Barry Skown, Khaled Halabi
May 14, 2020
Takeout and Delivery… Before, Now, and Later
Takeout and Delivery… Before, Now, and Later

Takeout and delivery.  Seems simple enough, right?  And in light of the past few months, a godsend for shuttered restaurants and their patrons alike.  But even before this became the only way to eat “out”, takeout and delivery were having serious growing pains.   Mobile ordering has been the buzzword, the golden egg for increasing profits in an increasingly saturated industry.  But the brick and mortar locations have a hard time accommodating these sales from both a physical layout and an operations standpoint.

A Frustrating Experience

In late January, a colleague of mine went to dinner at one of his favorite quick-service, “healthy food” concept restaurants.  Here’s his recollection of his experience…

“As I entered the restaurant and got in the “order” line that travels in front of the grilling/assembly station and ends at the cashier station, I noticed that there was only 1 cashier on duty with about 40 customers already in the restaurant and about 6-8 of us in line.  After 10 minutes of waiting, I became frustrated that the line wasn’t moving at all…or at a snail’s pace.  Why?  Because the lone cashier was constantly being interrupted from taking orders from the customers in line by other people walking in to pick up their mobile order.  Each time, she had to process their order and payment and then retrieve their bag from the (literally) 2 dozen bags waiting on a side counter to the left of the cashier station.  

As I stood there watching this scene, another gentleman and I struck up a conversation about the wait and the process of the pre-order pick-up.  I said, “They don’t seem to be very organized tonight.”  And the gentleman replied, “Yeah…it’s all the pre-orders from Postmates and everyone coming in to pick them up.  We, the walk-ins, are just a distraction to the workers and all the rest of the mobile orders they’re dealing with.”  

And with that simple statement, he underscored the essence of why planning for takeout and delivery as an integral part of your operations and not as merely an add-on is essential to the success of your restaurant.

Then There was COVID-19

Here is where it gets tricky though.  COVID-19 happened.  Suddenly, restaurants found themselves in dire straits and the only way to stave off potential financial ruin is with takeout and delivery, whether this was already part of their operation or they needed to switch to this business model.   It’s been hard over the past 2 months to comply with social distancing in takeout lines, not to mention cookline staff.  How does this all work?  What needs to happen? What does the new business model look like for a restaurant, whether independent, chain, part of a hotel, part of a mixed-use space, or part of corporate feeding, to stay afloat during these uncertain times?

Plan Well for Takeout and Delivery

If you are planning to, or have already begun, staying open for your customers to offer takeout and/or delivery service, you need to ask yourself some questions to determine how your restaurant can accommodate this style of service and what modifications, if any, you need to make at your facility to make it successful.  What percentage of your sales will come from this segment?  How do you safeguard both your employees and the customers/delivery drivers coming in?  How do you make it time-efficient so people picking up don’t have to wait a long time?

Staffing is a Must

The first key element we recommend is review your staffing.  Just because the restaurant is not offering table-service to your customers right now doesn’t mean you can get by with having a single cashier/hostess person on duty (in addition to the kitchen production staff).  If your restaurant experiences high volume periods or days (think:  weekday lunch and/or weekend dinners), then on those shifts, someone has to process phone orders; someone has to process online orders; someone has to service the people picking up orders; and someone has to package and bag the food orders once the kitchen has cooked them.  All those tasks cannot be handled efficiently, nor effectively, by one person when the phone is ringing, online orders are coming through, and 5 people show up at the same time to pay and pick up their order.

In addition, every restaurant has now added “hold/transport times” to each order.  Whether the customer comes to pick up the order themselves, or a Door-Dash driver does, there is still a hold/transport time between the time the kitchen finishes cooking the order and the time it is picked up and taken home.  This extra time does not exist in a table-service environment, but it must be accounted for in terms of the final food quality once the customer does start eating.  So, if you’re now making the customer wait again at your restaurant once they arrive for the pick-up another 5, 10, or 15 minutes, you’ve just added hold time to the food your kitchen produced.  The quicker you get the customer on the road back home, the better your food will taste to them.  So, bottom line, you must staff your restaurant for the volume of business you expect to serve.

The same holds true for staffing the kitchen.  Is more staff needed and what are the costs associated with additional staff vs. the increase in sales from takeout and delivery?   While it is understandable to want to reduce labor costs as much as possible when the daily demand/sales are also reduced…skimping on the appropriate number of staff to serve a “takeout/delivery-only” service model may result in alienating more of your regular customers than if you had just stayed closed altogether.  Customer service is still customer service…regardless of whether the service person comes to your table or greets you behind a counter.

What’s the Plan?

Additionally, you may need to plan, or make room, for a large area for pre-order pickups.  A designated “expeditor” staff member should coordinate the delivery to the name on the bag.  This same area could also serve as the “mobile order pickup zone” to reduce the disruption from walk-in order guests and another staff person fielding phone and online orders.  Also think about where the Door-Dash and UberEats drivers will wait when they come to retrieve their orders.  Do they come inside to pick up orders or does a staff member bring them out to their cars?  Where and how do people wait?  Do those who pay online need to wait in the same line as those who pay at the counter?  Are there self-pay, kiosks? Is there a designated staff member to assist these people? All these questions need to be planned into the operation so that you have a smooth and successful operation.

And what does this added volume mean in terms of the production kitchen line and the staff needed to ensure takeout and delivery orders are produced on a timely basis to prevent the staff member on the phone quoting your customers a 45- or 60-minute wait?  The back of house equipment selection, depending on the type of operation, will need to be analyzed to determine what the best combination of equipment is to optimize the efficiency in catering to the additional takeout and delivery orders. In some cases, a whole section dedicated for outside orders might be the most viable option.

Focusing on the Now

No one has a crystal ball… certainly not us.  What we do have is years of operations and design experience that we try to apply to the collective understanding of the now.  We know things change in a nanosecond.  But we also know that for restaurants hanging on by a thread, there are temporary options that might see them through to healthier days ahead.

If you are doing takeout and delivery, do it well.  Your food is still your signature.  This means staff your kitchen at full capacity to produce the food.  And staff your cashiers/order-takers so that the food isn’t becoming “less than” while it sits waiting to be claimed.  If increasing your staffing to meet this style of service isn’t feasible for your financial model, think about streamlining your menu to your “best sellers” only and reduce the selection.

The Savvy Way to Overcome Occupancy Restrictions

How do you plan for what might be 25-50% occupancy restrictions for dine-in over the next several months?   If your State or Municipality is strictly enforcing “distancing” guidelines once restaurants are allowed to welcome “dine-in” customers again, one way to help improve drastically reduced sales of 50% or more is to extend the service period offered for each meal.  The downside to this is, of course, the increased number of hours the service staff works.  But consider two things:  most staff come in at least an hour before to “prep” prior to the service shift.  Perhaps that extra hour is now dedicated to producing sales.  Second, consider that you will only need 50% of your normal serving staff if only 50% of the restaurant tables are being utilized.

Another method of maximizing sales is the age-old server training technique of “upsell, upsell, and upsell some more.”  Remember, your customers have been cooped up at home for 2 months or more.  They are enjoying this new “freedom” of dining out in an atmosphere other than their own kitchen.  So, upsell those cocktails and bottles of wine!  Those desserts! Those appetizers for sharing (on separate plates of course)!  Increasing each table’s average check is a great way to improve sales and profits, not to mention well-deserved tips for the servers.

Become a Temporary Bodega

Offer well-selected grocery items bodega-style to increase your sales without utilizing your cook staff.  Pre-package favorite menu sauces, specialty items, baked goods for at-home use.  Prepare off-the-shelf essential items boxes as an impulse item for both online and in-restaurant shopping.  Or create an “ingredients fit for a chef’s meal” box complete with a step-by-step meal preparation video link by who else but your chef.  Wondering how much space to commit to this temporary fix?  That depends on whether you wish to offer these items online only for pick-up or if you can dedicate a portion of space to a retail environment and keep social distancing guidelines.

It’s Here for the Long-Haul

While we know that the takeout and delivery methods are here to stay…and definitely with us as the primary service method in the short-term, we also know, and are extremely confident that we will be able to sit in a restaurant with friends again.  How we focus on the “temporary” will determine the operation’s success in the here and now.  Thinking outside the box and making design and operations decisions based on strategies that will work for the short-term as well as the long-term will allow the operation to make it past the finish line.

By:  Barry Skown | Director of Management Advisory Services

Khaled Halabi | Project Manager, New York

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