Take Away 101 -
Some system considerations for restaurateurs looking for success with take-away sales.
Due to the pandemic, most restaurant owners have had to pivot towards take-away sales in order to simply survive. Many have found the extra effort in doing it right has paid off in many ways. Employers can retain their best and most valued team members, help keep purveyors in business and even expand in some cases. The transformation that we have experienced in the restaurant business would have occurred sometime in the future, due to technology and customer demand, but it happened almost overnight because of the pandemic. My gut tells me that curbside pick up and delivery of restaurant meals is here to stay. As Danny Meyer from Union Square Hospitality Group (Union Square Cafe, Shake Shack, etc.) recently said “ Never again in our careers will we be able to take the boat out of the water and put it in dry dock for a year to inspect every inch of its underbelly and make it seaworthy again. We want to make sure when we put the boat back in the water, it’s a sounder boat and does business in a better way.”
Acknowledging that take-away food is now considered crucial to every foodservice operation that wants to move into the present and future, is your first step in considering the requirements your customers expect, and how you will meet the challenge.
I ran a successful farm-to-table take-out restaurant in Saranac Lake for ten years, and before that, a sit-down/take-out seafood joint in New Paltz for 8 years. Take out can be a profitable enterprise if it is taken seriously.
A few pointers :
1.) Treat the food that goes into a container with the same respect that you give to your plated food.
This means you should consider your customer's reactions to its presentation and strive for a positive experience. Do not just toss it in a container with no expectation of having to answer for how it was experienced by your customer. My take-out restaurant was rated #1 on Yelp and TripAdvisor in a tourist-town sales environment. Not only were a huge portion of our customers first-timers (out of towners) but we accomplished this in spite of the fact that 100% of our food was presented in take-out containers!
That meant that every fine dining restaurant that we competed with and who presented their food with tweezers and on square plates (as pretentious as it gets in my opinion) couldn’t compete with our overall attention to detail and customer satisfaction. People want creative and delicious food that meets or exceeds their expectations. That doesn’t change because their dinner is in a take-out container.
2.) Give reservations - even when taking to-go orders!
Because I make food from scratch, I space pick up times 10 minutes apart and give people honest expectations of when their order will be ready. So for example during our busy dinner service when someone would call in, they may find that they have to wait an hour or two for their pick-up time. They have no problem with this as long as we have their food hot and ready when we said it would be. This sounds radical, but imagine if a party of four came in on a busy night to your dining room at 7 pm and you had to let them know that you can't seat them until 9 pm. Happens all the time right? No difference. People hate it when they have to wait, but appreciate a restaurant that honors reservations and is ready for them when they say they will be. Additionally, you may find yourself taking their order rather than watching them walk out the door in search of a less busy establishment.
3.) Place your current menu online and let people call in their orders for pick up at a designated time.
With your reservation system in place, you can give them a realistic idea of when their order will be ready. When they come in have it ready! By honoring the value of their time, customers will be more inclined to return. Think repeat business! I always say “ there are two things that people value- time and money. It does not matter how much money you have, you can’t get more time, so time is much more valuable than money”. Place a high value on your customers' time.
4.) Use the a la carte system to keep prices reasonable.
This means that people only pay for what they want. For example - Coleslaw. If you include it with every dish you have to charge for it in the menu price. And you may find most goes uneaten and discarded. If you charge 1.50 for it, only coleslaw lovers will buy it and not waste it. Folks who don't like it don't have to pay for it. This presents an opportunity to create a perception of value in your pricing.
5.) Pack orders separately - hot and cold.
Always ASK if flatware is required. Most will say no (saving you money and avoiding waste).
6.) Work clean and organized.
Make room for your take-out system within your operation. If you are serious about the opportunity that take-away can provide for your business then you should include it into your overall system. Place take-out containers right next to your plates on the line. Create a small area within a few steps of the line so that packing complete orders is second nature. Bags, flatware, condiments, napkins, cups, straws, lids, etc. should be fully stocked at the beginning of each shift. There are so many varieties of take-out containers available for purchase, and you should match the image of your brand to the quality and style of containers that you use.
Remember that service is a monologue and hospitality is a dialogue. Listen to your customers, because believe me, they would much rather feel heard than be right. By listening to them, there will be no need to decipher who is right in a conflict- as there will be no conflict.
I also like to say that you are either going in business or out of business. There is no resting on your laurels in the competitive world of restaurants. Always strive to improve your customers' experience, and do that by listening carefully to what they need from you. Their passion for your brand is literally fed by your passion to please.