Emerging Brands

P.F. Chang’s bets big on its To Go format

With more than 15 locations planned for 2021, the polished casual brand intends to challenge mom-and-pop joints.
Photo courtesy of PF Chang's
PF Changs Hubbard

A good 12 months before the pandemic lit a rocket under takeout and delivery sales, P.F. Chang’s was already brainstorming ways of riding the public’s soaring hunger for Chinese staples and Asian specialties they could eat at home.  Phase 2 of the resulting incursion into a market traditionally dominated by mom-and-pops began two weeks ago with the opening of a P.F. Chang’s To Go in the heart of New York City, where Chinese food rivals pizza and deli as the city’s signature to-go fare.

Three more To Go’s are set to follow in the Big Apple, with 15 to 20 more planned for urban centers and high-density suburbs in 2021. Locations where development has already begun include Long Island, the suburban sprawl just east of New York City, and Dallas. At least one of those units will feature a drive-thru in what Chang’s terms a test.

Those planned additions will join the three To Go’s that opened earlier this year in Chicago, the concept’s test site.

“It’s all about meeting our guests where they want to interact, and more people want to interact outside our four walls,” says Damola Adamolekun, the CEO of Chang’s and a partner in Paulson & Co., the investor that teamed up with TriArtisan Capital Advisors to buy the brand for $700 million in early 2019 from Centerbridge Partners, a private-equity firm.  By that time, Centerbridge had already separated P.F. Chang’s from a fast-casual spin-off, Pei Wei Asian Kitchen, which would be sold to the owner of the Pick Up Stix and Leeann Chin Asian chains in June of last year.

Adamolekun declined to discuss any similarities or differences between Pei Wei and P.F. Chang’s To Go, but the concepts are far from identical twins. Pei Wei featured counter service, but seats were relatively plentiful. At a Chang’s to Go, “you might have a patio table or something like that,” but that’ll be it, says Adamolekun. 

The To Go’s measure about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, compared with the 7,000 square feet in a typical P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro, as the chain calls its full-service restaurants. The off-premise riff features a bill of fare identical to the Bistros’ takeout menu, and sports a kitchen that duplicates its big sister’s back of house capabilities. All menu options will be scratch-prepared, as they are in a Bistro, Adamolekun said.

He would not reveal the difference in development costs for a To Go and a Bistro, but asserted that savings in development costs were not the driver for expanding the scaled-down concept. Ditto for having a wider array of potential sites available because of To Go’s smaller floorplan. “It is really consumer-driven,” Adamolekun remarks.

About a quarter of a Bistro’s sales come from takeout and delivery, he says, adding that the company plans to open five of the big-box restaurants in 2021 and will continue to develop the large stores as opportunities warrant. Exactly 202 Bistros are currently open, and their dine-in business still accounts for about 75% of the company’s sales, “so these still play a very important part,” says Adamolekun.

The company is trying to increase the profitability of off-premise business for both brands by testing self-delivery, an experiment currently underway in 10 locations, he said.

Some of Chang’s casual-dining competitors are trying to boost their off-premise sales by using ghost kitchens, or prep facilities in new territories that produce meals solely for takeout or delivery. No seats for on-site dining are provided.

That approach doesn’t work for a P.F. Chang’s Bistro, he said. The restaurants tend to have visually arresting exteriors, often including enormous statues of lions at the door. “For us, being visible is important. Our ghost kitchens didn’t work because of that need for visibility,” Adamolekun says.

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