Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


The Biggest Game in Town: Off-Premises

A quick view of what’s happening with delivery, curbside pickup and any other variation of off-premises an operator can imagine.

The foodservice narrative has shifted from “pivoting” to describing changes in the marketplace as “an acceleration of what was already happening.” Define it how you like — many, many operators continue to move forward with new designs, tweaks to operating platforms and additional revenue streams. A roundup of those changes paints a clear picture of the current thinking among operators.

Outback Steakhouse Rethinks Takeout Space

Curbside pickup is nothing new for Outback Steakhouse, which first offered this service back in the 1990s. The Tampa, Fla.-based casual chain recently ramped things up by increasing takeout space for added efficiency. With its growing off-premises business, the chain incorporated a Take Away room in its newly designed sites. Replacing the small space next to its emergency exit that formerly accommodated curbside pickup, this newly imagined 55-square-foot area includes more POS systems, shelving and staging areas for better flow.

off SAJJ Mediterranean 1SAJJ Mediterranean Repurposes Commissary Kitchen

SAJJ Mediterranean found a new use for its large commissary kitchen when catering orders dropped due to pandemic-related cancellations of large events across the San Francisco Bay Area and office buildings shutting down. The company transformed the space into a fulfillment center for its direct-to-consumer SAJJ Market, which combines grocery store shopping with restaurant-quality food in an online ordering and delivery format.

SAJJ Market offers ready-made items like meal kits and a la carte offerings, plus ready-to-cook items like premarinated proteins, falafel mix, tabbouleh and soup kits, fresh produce boxes and Mediterranean spices. Consumers can order any of these items via the SAJJ website and receive them via delivery the next day. Staff vacuum seal and package all the items at its commissary before delivering them in thermal bags. SAJJ employs a hub-and-spoke model; after staff package Market orders in the commissary, employees at the SAJJ restaurant nearest to the customer executes delivery. Additionally, SAJJ partnered with The Farmers On Wheels, an online farmers market, to create Fresh Produce Boxes with locally sourced fruits and vegetables delivered the next day.

Smokey Bones Unveils Virtual Restaurant Brands

Aventura, Fla.-based Smokey Bones made off-premises customers a strategic priority at its 60 restaurants back in 2019, recognizing the revenue stream was a growth driver in casual dining. To differentiate Smokey Bones from a crowded casual dining field, the chain’s management team developed a strategic plan that included an increased focus on varying its service options, marketing, technology and promotions. This led to Smokey Bones launching virtual restaurant and ghost kitchen initiatives that same year.

Building upon the success of that program, Smokey Bones developed a pair of virtual restaurant concepts: The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience. The former offers two wing styles, smoked and jumbo breaded, available with 14 sauces. The latter features premium half-pound burger options not available on Smokey Bones’ traditional menus, including a build-your-own option as well as signature items such as The Big Kahuna, The Experienced Burger and The Keto. Instead of working with third-party ghost kitchen operators, culinary staff produce these items out of Smokey Bones’ 61 locations.

Moving forward, however, Smokey Bones will not go it alone with respect to its virtual restaurant concepts. “In partnership with Kitchen United, we launched a ghost kitchen in downtown Chicago as the final piece to this program,” says James O’Reilly, Smokey Bones’ CEO. “Due to the pandemic, we accelerated this program and are committed to launching technology to support our off-premises strategy.”

When its dining rooms closed during the pandemic, Smokey Bones activated an online ordering platform, digital curbside ordering, email and digital marketing efforts, and contactless ordering and payment. It also instituted a pop-up drive-thru where customers can place orders online or call them in and pick up food on-site.

This past summer, Smokey Bones tapped into its teams’ creativity, offering parking lot barbeque parties at its restaurant sites. “It started in one restaurant where the dining room was closed. We put up a large catering tent in the parking lot with socially distant tables and sold $5 pulled pork sandwiches and full meals,” O’Reilly says. “It was so well received, we expanded it to include traveling smokers and parking lot parties almost every weekend.”

Virtual Concepts Keep Dog Haus Kitchens Busy

To widen the chain’s presence on delivery apps, the founders of Dog Haus developed additional restaurant concepts, leveraging, for the most part, existing menu and cooking platforms. The founders developed The Absolute Brands as the umbrella company, which consists of eight virtual brands that operate out of Dog Haus kitchens and require only minimal changes to the chain’s food mix. Customers who order food from Bad Mutha Clucka and Bad Ass Breakfast Burritos actually order from Dog Haus, even if they might not realize it. After testing this initiative in Dog Haus’ ghost kitchen locations, the company has now made it available at its brick-and-mortar locations.

Wow Bao Expands To-Go Via Other Operators

Thinking outside the box, Wow Bao expanded its reach and revenue stream by allowing other restaurants to cook and sell its Chinese steamed buns, pot stickers, dumplings and rice bowls solely for delivery. Participating operators pay Wow Bao for the food and packaging as well as any third-party delivery service fees, then retain the profits. As a result of this program, 100 restaurants around the country now offer Wow Bao’s products. Its goal was to sell $2,000 worth of product in a week, with an average commission of 25%, leading to a 40% profit for the chain, per the company.

The chain launched the program in January 2020. The program requires steaming capability to prepare the menu items. Participating restaurants also have access to
a training portal to help get things up and running.

Captain D’s Adds Express Model

In mid-November 2020, Nashville-based Captain D’s added its newest restaurant prototype, Express. It comes with a significantly smaller size compared to traditional models, and the 550-plus store seafood chain is looking for the new design to help drive development within metropolitan areas with high population densities. The prototype reflects guest feedback showcasing an increased demand for enhanced drive-thru and takeout options. The biggest change: no indoor dining room.

The prototype includes a drive-thru and walk-up windows. Compared to the chain’s standard 44-seat, 1,964-square-foot model, the Express design shrunk just about in half with an average footprint of 960 square feet. Due to the compact footprint, Express models also come with reduced startup costs for franchisees, down by as much as 32%, per the company.

off Chipotle Digital Kitchen2Yet Another Digital Extension for Chipotle

Chipotle opened the doors of its first digital-only restaurant, called Chipotle Digital Kitchen, in November 2020 near a military academy in Highland Falls, N.Y. The smaller prototype allows Chipotle to expand to more urban locations that would not traditionally support a full-size restaurant, per the company.

The traditional front service line does not exist in the Digital Kitchen concept and guests must place orders via the Chipotle app, online or through a third-party service. Guests access the lobby to pick up orders; a separate lobby with dedicated entrance handles catering orders.

To facilitate the growing number of transactions from its app, online orders and the like, the company added a second makeline to more than 98% of its locations. Chipotle refers to this as its digital super kitchen. This second line mirrors the front line in its composition of pans and capacity to hold all the ingredients a customer would see on the front line.

It was originally set up primarily for catering; now, the second line handles digital orders only. 

Starbucks Fast-Tracks Its Pickup Stores

The acceleration of Starbucks latest format — Starbucks Pickup — came to light in June 2020, with a note from the coffee powerhouse that the Starbucks app would power this convenience-led format. The order-and-pay-ahead push also applies to curbside pickup and even drive-thru locations. Starbucks plans to renovate store layouts at high-volume locations to add a separate counter for mobile orders.

The chain plans to blend Starbucks Pickup stores with traditional Starbucks stores in dense metropolitan markets, said Kevin Johnson, president and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company in a letter to Starbucks U.S. partners. The former will appeal to on-the-go customers and thus reduce crowding in cafes, he noted, and improve the “sit-and-stay” experience for “third place” occasions. The chain did a test run on two Starbucks Pickup stores, one in Penn Plaza in Manhattan and another in Toronto’s financial district, before moving forward with the prototype. The original timeframe around the rollout was 3 to 5 years; the chain accelerated that development plan to 18 months. That plan “requires that we access our existing portfolio with respect to renovations, relocations and closures,” Johnson said.

off la Madeleine Park Districtla Madeleine to Build Out a Range of Smaller Footprints

Dallas-based la Madeleine French Bakery & Café was already working on a drive-thru prototype when the pandemic hit. Its Petite Market and Bakery prototype, expected to open in Addison, Texas, by February, will include the 86-store chain’s first-ever drive-thru, an inaugural on-site bakery, plus new grab-and-go menu items.

The 4,180-square-foot location (historically stores range from 5,000 to 6,000 square feet) will offer customers a choice of service styles: grab-and-go, dine-in, curbside pickup or drive-thru. The on-site bakery prototype will also include an upgraded fresh bread program. Current plans call for one or two additional stores with this model.

As la Madeleine’s business started to shift toward off-premises over the past few years, the challenge with any prototype was in meeting the QSR expectations — namely speed of service — that come with a drive-thru. Because some menu items may require additional prep time, the design allocates specific parking spaces to accommodate guests who may have to briefly wait to receive their orders. Drive-thrus will be a component in all locations going forward, per a release from the chain.

la Madeleine also plans to shift its menu lineup with takeout and drive-thru in mind in what the chain calls more of a customized grab-and-go focus similar to its nontraditional outlets in airports and on college campuses. The enhanced la Madeleine 2.0 menu includes fresh sandwiches, salads, charcuterie, snack items and tarts.

Simultaneously, la Madeleine has defined a much smaller footprint prototype — ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 square feet — the first of which opened in July 2020 in a mixed-used development in downtown Dallas called Park District. The back of the house also was retooled to accommodate the smaller space, with dry storage going vertical and undercounter units replacing walk-in refrigerators and freezers.

Chicken Salad Chick Franchisees Experiment with Pop-Ups

As a result of pandemic-related restaurant closures, Chicken Salad Chick franchisees began coordinating local meetup spots across schools, parking lots, supermarkets, etc. The sites served as convenient pickup locations for guests who preordered items online. The initiative widened the chain’s audience to neighboring towns where the chain does not yet have a presence.

Ronald and Kathleen Ram, franchise owners of two Chicken Salad Chick locations in Katy, Texas, took this idea a step further. While dining rooms across the country were shut down due to government restrictions and the opening of their second restaurant was postponed due to the coronavirus, the Rams decided to continue to build local brand visibility by coordinating drop-offs of menu items to communities around Katy. They delivered more than 10,000 containers of the chain’s chicken salad to 25 neighboring communities during the closures and also donated more than 400 meals to frontline workers.

The Rams attribute this initiative to the success of their new Katy Cinco Ranch location, which opened in June 2020. “We call these drop-off sites pop-ups, which we started doing last March and continue today,” says Kathleen Ram. “We first encouraged customers to text friends and get a bunch of orders that we’d drop at someone’s porch. We would make several deliveries a day, with one week having 22 drop-offs. It increased our sales substantially.”

The Rams use their Facebook page to announce pop-up locations. Customers who reach out receive a Google doc to complete orders. That data transfers to the Rams’ POS system. A team member then reaches out by phone for payment information. If orders total 300 or more for a pop-up site, the Rams rent a refrigerated truck to transport the food.

“We pick large parking lots by movie theaters, churches or schools for food drop-offs, setting it up like a drive-thru,” Kathleen Ram says. “Customers get an order number to put in the window of their car, and we stick their food in the trunk.”

The Rams schedule 6 to 10 pop-ups a week between their 2 stores, each one lasting about 20 minutes and accommodating as many as 80 cars in that time period.

Because the pop-ups have been successful in building brand awareness in target markets, the franchise owners have added four more of these temporary sites. “We’re also able to capture pop-up customers’ e-mails to send reminders when we’re back in their area,” Kathleen Ram says.

Contactless Systems Dominate at Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken

Fully automated transactions are now the norm at Durham, N.C.-based Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken. The 16-store chain replaced its cash registers with self-serve kiosks for on-site ordering. Next up, the chain plans to incorporate a contactless system where customers will use a code to pick up their orders from a heated locker. The chain plans to beta test the concept at corporate sites before a system-wide rollout. While online orders and third-party delivery historically comprised 30% of business at stores, the chain reports those ordering platforms now represent up to 80% of orders.

off Roy Rogers Rt. 26 CurbsideRoy Rogers Advances BOH Drive-Thru Support

Frederick, Md.-based Roy Rogers has continuously tweaked drive-thru operations. Recent advancements include a redesigned drive-thru menu board in 2020 to organize items the way customers typically order their food — entrees first, followed by sides, beverages and dessert. The chain also changed its offerings to ensure these items were convenient and portable to eat on the run. As a result, items like its breakfast platter are expected to come off the drive-thru menu in the next round of updates.

In addition, Roy Rogers reorganized its back-of-the-house operations to drive efficiency, including instituting self-described “lockdown periods” to ensure staff remained at their designated stations during times of heavier customer traffic. As a result, Roy Rogers reduced its drive-thru service time per car to 215 seconds as of December 2020, down from 268 seconds. The chain’s drive-thru business also increased from 48% of sales pre-pandemic to between 65% and 75% as of early January 2021, per the company. Roy Rogers now seeks to add digital drive-thru menus as a way to further enhance efficiency and customer service.

The Hummus & Pita Co. Pushes Vertical Market

Through a partnership with Goldbelly, which ships restaurant fare nationwide, The Hummus & Pita Co. launched a variety of DIY ready-to-cook meals and created a new vertical market for selling its products. These do-it-yourself kits provide all the ingredients necessary to produce The Hummus & Pita Co.’s menu items at home, such as The Meatballs Kit (with Turkish or vegan meatballs), Shawarma Kit (regular or vegan), The Falafel Kit, and the Chickpea Chiller Kit (a vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free dessert hummus shake).