the restaurants, because guests at the party will learn about La Cazuela.” 

Raising the bar with…Grab-and-go

There’s a lot of talk about “relevancy” around the headquarters of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, which represents not only the well-known chef and his trendsetting Spago restaurants but also more mainstream endeavors like the fast-casual Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express.

“Our concept and the kind of consumer we want to attract dictates quality food at great prices that fits peoples’ on-the-go lifestyles,” says Ron Biskin, president of Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express, with more than 70 company-owned and franchised locations. “We want to be relevant for both their on-premise and off-premise needs.”

Given that some of those locations are in such nontraditional locations as airports, convention centers and retail venues—as well as extremely busy urban and suburban markets—the company is sharpening its focus on off-premise dining with a series of highly flexible “Puck to Go” initiatives, which range from airport kiosks with efficient self-service display cases for quick-on-the-pickup fresh foods, to elaborate downtown destinations featuring a full menu of salads, sandwiches and Puck’s gourmet pizzas. One constant is the signature Chinois Chicken Salad, always available whether packed to go in a portioned container, or on party platters.

Another new feature is Family Style Meals, which feature a choice of entrée, pasta and side dish for two to six people, custom-packaged for takeout. Items are selected for portability, such as Wolf’s Meatloaf and Four Cheese Macaroni, and are packed separately—hot items from cold—to be rethermed in the package. They all go into a high-style Puck to Go bag.


More from our partners