WHEN IT COMES TO TAKEOUT, full-service restaurants are losing ground. Mainstream supermarkets and quick-service rivals have made meals to-go more appealing, and specialty retailers like Whole Foods are nudging quality levels and choices closer to the restaurant experience.
If you haven't figured out how to make your food travel well and how to cater to guests who have neither the time to cook nor enjoy a leisurely meal on the premises, you're ignoring reality. A Mintel study from last year found that younger diners in particular rely on takeout and delivery to help manage busy schedules, kids and demanding careers. Customers under 35 are much more likely to buy prepared food versus the general population, Mintel found.
“There is a huge opportunity in takeout meals and prepared foods for both supermarkets and restaurants,” says Ann Hanson, an executive director at the NPD Group, a market research firm. “Consumers are not going to wake up tomorrow with more time on their hands and the urge to cook. In the end, it will be about meeting the consumer's need for convenience.”
How do you satisfy this yen for convenience without sacrificing product quality? Let us count the ways.
The owner of Inovasi, a fine dining restaurant in suburban Chicago, opened Wisma, a “sustainable food store,” in the space next door about a year ago. The spinoff, which means “home,” offers affordable, easy-to-serve meals freshly prepared in a style similar to what one would find at the parent restaurant. Grab-and-go main courses include selections such as Serrano ham-wrapped chicken confit, lamb stew and organic red Inca quinoa. Charcuterie and cheeses including artisan Spanish chorizo, pepperoni, pistachio pate and Cypress Grove Purple Haze chevre are available, as are soups and sandwiches, “schmears, snacks and extras,” pastas, salads and desserts. “Business has been amazing,” says executive chef/owner John des Rosiers. He has already opened a second suburban location and hopes to launch five to six stores each year going forward.
While the menus at the stores and the restaurant are not the same, they do share the same purveyors. Recently, by popular demand, Inovasi-branded items have started showing up in the Wisma stores.
A number of prominent chefs have opened stripped-down sandwich shops near their flagship restaurants. One of the better known is Grahamwich, Graham Elliot's casual space located near his eponymous high-profile spot in Chicago. The sandwich store is outfitted with a single communal table and orders are cash only. The banh mi, Reuben, grilled cheese and other handheld constructions are wrapped in brown butcher paper, no doubt to encourage portability. In L.A. Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio recently opened the seat-free ink. sack sandwich shop next door to his higher-profile ink. The lines are out the door.
Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, a 17-unit group in Southern California and Nevada, is bridging the gap between frozen grocery store pizza and the hot-from-the-oven pizzeria variety with take-home pizza kits. The $5 kits include a ball of dough, a jar of pizza sauce and cheese. The kits are made with organic, locally or regionally grown ingredients when possible. They have been sold for the last few years at every unit during February as a Valentine's Day promotion; recently, one unit began offering them year-round.
In Toronto, chef and TV food show host Mark McEwan went straight for the competition's throat last year when he opened McEwan Foods, a 22,000-square-foot gourmet grocery. The store sells the same smoked salmon that's on the menu at one of his restaurants, North 44, and platters of roast beets and braised short ribs that can be ordered from another restaurant, One. The best sellers in the grocery, not surprisingly, are clones of dishes from his restaurants.
Another Toronto chef, Eran Marom, built a counter at the front of his Marron Bistro restaurant where he sells kosher charcuterie between meal periods.
Food delivery, long a staple in New York, is exploding in other locations as gas prices rise and consumers look to save time. But it's no longer limited to pizza and Chinese food. Several San Francisco units of Johnny Rockets, the diner chain, offers free bicycle deliver for $10 minimum orders. A custom-painted vintage bicycle parked out front advertises the service.
Wow Bao, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises concept that specializes in Asian steamed buns, also delivers via bike from its four Chicago locations; orders from outlying areas travel by van. Orders are taken online or via Wow Bao's Facebook page. Each of the locations delivers 10-20 orders per day; executive v.p. Geoff Alexander suspects that most delivery sales are for office lunches. Food is delivered using the same packaging as in the restaurants (where most orders are takeout anyhow) and is kept warm in thermal packs emblazoned with the Wow Bao logo.
In the less-is-more category, Thomas Monaghan, the retired founder of Domino's Pizza, recently announced he is testing a burger delivery business as a possible franchise vehicle. Monaghan will call the operation Gyrene Burger (a nickname for Marines; Monaghan served in the Corps) and plans to open the first location in Naples, FL. It will sell only two burgers — no sides, no drinks — in two choices, one with ketchup, mustard and pickles, the other with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Priced at under $6, the two burgers will feature double beef patties, cheese and bacon. Gyrene Burger will offer pickup but no seating, and free delivery guaranteed within 15 minutes or less.
Famous for one or two signature items? Think about ways to send them home.
At Benoit, Alain Ducasse's Parisian bistro in New York, pastry chef Jeome Husson recently launched a “patisserie a porter” promotion that showcases traditional French cakes and tarts, along with American classics with a French spin. These sweet delicacies are displayed on an antique pastry trolley in the bistro and go home in classic patisserie boxes.
Ducasse's two Adour restaurants in Washington, DC and New York treat guests to macarons at the close of their meals; the two locations have started selling the popular desserts through their websites, and the location in New York offers pastry classes that teach amateur bakers how to produce the airy treats.
In San Francisco, La Mar Cebicheria offers lunch customers a quick, affordable taste to go at lunch. The popular Peruvian spot caters to office workers who don't always have time for a leisurely midday meal, so the kitchen assembles a lunch box that includes a sandwich, an alfajor cookie and a choice of salad or house-made chips for $9. Sandwich choices include roast beef, grilled chicken breast, seared tuna and a panko-breaded fish of the day.
“The idea of Café La Mar came about as a result of customers' requests for a quick bite to eat,” says chef de cuisine Dennis Arizu. “This way, customers can have the La Mar experience on the go.”
Picnics are fun, but they're even better when someone else stocks the basket. The Larder at Tavern, Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's spot in L.A.'s Brentwood neighborhood, offers several dinner picnic menus, perfect for guests attending events at the nearby Hollywood Bowl. They contain foods designed to travel well and be eaten al fresco at room temperature, and The Larder suggests wine pairings. A typical picnic, The Young Frenchman, includes a ficelle sandwich (prosciutto and butter or cheese and apple), Italian broccoli with garlic and chili, marinated beets, sweet potato chips and a chocolate chip and oatmeal cookie. The larder also sells olives, nuts, charcuterie and other baked goods. Larder recently opened a second location in the courtyard of an office building; Goin and Styne planned to provide retail takeout breakfast and lunch items there as well.
Suzanne Goss, owner and executive chef of Chicago's West Town Tavern, says takeout demand for her modern comfort dishes has grown along with guests' nesting instincts. “People now think of carryout as more than just pizza and Thai food,” she says. “Our average carryout order is $50 and usually includes two courses.” To ensure that the quality of takeout items doesn't suffer, the tavern invested in sturdy plastic microwavable containers. Packaging has also provided a marketing opportunity: Recently, West Town Tavern started packaging to-go items in cloth tote bags with the restaurant's logo. Guests who reuse the bags will get a discount.
“While the economy is adjusting, many people are limiting their entertainment budgets, but they don't want to give up everything,” Goss says, “Ordering carryout and eating at home saves money on wine, beer and baby sitters.”