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


Fine-Tuning Takeout Design

Location and logistics remain top considerations for a seamless off-premises experience. 

Online ordering and apps remain rife with potential, and some chains continue to explore ways to take this aspect of off-premises consumption to the next level.

After introducing its Chipotlane drive-thru lanes for customers to pick up digital orders from their cars, Chipotle expanded its food pickup options even further by adding walk-up windows at 40 urban locations. “Over the last few years, we have seen tremendous growth in off-premises dining and have innovated our pickup experience to drive access to our real food,” says Tabassum Zalotrawala, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based chain’s chief development officer. “After proving success with the Chipotlane concept in suburban areas, we conceptualized a walk-up window format for high foot-trafficked urban areas.”

Addressing what Zalotrawala calls a “key trend in digital-only restaurants,” Chipotle is testing two digital-only prototypes with no dining room or front line. The Chipotlane Digital Kitchen in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, exclusively serves guests through a Chipotlane and walk-up window, while its Chipotle Digital Kitchen in Highland Falls, N.Y., has a small lobby with mobile order pickup shelves and a separate entrance for guests with catering orders. This year, Chipotle will open a handful of Digital Kitchens and digital-forward locations in California, Ohio and the Washington, D.C., metro area.

functional Chipotle ShelvesChipotle uses a minimalistic design for customers picking up food.

No doubt, food pickup stations will play a central role in the success of such units given they promote convenience and speed. “Customers need access to these spaces quickly without walking through the entire restaurant or servery to pick up their food,” says Marleen St. Marie, project manager for foodservice designer Cini-Little. “It’s all about increasing sales of pickup orders while reducing congestion and traffic throughout the space.”

To generate optimum results, though, the design of the food pickup area must be convenient and efficient for both the guest and the staff, adds Juan Martinez, principal at Profitality Labor Guru. Efficiency of the guest path will drive more sales since it reduces friction from the guest side, while an efficient employee path reduces labor and necessary steps to get from the back of the house to the food pickup area in a timely manner.

When designing its food pickup areas, Chipotle seeks to address the unique needs of customers dining on- and off-premises, third-party delivery drivers and staff. “We carefully consider the crew member experience and guest journey when designing our [food pickup areas] to ensure our restaurants are efficient, intuitive and accessible,” Zalotrawala says.

This also is the case for Café Corazón, a Latin concept with three locations in Milwaukee, where to-go orders are a third of its business. “For our customer pickup area, we need to accommodate several orders at a time,” says Kaylee Pountney, Café Corazón’s regional general manager. “Our pickup orders are held behind the counter so we can control the food.”

Along with accessibility, the efficiency of food pickup areas relies on the effectiveness of mobile apps, online ordering and kiosks. “With apps and mobile ordering, it helps the kitchen get a better idea of how busy it’ll be during the lunch and dinner rush,” St. Marie notes. “It’s good to be mindful of flow and placement of this area in general since there is a reason that customers are picking up food [rather than taking the time to dine in].”

Carving Out Space

According to Martinez, more chain operators now incorporate food pickup stations into their new builds. “There is more of this happening in new designs, recognizing the growth of off-premises,” he says. “In the case of existing locations, a lot of effort and thought is happening to go back and add pickup areas, too.”

Consequently, Martinez continues to adapt his designs to be more accommodating of pickup areas. “We’re definitely incorporating redundant assembly station designs, where operators can separate the off-premises food prep from the on-premises in complete or partial pieces,” he says. “This design also needs to be able to flex between low hours of operations with a single line production system and segregated production that separates on- and off-premises at peak periods.”

functional Corazon 2To-go orders represent one-third of Café Corazón’s business. The concept prefers to keep off-premises orders within eyesight of an employee.The square footage typically dedicated for third-party delivery service pickups versus customer pickups depends on the concept. “Not a lot of space is needed if the design is done right,” Martinez says. “I would say that you would need to add about 25% more space to the existing production, assembly and pickup area.”

George Perry, director of design at Tampa-based Innovative Foodservice Design Team, typically allocates 25 square feet for food pickup stations, with half of the space designated for customer pickups and half for third-party delivery pickups.

No matter how much space a restaurant designates for third-party pickup areas, though, operators need to consider a variety of factors when designing these spaces. “The most important is the food staging area and customer interface area to drive a seamless customer experience and order accuracy,” Martinez notes. “Also, pickup time, keeping all items in the same space, and segregating items by their needs for hot and cold holding also are key.”

Perry bases food pickup area designs on the type of product the foodservice operator serves and its ideal holding time. “When designing in efficiencies, product holding time, the delivery vessel and average check/order size should be considered,” he says.

St. Marie adds that pickup areas should blend seamlessly into the space and not be an afterthought. “This involves working closely with the architect and interior designer teams to ensure that both the aesthetics and operations are integrated,” she says.

Adapting original designs to accommodate takeout areas boils down to reallocating space. “Typically, there is only a certain amount of space dedicated to foodservice, so this could involve taking over a section of the dining room or even back-of-house kitchen space to accommodate the addition of a pickup area,” St. Marie says.

Visibility and Flexibility

Elements of a best-of-class food pickup area layout would include cubbies, shelving, worktables and storage space to keep orders organized and visible to customers and staff alike, St. Marie says. Ideally, display screens would let customers know when their order is ready. “A flexible design allows for a manned station if needed but also one that can be streamlined so that it works without staff,” she says. “It is important to understand the program and menu prior to determining the layout so that the proper equipment is specified.”

A team member should always keep an eye on food pickup areas, Perry says, which makes location important. “This area should be near the kitchen or a host or cashier station so someone can monitor what’s coming in and going out,” he says. “This way, customers also have someone to talk to if their order isn’t ready or they have an issue.”

When designing food pickup areas, several variables can enhance accessibility, efficiency and speed of service. To help manage these various ordering streams, Martinez offers some practical advice: “If the volume permits it, designate a separate area where staff produce the takeout/digital orders. This way, the off-premises business, which usually gives the restaurants more food preparation time, does not conflict with the eat-in business. When done correctly, sales will follow, which is the end game.”

This is an approach Chipotle embraces in its restaurant design. “Nearly all of our locations have a second makeline dedicated to digital orders, called a digital kitchen,” Zalotrawala says. “These are strategically located next to either the Chipotlane window, walk-up window or pickup shelves for maximum efficiency.”

Zalotrawala describes the in-restaurant mobile order pickup shelves as minimal in design and organized alphabetically. Shelving placement varies by location, but the chain aims to put these as close to digital makelines as possible for operational efficiency. “The mobile pickup shelves inside our restaurants serve guests ordering from the Chipotle app,, as well as third-party marketplace partners,” she says. “Only guest orders [not third-party delivery orders] can be picked up in the Chipotlane and walk-up windows at this time.”

At Corazón’s newest location, the food pickup area sits right off the kitchen. At another site, it is in the back of the restaurant by the bar, and in a third location, it is in the middle of the restaurant right off the bar. “As long as there is a centralized location for to-go orders, it works fine,” Pountney says. “Our newest location has a screen where customers can place orders and pay, while our other two locations rely solely on online ordering.” She adds that having necessary accompaniments nearby, such as utensils, drink carriers, straws, napkins and bags, minimizes employee steps while putting orders together.

When designing food pickup areas, St. Marie says she first considers placement, with a spot that’s easiest for customers to pick up food and leave quickly. With staff, it works best when there’s a dedicated employee running food from the kitchen or servery to the pickup station. “This area also should have proper visuals, such as signage and lighting, so orders are visible on the shelf to grab and go,” Perry adds. “Since it’s out front, this is a great space for logos or branding.”

functional Chipotlane Digital Kitchen 1

The Setup

The equipment requirements of food pickup areas vary by operation. It can be as simple as a table for bagged orders or more sophisticated with temperature-controlled lockers customers can access with their smartphones.

Corazón’s setup consists of a countertop behind a POS terminal. This allows those who haven’t yet paid to cash out with minimal movement. “This area also is situated by the bar and really close to our salsa cooler and eating utensils,” Pountney says.

St. Marie incorporates ambient cubbies into her food pickup area designs for a neat and organized appearance. “You can do a lot with basic millwork cubbies and shelving for contactless pickups,” she says. “Also, locker systems where customers can scan the code to unlock with their phones can be heated or ambient with lights.” Ample worktable or storage space helps with design flexibility if technology changes down the road, she adds.

With the pandemic changing the face of takeout in foodservice, a number of equipment manufacturers have created options that focus on aesthetics. “Several manufacturers have created equipment for stations for the front of house,” Perry says. “Although most are ambient stations, the industry is on the cusp of developing combination lockers that hold both hot and cold food in one locker space.”

Packaging serves as a critical component for transporting product and is considered part of the design, according to Perry. “Packaging needs to maintain the food’s integrity but also needs to be accommodated in the food pickup area,” he says. “If there is a certain size container, this needs to be taken into consideration.”

There’s no doubt that pickup stations will continue to evolve as well as the consumers that use them. The only thing not up for debate is whether they are here to stay. That’s already been decided.