Restaurants revamp the menu to suit delivery

Have food, will travel? Operators are updating offerings and sourcing new packaging as off-premise continues to grow.
Photographs courtesy of Chili's, McAlister’s

It’s an ongoing problem that’s yet to be solved: Pack a hot sandwich and french fries into a to-go box, stuff it inside an insulated bag and deliver it 30 minutes later by car or bike, and chances are the food will arrive soggy and lukewarm. That’s been the challenge for Melt Shop, a 12-unit fast casual based in New York City that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches. Founder Spencer Rubin, like many operators looking to solve this problem with delivery, worked with a packaging company to develop a ventilated box with padding that delivers a better product, but “there’s lots of room for human error in transit,” he says. 

Trying to solve the packaging problem and other issues with delivery has proven to be worth the time for many. Off-premise currently accounts for 44% of all restaurant sales, according to Technomic, with delivery encompassing 25% of those orders. But at the same time, delivery receives the most consumer dissatisfaction, finds Technomic. In the fast-casual segment (excluding pizza concepts) both taste and visual appeal score lower with food that is delivered vs. carryout orders. Taking this into account, operators are adjusting the menu and beyond to improve the experience for guests.

Made to travel

Rubin is not changing his concept or taking any menu items away, but he is adding a new chicken tender program geared to delivery and catering. The tenders are made from scratch in-house from a proprietary buttermilk recipe, hand-breaded and fried to order. “They travel really well and fit into the DNA of our brand,” he says. Rubin created a separate menu section for the three chicken tender varieties: original, Buffalo and honey.

Outside of individual orders, Melt Shop is also focused on improving the quality of those high-ticket orders that come from its off-premise catering program. In the works is a new insulated catering box to deliver grilled cheese sandwiches in individual containers. “It’s a metal carrier with a ventilated hood engineered to create a kind of convection oven that holds the sandwiches hot and crisp,” says Rubin. Currently in test, the new catering box will debut this fall.

Upgrading the experience

McAlister’s Deli also has done extensive testing on packaging as it continues to roll out its third-party delivery program chainwide; 200 of 430 restaurants are currently participating, says President Joe Guith. “Our current package delivers on texture and temperature, but we’re upgrading to more sustainable materials with better features for on-the-go food,” he says. “And all our new packaging is secured with a tamper-proof sticker.”

McAlister’s invested in developing a new app to make delivery orders more seamless—a move Guith sees paying off. Chili’s Grill & Bar also improved its online ordering process, gradually migrating guests from phone calls to its app. Initially, this move aimed to make the brand a more convenient choice for curbside pickup and takeout. But now about 100 restaurants in the chain have partnered with Postmates for delivery orders, and “we’re seeing good growth there,” says Michael Breed, VP of digital innovation. “Sales from third party are incremental and they are bringing new guests into restaurants.”

Chili’s, which sticks to its core menu for delivery, is rolling out clear, recyclable plastic packaging with better heat retention this fall. Also ready for rollout are new to-go bags that allow stacking of two boxes for a multiple delivery order.

Bundled to sell

turkey crunch

Right now, everything on McAlister’s standard menu is available for delivery, but going forward, the chain will offer more bundled meals and highlight them for delivery: for example, a choose-two deal featuring a half order of salad and a sandwich.

Bundling does well for the chain, says Guith, citing a promotion that bundled the brand’s signature iced tea with any DoorDash delivery order. Guith reports that cold salads and sandwiches are the most popular for delivery, but he is surprised that dessert sales spike with off-premise orders, too. “When customers order digitally, checks skew higher, as people have a propensity to add on items,” says Guith. There is also opportunity in offering a greater variety of premium sandwiches that adapt well to delivery, such as McAlister’s Jalapeno Turkey Crunch LTO “that is performing very well,” he adds.

Maggiano’s, Chili’s casual-dining sibling under the Brinker International umbrella, has created a delivery menu that steers guests toward items that travel well, such as chicken parmigiana, and away from fried calamari and linguine con mare, both of which tend to lose quality in transit. The menu also offers customers the opportunity to double the portion for half the price. If guests order one classic pasta, for example, they get the second portion for $5. “About 50% of customers opt in,” says Mary Machul, senior director of marketing for Maggiano’s. “The food reheats very well and they have it for a meal later in the week. This option is driving growth through delivery rather than discounts.” 

Both Chili’s and Maggiano’s are seeing an increase in check averages with delivery. As with McAlister’s, dessert frequency is higher, say Machul and Breed, and there are more add-ons and customization. And while some casual-dining players are testing the water with alcohol delivery, the Brinker brands are taking it slower. Chili’s has not pursued it yet, and Maggiano’s is bundling some packages with a bottle of wine, but can’t do it everywhere because of legalities, says Machul.

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