March 2006 Edition
Curbside Sales Growth

If your customers love the food at your restaurant, it stands to reason that they’d enjoy it at home. A well-executed meal pick-up business can give restaurants an entry into the growing home meal replacement market.

 

“People aren’t preparing meals at home the way they once did,” says Aaron Allen, founder and CEO of Quantified Marketing Group, a full-service strategic marketing and public relations firm focused exclusively on the restaurant industry.

 

Instead, people who are pinched for time often find it a lot easier to buy prepared food. “But people don’t want just fast food anymore,” Allen says. “We want better meals.”Curbside and takeout service fit into that growing trend very nicely, he says.

 

Traditional takeout operations, in which the customer comes into the restaurant to pick up an order, often require a dedicated area within the restaurant where takeout service won’t disrupt in-house diners, but can still work efficiently. If possible, this is something that should be thought through at the architecture planning stage.

 

Another entry into the home meal replacement market that is gaining popularity is curbside pick-up: customers call their order in ahead, pull up to a designated parking area or pick-up zone, and a staff member brings their order out to their waiting car.

 

“For some chain operators, curbside pickup now accounts for as much as 9% to 11% of sales,” Allen says.“It can require very little investment,” he says. “It’s a great option for those businesses who can effectively execute it.”

 

However, if you’re thinking of just throwing some quick meals into to-go boxes, you may do more harm than good, Allen warns. 

Make sure the product people are taking home is one you would be proud to serve in your restaurant. A poorly thought-out curbside operation is unlikely to succeed, he says. Details count: think about containers, condiments, utensils, service.

 

Not all foods travel well. Limit your menu to those items that do. Offering the wrong products for pick up can actually damage the brand, Allen says. For example, if your specialty is a steak topped with crunchy fried onions, keep in mind that once it’s boxed up in a takeout container, the steam from the steak will make the onions unappetizingly soggy – not a specialty you’ll want to be known for.

 

Similarly, dishes that combine both hot and cold foods are notoriously difficult to transport.

 

Some menus translate to takeout more easily than others, but it’s important that your signature menu items are portable.

 

Make sure the curbside staff is trained for curbside operations: handling payments and cash, getting the right utensils and the right garnishes for each dish into the package, knowing when curbside customers have arrived. Many operators have training programs specific to curbside service that could be replicated for any operation.

 

In order to use your service, people have to know it’s available, so give some thought to marketing. Mention the service on your Web site, and let your in-house customers know about it, too.

The most important thing, is to keep in mind the old adage that you can never make it too easy for customers to buy your product.

 

The more convenience you can offer, the better. Curbside service can make all the difference because your customer doesn’t have to find a local parking spot, doesn’t have to get out of his or her car, doesn’t have to feel rain or wind, and doesn’t have to wrestle a toddler in and out of a car seat to pick up a dinner order.

 

With a well-executed curbside operation, it’s possible to achieve sales increases in the 10% range. Independent restaurants should take that into account because it’s a great way to boost sales.

There will be some crossover between restaurant customers and pick-up customers, but the service will help build a new customer base.

 

“There’s an overall top-line sales increase even though some in-restaurant sales may be cannibalized,” Allen says. But just as sit-down clients may use the curbside service, new curbside customers will also come into the restaurant. The service helps attract and “cross pollinate” customers.

 

“It’s going to affect the restaurant industry as a whole,” Allen says of the trend toward home meal replacement. “Operators should be figuring out if they should make this part of their business strategy.”