Since the pandemic, takeout orders have been skyrocketing in the restaurant industry. This includes not just quick-service operations but also fast casual and even fine dining. And, of late a growing number of noncommercial operators, like healthcare, college and even corporate foodservice, allow customers to order ahead and pick up their food.
“Traditionally, before the pandemic, most places that had pickup stations were casual-dining concepts like Chili’s that had a pickup window or a side door for customers to pick up their to-go orders,” says George Perry, director of design, Innovative Foodservice Design Team, Tampa, Fla. “In order for restaurants to stay in business during COVID, when indoor seating couldn’t be accommodated, most shifted to a pickup or delivery model. This allowed operators to continue getting revenue in light of closed dining rooms. Now you can walk into any type of restaurant and there is a pickup area.”
The early adopters of takeout were restaurants that could handle the phone orders, according to Mark Moeller, founder and restaurant consultant, Recipe of Success, Westport, Conn. “It is easier for restaurants to put items out for pickup to speed up service since customers can just grab their order and go,” he says. “They no longer need to wait in line or interact with anyone.”
How It Works
Foodservice operators need to decide what components their pickup areas will contain as well as the logistics
“Over time, these areas have become more sophisticated both on the front and back end,” Moeller says. “Restaurant operators need to look at how to best bag the products, whether refrigerators or hot holding is needed, etc.”
With pickup, customers typically order their food online or through an app and prepay. “The process depends on how the restaurant is set up with regards to its POS system and if there is an app or they are working through a third party, such as DoorDash or Uber Eats,” Perry says. “For the most part, restaurants hold takeout orders in a designated area, stapling a receipt with the customer’s name on it to the bag. When everything is handled through an app or online, customers just walk in, grab their food and are on their way.”
Restaurant pickup areas can be simple with a few tables or shelving to contain orders or more sophisticated by incorporating hot or cold holding units or state-of-the-art pickup lockers. “Some equipment manufacturers have been forward thinking, developing heated lockers for holding products,” Perry says.
Pickup lockers are even becoming a substitute for drive-thrus, with some QSRs looking to implement more of these systems in combination with online or app ordering to eliminate long lines. “Drive-thrus have been a great option during the pandemic, but pickup stations are less labor intensive, and the opportunity to make mistakes is decreased with online or app ordering,” Moeller says.
When it comes to equipment apart from shelves, tables and lockers, these areas may incorporate heat lamps or food warmers for hot food, refrigerated display cases and self-serve beverage stations.
Location, Location, Location
Pickup areas typically incorporate signage and are located in a segregated location close to the restaurant’s entrance so customers can quickly and easily walk in, grab food and walk out the door with minimal human contact and the least number of steps.
“These spaces are generally located in the sightline of service, so if it’s fast food, it’s within sight of the front counter, and if it’s full-service, pickup areas are by the hostess station,” Perry explains. “That way, if a customer is unsure which order is theirs, they can ask for assistance.”
As far as location, Moeller says its preferable that staff, rather than customers, take the extra steps to access these areas. “Restaurants need to have a separate pickup line, so people aren’t crowding around lockers, shelving or tables,” he explains. “One of the best ways to do this is to build a pickup station on the side of the kitchen.”
This way, staff can easily shift from preparing the order to packaging it and placing it in a locker or cubicle or on a shelf or table. “We have a client that is minimizing steps by building the pickup area on the left-hand side of the kitchen,” Moeller says. “Customers can walk in, place their order and pick up food on the opposite side of those walking in for sit-down service. With this setup, pickup doesn’t integrate with dine-in.”
Although this format has become more common with QSRs and fast-casual operations, full-service restaurants can adopt it as well. “There can be a quality difference when pushing food out for pickup, so full-service operators need better timing,” Moeller explains. “Sandwiches will be fine when put out 10 minutes early, but if it’s a steak that has to be cooked a certain way and it continues cooking when off the grill, this is more challenging.”
Integrating pickup areas into fine-dining establishments can be a challenge with special considerations. “Pickup stations don’t typically fit the design elements of higher-end full-serve restaurants because customers are looking for a more sophisticated experience,” Moeller says. “That’s why these establishments tend to have separate doors and areas for pickup orders.”
Still, it may be difficult for operators working with smaller footprints who are looking to maximize indoor space for those dining in.
Challenges and Predictions
Pickup stations are not difficult to set up; it’s the execution that can be the most problematic aspect. Operators need to determine where and how staff will process these orders. Will there be a separate area for on-site and takeout customers like with catering?
“It’s important to understand how these orders will be executed when they come in,” Moeller says. “If you don’t have a dedicated line or enough ingredients on hand that are pre-prepped, you can’t push orders out as fast.”
Orders coming in online or via an app don’t necessarily need to take precedence as they often have a bigger window of time to complete the transaction compared with on-site orders. “Operators generally have a 15- to 20-minute window with dine-in compared to more than 30 minutes with pickup,” Moeller explains. “And there are less complexities when people order online. Also, having a longer preparation window means less labor is needed since it doesn’t need to be attended to as quickly.”
Also, order takers and cashiers are not necessary with online or app ordering and payment. “The only worry with takeout is if the wrong orders are picked up accidently,” Moeller says. “But QR codes or secured pickup lockers will ensure this doesn’t occur. AI not only provides better communication but also can help prevent mistakes and theft.”
Even though takeout items can be ready for pickup in 15 minutes, there is no guarantee these will be retrieved by the customer in a timely manner. “The issue becomes the length of time food is waiting to be picked up,” Perry says. He predicts health departments will eventually regulate pickup orders, limiting the amount of time food is sitting in ambient conditions. “How can you hold hot and cold food for pickup in a safe manner? This hasn’t been enforced yet, but I sense at some point, it will become a major issue for health departments.”
To address the challenges around food safety and quality, pickup locker manufacturers have developed systems with temperature controls for hot and cold food as well as implementing takeout containers that help preserve food quality.
“Quality control can be an issue for restaurants that have not offered takeout in the past,” Perry says. “They are trying to find the best way to present product without degrading how it looks or tastes or the temperature. Also, they are looking for the best containers to preserve and transport items while not losing the aesthetic of the product. For example, if I’m a Mexican restaurant, burritos can just go in Styrofoam containers. But for fine dining with a steak and side dish, presentation is everything. Restaurants are experimenting to find the best way to do it.”
Looking ahead, new technology geared to further improve the takeout experience will continue emerging. “QR codes, apps and online ordering have evolved in the last couple of years, and there will continue to be more electronic communication,” Moeller says. “POS systems can now send customers a text to let them know their order is ready, and this type of technology will become even more intuitive as time goes on and consumers are willing to provide more data about themselves and their expectations.”
Perry predicts takeout will continue to be a mainstay in restaurants. “There’s a reason ghost kitchens are becoming so popular,” he says. “It’s the trend that is going through the industry now. The pickup counter option is traditional restaurants’ way to battle against ghost kitchen concepts; they don’t want to lose that revenue.”
For operators, it’s important to not overthink the process, but rather develop programs that are concise and organized. “The messaging needs to be clear to keep people moving in and out quickly and with the least interaction as possible,” Moeller says. “That’s the sign of a good pickup station.”