Meals made to order for families on the go

Takeout: More restaurants are responding to a call for convenience and are increasing their profits in the process.

April 16, 2004|By Tracy Swartz | Tracy Swartz,SUN STAFF

Every week, Scott Wilson drives to the Outback Steakhouse in Ellicott City, pulls his green truck to the curb and waits to pick up dinner for his family of five.

Inside, two takeout waitresses rush to take phone orders while another runs Wilson's food out to his Chevrolet.

This steakhouse, one of the chain's busiest outlets in the nation, logs 50 to 60 curbside takeout orders each weekday and 150 orders each weekend day, so workers try to keep traffic moving.

"Its very convenient," said Wilson, 47, a Marriottsville contractor.

Wilson, who paid $76 for his family's meal, is one of a growing crowd that is choosing to neither cook nor dine out but instead pick up restaurant meals curbside.

Customers say it's quick and allows them to eat higher-quality food at home with their families. For busy restaurants, the extra income from selling meals at the curb is irresistible. So, restaurants are racing to implement or increase their curbside service.

Chains like Applebee's and Chili's have joined Outback in tapping into this call for convenience.

Bob Evans Farms is testing the program in seven restaurants. Pizzeria Uno started curbside service last month in 77 restaurants, including six in Maryland.

At six out of 10 restaurants with average tabs between $8 and $25, takeout represented a larger portion of sales in 2002 than in 2000, a survey by the National Restaurant Association shows.

Takeout is "a hot area of growth" for the industry, an association official said.

The association's 2002 survey also found that at least half of all 18- to 44-year-olds would use a drive-through if it were available at their favorite table-service restaurant. The same survey showed that more than half of this age group was interested in home delivery with a separate area in the restaurant to order and pick up takeout food.

"With increased time demands on consumers these days, the natural development process is that consumers start using table-service fare more on an off-premises basis," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research and information services for the D.C.-based restaurant group.

The curbside trend began five years ago at an Outback in Orlando, Fla.

Parking was tight so the owner found a way to improve takeout service. His plan: Customers call in their orders and car description, and servers deliver the meals to diners waiting curbside.

Curbside sales grew quickly and now make up roughly 10 percent of Outback's revenue, or about $250 million, said Paul Avery, corporate president of Outback Steakhouse Inc.

"A lot of companies thought we were nuts when we started rolling it out," Avery said.

"The plans are to continue to execute it very well," he said, "and to continue to appeal to the curbside takeaway customer with the use of technology, packaging and ordering systems that make it more efficient as the business grows."

John R. Burke, president of the Foodservice & Packaging Institute in Falls Church, Va., said food packages are becoming more sophisticated as restaurants try to mirror the dining room experience.

Burke said takeout containers used by fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's only have to withstand the drive to the end of the parking lot, while curbside containers have to be able to make it home.

The challenge, Burke says, is for restaurants to determine what containers will best insulate their meals and what types of foods can be packaged. Bruce Harte, director of Michigan State University's School of Packaging, said packages should be designed so they don't deform or become soggy, causing spillage.

Harte said researchers also are developing multi-sectional containers with insulation for hot and cold foods. Once a hot food cools in packages, it can lose its flavor or texture.

Crispy and fried foods have problems transporting in to-go containers, said Norman Faiola, chairman of Syracuse University's nutrition and hospitality management department. When a fried food is made, it cools shortly before it is placed in the container, Faiola said. In the container, he said, the food will emit heat and cause condensation.

"Anything that's crispy on the plate ... will be less than excellent by the time you get it home," Faiola said.

Fried foods aren't on the menu at Alan Thompson's restaurants. At Off the Grill, a Tennessee-based chain, home delivery and carryout make up 75 percent of business. When Thompson launched his restaurants five years ago, he tailored his menu to include meals he found travel well.

Outback offers its entire menu to go. Curbside business accounts for up to $5,000 a night at the Outback in Ellicott City. The steakhouse will be expanding its curbside takeout room two feet to accommodate the increasing number of orders.

Three times a month, Denise Smith of Baltimore picks up her Outback food without leaving her Chevrolet Cavalier.

"I like the food, but I don't like to wait in the restaurant," said Smith, 45.

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