How to Bring Dine-in and Take-out Service Under One Roof

At one time, guests were pretty much forced to make a choice between dining convenience and dining quality. Those days are past. 

Casual dining operations continue to raise the bar on their menu offerings; convenience and quality are not mutually exclusive. Upscale dining operations have increased the convenience of their concepts for diners who want the fare, but not a table.

One of the important considerations as you start your new restaurant is maximizing the utility of your asset - including leased property. Takeout dining helps full-service operations generate sales that would have gone to quick-service operations in the past. Another important consideration is to determine if your business is incorporating menu and service trends that resonate with your market. Younger diners are driving much of the market for online ordering. It nearly goes without saying, you can't ignore their preferences. They are the future of your business.

Takeout isn't just for the quick-service guys anymore, says Chris Tripoli, principal of A 'la Carte Foodservice Consulting in Houston, Texas. Actually, it hasn't been for a while. As consumer demand increased for higher quality, and better variety met head-on with the popularity of convenience, many independent restaurants reacted by improving their takeout programs.-

LEARNING OBJECTIVES:

By the time you've finished reading this article, you should be able to:
  • List six critical factors in planning to offer both dine-in and take-out service.
  • Explain why some operators do not separate dine-in and take-out sections of their operations.
  • Describe the production and staffing challenges created by adding take-out to dine-in service.

Tripoli has seen successful takeout programs in full-service restaurants add revenue that is equal to or greater than one server's station. That thinking helps management with the thought of adding a designated person. It is like having an additional service station on the floor, but without the actual seating.

"From my experience, it is always a good idea to supplement income with additional sales," echoes Paul Bartlett principal of KitchenSolutions Consulting in Baltimore, Maryland. Take-away food keeps the operation moving during slower periods. Startups should consider this as early as the first draft of their business plans.

An increasing number of full-service restaurants have separate entrances for take-out and dine-in guests. The challenges of marrying these two styles of service under one roof go well beyond architectural issues. A variety of factors - from order taking, configuration of their POS systems and layout, to equipment and staffing - must be well coordinated.

First and Foremost, Consider the Guest Experience

The key, however, to integrating takeout and dine-in "depends solely on guest interpretation," says Tucker W. "Bill" Main, principal of Bill Main & Associates in Lafayette, California. "It is a bad idea when it interferes with the 'dining experience', sort of the classic line-extension approach. Toyota makes great cars; doesn't mean they could make great bicycles."

Separating guests based on how they consume the service experience is "a very good thing," according to Alex M. Susskind, associate professor at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. "If you have ever been to a busy restaurant to pick up takeout, when you have to go to the host stand or bar, you get mixed in with guests who need to be seated. These are two different types of guests." There are times, however, when such separation is not the best choice, Susskind adds. "Space is a valuable resource. If you do not have the space to have a separate area for take- out, then that would be the only constraint I would see in not having a separate area.

The challenge, Bartlett has found, becomes one of trying to do multiple functions well. "The answer is to be clear about staff roles. Take-away food requires a dedicated customer service staff focused on that function. It cannot be done effectively while greeting guests for the dining room and waiting on tables."

The combination of service styles becomes a bad idea in fine-dining establishments on busy nights, Bartlett continues, because it breaks the rhythm of production and plating, which is often more complex and demanding.

Elements of Styles

Adapting your concept early to both take-out and dine- in styles of service requires considering six critical factors, order taking, restaurant layout, production capacity, menu, packaging, and staffing. Let's unpack these factors.

How do guests want to order? The National Restaurant Association (NRA) urges restaurants to be familiar and adept with ordering methods that appeal to their customer base. Many restaurants are equipped to receive text message orders and orders through restaurant apps from mobile devices; this is especially popular with teens and young adults.

According to Juan Martinez, principal of Profitability, a consultancy in Orlando, Florida, the first factor to consider is how the order comes in. "Who gets it, where do they get it, and how do they get it done? In other words, what is the team-member journey to get the order done?"

Is the restaurant layout conducive to takeout, or just interferes with dine-in guest traffic? The NRA recommends having a separate, clearly delineated counter or parking area for takeout customers, complete with signage.

Often, volume dictates a separate area for takeout, usually a small prep table just inside the kitchen where one can receive orders on a separate phone, and prepare orders for pick-up separate from the main expo area. This area should have its own printer receiving online orders and be designed with appropriate wall shelves, under-shelves, and wall-hung slots to hold the various sizes of bags, cups, lids, and plates.

Tripoli is convinced that the industry is long past the time when we were able to manage the takeout volume by taking phone orders at the host stand, or in some cases, the bar, then receiving, plating and bagging them at the dining room expo area." Bartlett also admits to being a proponent of having separate ordering and pick-up area for carry-out, with seating or counter space available for waiting.

Operators must also consider what Martinez refers to as "the customer journey," that is, "how does the customer get the order? The goal would be to develop an easy, seamless, and direct pick-up point, without having to get in the regular customer line. Some concepts have taken this to an extreme, he adds, having a shelf with the food from which the guest picks it up. The customer did you the favor to order ahead, so don't make him wait.

Concepts can make the product in the same line, Martinez explains, but as the volume comes up, integrating take-out, including on-line orders, in the same stream of eat-in customers could prove challenging, especially for concepts where the kitchen is open and the eat-in guest orders as they go along and pay at the end. Some concepts have incorporated a separate line, but this requires space and capital along with high demand.

Have you planned how guests are going to take out entire meals so they are as appetizing when they arrive home as when they left your kitchen? Takeout packaging must maintain the quality and integrity of the food, which means containers should be durable to prevent leaking and resist breaking.

Deb Knobelsdorf, who along with her husband Chris owns West Side Fish and Chips in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada, says she would not keep the two areas separate unless my restaurant was so big, and we made an unimaginable amount of money, and could afford the extra expense. In a similar vein, she utilizes the same cashier for both dine-in and takeout customers. Having separate areas requires a second cash register, which must also be balanced and have separate staff to run it. This in itself makes it harder and more complex. One cashier is easier.

Says Knobelsdorf, she and her husband have been ringing all dine-in and takeout orders into the same cash register/POS for decades. I don't know why you'd want to do it any other way. Whoever is available, the server or host, deals with the customer.

Main calls it impossible to fully describe layout because he feels there are too many variables. Equipment, labor, and layout will all fall in to place after it's tested. Generally speaking, in my opinion, only one in five casual-dining operations is suited for takeout and delivery. The ones that are successful, as I was, do takeout only for a small percentage of the menu.

Does your concept have the capacity for added food production demanded by take-out business? If your restaurant operates at full capacity all the time, you may find that takeout is a challenge, says Cornell's Susskind. That is, if you are stretched just to service the guests you have dining in. Most restaurants do have some slack capacity, at least during some parts of the day. That being said, any slack or incremental business you can add, while maintaining your standards of quality and execution, is a good thing.

Whatever they do, Martinez says, the key for operators is to make sure they have sufficient production capacity to handle the take-out/on-line demand so that the product is done by the time the guest comes to pick it up, and the regular eat-in customer's experience is not impacted negatively. Your take-out offerings should reflect the menu quality you want to project for the entire operation.

I recently read an article that said Starbucks was having some difficulties with the demand that their on-line customer created, Martinez relates. This issue impacted the non-online guest to the point that some guests were coming in, seeing the number of people at the pick-up, and leaving. The piece suggested that not having enough production capacity in the back created this issue. I can tell you that if you don't account for the additional demand on take-out/on-line guests, disappointment can follow closely by creating long lines.

From a technology standpoint, food is ordered, handled, and processed in the same way for dine-in and takeout, Susskind notes. From a production perspective, items need to be placed in to-go containers, and some things are processed/prepared differently. For example, salad dressings or sauces may be put on the side for to-go orders, and French fries placed in a separate container. From a service standpoint, the person assembling the order needs to pay close attention to all the details, open each container, and ensure that the order is 100% complete once it is put in the bag.

The cooks, says Bartlett, operate in a similar manner for both dine-in and carry-out. The primary consideration is how the food gets plated or packaged. Both sets of service wares must be close at hand. With carry-out, the entire order must be ready at once. This is an operational difference for the kitchen from dine-in, where orders are of- ten staggered between courses. The kitchen prepares and packages the individual food items; the carry-out counter staff assembles the packages to travel, including condi- ments, service wares, napkins.

Installing additional shelving in close proximity to the cooking line for packaging containers is wise. So are additional POS stations for carry-out staff to punch in orders; additional POS registers to do transactions; and a counter service layout that accommodates packaging assembly materials. Other good additions, space permitting, are carry-out area refrigeration and, if necessary, warming cabinets.

Equipment requirements are usually restricted to additional non-cooking items, Tripoli says. Most restaurant operators would like a separate beverage stand for soda, tea, and coffee installed in the designated takeout service station in order to not interrupt service at the established server stations. That, along with packaging storage and condiments, are all the additional requirements.

Once a guest leaves with the order, if anything is not right the experience is ruined, Susskind says. All orders should be correct for in-house consumption, too, but there is a little more wiggle room in house to catch and fix mistakes during service.

Does your take-out menu reflect well on your dine-in menu? The menu is the heart of any restaurant and that doesn't change with to-go, says Tripoli. Some regular menu items may be a bad idea to offer if they don't hold well. Adding the convenience of takeout to an existing concept is a very good idea, he says, if it adds revenue in a way that adds value to the brand. But it can become a bad idea quite quickly if the actual menu items become a poor representation of your concept once they are opened in your guest's home.

Have you planned how guests are going to take out entire meals so they are as appetizing when they arrive home as when they left your kitchen? Takeout packaging must maintain the quality and integrity of the food, which means containers should be durable to prevent leaking and resist breaking. Food items and utensils should be correctly packed and stacked in bags or boxes. Packaging that allows for reheating is a major plus.

Tripoli believes that the same care one takes in presenting a plate inside the restaurant has now become the expectation for it to appear once the guest gets it home. This has led to an increase in demand for better packaging. The old three-compartment Styrofoam hinged-top container has given way to proper heat holding, better venting, paper and plastic containers of various shapes and sizes.- This increases the opera- tor's expense and creates a storage issue in the takeout staging area.

Do you have sufficient staff to manage the variety of duties required for seamless take-out service? Take-away requires dedicated staff to take phone calls, write-up, or punch in orders for the kitchen, package food to travel, and transact the payment with the customer, Bartlett notes. Dedicated carry-out staff is required during most meal service periods.- Small mom-and-pop shops can squeak by with an extra server for periods when carry- out is known to be heavy.- Operators should be able to count on higher-paid staff to do the complex transactional work of customer service at the carry-out, he adds, taking and assembling orders, handling money and ensuring accuracy, all for fewer, or no, tips.

There is typically no additional labor required for the back of the house or management, Tripoli continues, So doing takeout correctly can be a win-win in this area. There is a need for specific take-out station training, he adds, such as item-presentation photographs and shift checklists that prompt staff to remember incidental items like condiments, side items, dressings, paper products, thank you notes, marketing flyers, and more. Having someone get all the way to their home or office and then notice they didn't receive the sauce on the side is unacceptable.

I suggest adding a marketing piece to each takeout order by inserting a thank you card with a flyer promoting upcoming events, and placing a colorful logo sticker on each container lid, Tripoli says. These items will require a little room in this area.

Operators Weigh In on the Subject

American Pie Pizza in Little Rock, Arkansas, has offered both dine-in and carry-out since debuting in January 2004. With delivery being added by a lot of operations using third-party services, Melody Williford, the co-owner along with Tamsye Dodson, finds it important to have your carry-out mastered before you start delivery. Packaging, for example, is very important, and something most people don't truly consider when sending a product out the door.

American Pie features a large sit-down area and an exhibition kitchen with a counter around it. At the end of the counter, facing the door, is its POS register for carry-out or for a dine-in person who doesn't want to, or can't wait on their ticket, Williford explains. Being open and having everything in view helps us tremendously. Our kitchen (staff) or manager catches all walk-in to-go traffic at the register." Approximately 30% of the establishment's business is to-go. We encourage people to call ahead for their orders, and now that we have online ordering we encourage that, as well,- Williford says. That way their food is ready, hopefully, when they walk in the door, and we can greet them and get them on their way quickly. The servers in the meantime are taking care of the sit-down customers.

Williford believes that any casual concept can benefit from adding takeout to their dine-in service. It's easy, but thought needs to be given to takeout containers as well as the logistics of where you are going to keep the food hot and/or cold.

Doing both makes logistics a little more tricky, she finds, "but once the kitchen gets use to the change, I think it's another facet to the business. She warns that you need someone watching your walk-in traffic. If you don't, they will get upset about not being able to get waited on. Depending on how you do it, you can get either your hostess or bartender to watch your walk-in traffic."

Williford feels that all casual concepts should combine dine-in and takeout. People want the convenience, and with online ordering and third-party delivery service, I think everyone should be taking advantage of those sales, it makes sense to let people walk in the door to takeout, as well.

Main says the best takeout/delivery system he has ever seen is at City Wok, a Los Angeles-based emerging chain. Founder Stuart Davis has forgotten more than I know.

The idea of successful takeout and delivery starts and ends with two things," says Davis. "The first is the operator's ability to execute, both from a logistical standpoint and an operational one. The other, more importantly, is how the concept is perceived in the mind of its consumer.

The restaurant must be equipped with a layout that is conducive to smooth throughput and a staff that is well trained and knowledgeable about the dynamics of takeout and delivery.

Davis believes that other than upscale fine dining, it is always a good idea to offer guests the option of taking food out or having it delivered. At City Wok, we've built our business around 100-seat dining areas with a separate take-out counter that also handles delivery.

Moderately-priced restaurants, especially those with little or no alcohol service, will never produce large checks in the dining room, Davis suggests. However, takeout and delivery orders do. People tend to over-order for takeout and delivery. The only limitation is the amount of food that the facility can put out during the day. You are not limited by your 100 seats. The entire neighborhood is your dining room.

The only time that Davis considers it unwise for a restaurant to attempt this is when the design does not promote or is unable to handle it, or the management and staff are not adept at it. Otherwise, not doing it leaves significant dollars on the table.- In fact, he adds, City Wok does 53% of its sales through takeout and delivery. He concedes, of course, that having what he calls the three-pronged attack- of dine-in, takeout, and delivery is always challenging.

Management must be savvy and aware of all three arms at once. The phones and tablets are ringing, guests are lined up at the takeout counter to either order or pick up, delivery time quotes need to be overseen, guests are waiting for a table, servers are backed up, etc.

The process clearly calls for careful management. A smart leadership team is prepared and proactive, Davis says, and must see to it that, for instance, stations are stocked with the appropriate materials, and that everyone is on the same page with time quotes for delivery and takeout. The best way to upset guests is to misquote the delivery or pick-up time. The online/app ordering platforms are a big help in this regard.

Looking Ahead

Tripoli and his colleagues expect there to be growing interest in receiving take-out from favorite neighborhood independent restaurants due to our ever-growing attraction for convenience, and interest in dining better. If operators can add special, designated parking places and do curbside pick-up, they place themselves one step ahead of their competition.

He adds that it is important to remember that revenue growth doesn't simply come from adding more customers. It is more easily obtained by having existing customers use you for more occasions, and getting them to select you for their convenient eat-in evening, or lunch at the office."

Bartlett also believes that the phenomenon will grow. Millennials want to order food online and pick-up when ready.

Susskind agrees, noting that any operator who wants to do a takeout business should consider having a separate pickup area/process. Takeout is a growing trend, and this should not be ignored by operators.- And neither should the necessary steps to make the experience as seamless as possible.


WORDS OF WISDOM:
Selecting Online Ordering Applications

Jim Garrett, CEO of Snapfinger, a nationwide destination for online and mobile food ordering from thousands of restaurants, advises restaurant owners to first determine their mobile strategy when choosing the best application ("app"), including online ordering, for their restaurant business.

The chains have forged the way with this technology. Take advantage of their efforts, says Garrett, who recommends that independent operators who want to research apps identify those restaurants that are using them well, and see if you can emulate them with an affordable solution. If an app can sustain a chain's high volume and is integrated into the restaurant's operating platform, it should be a good example of what to do.

More likely, as an independent startup, you don't have a cadre of support staff to incorporate these applications and platforms, and you are going to have to hire outside consultants. Single-unit owner/operators should rely on peer referrals and research on restaurant operation blogs, social media sites, trade publications, and input from their state restaurant association, and research available from the National Restaurant Association at Restaurant.org.