Team Take-Out

Restaurants are enticing customers with tricked out carry-out

The moment Liz Davis finished construction on Xico, her upscale casual Mexican spot in Portland, Ore., she sent 1,000 coupons to potential customers boasting a deal that sounded too good to be true: a free spice-rubbed rotisserie chicken dinner with salsa and freshly made tortillas. 

The catch? Redeemers had to order 24 hours in advance and stop by her restaurant for a quick peek. 

"Take-out is not only an important revenue driver, it’s a way of attracting new and different customers." 

—Chef Annie Sommerville of Greens

But when guests arrived, they noticed something unusual jutting from the side of the building, an amenity no other restaurant in the neighborhood could claim: a take-out window offering Mexican tortas, Sonoran hot dogs and desserts for lunch. 

“This town is brunch crazy, but there aren’t a lot of places open for lunch,” Davis says. “It’s a way to put out great food that’s not expensive and costs the restaurant less than having the labor of brunch or lunch.” 

As increasing numbers of time-crunched diners turn to sit-down restaurants for take-out, a generation of creative carry-out programs have emerged, luring world-class chefs and enterprising restaurateurs to offer walkup windows (often specializing in a particular food) that feature wine and cocktail options and complete meal preparations.

The gambit to out Xico’s take-out window worked. Some 500 free chickens later, Davis is drawing impressive traffic to her tortas window in the afternoons, while catering to newly acquired regulars at the restaurant in the evenings. 

Both initiatives have lured a pair of unlikely demographics to Xico—working parents with young children and professionals short on time. Take-out regulars are also apt to return for Chef Kelly Myers’ more elaborate sit-down menu. 

"Restaurateurs have been slow to accept the reality that low overhead is a way to be successful."

—Liz Davis of Xico

“(Restaurateurs) have been slow to accept the reality that low overhead is a way to be more successful,” Davis says. “A lot of times, we don’t want to sacrifice the service and dining aspects that come with running a restaurant, but if you can do some sort of hybrid, like what we’re doing at Xico, you can have the best of both worlds.”  

ON THE TAKE

Thank food trucks, the proliferation of TV cooking shows or the glamorization of farmers but in recent years, take-out has taken off. In a 2009 study by the National Restaurant Association, some 43 percent of respondents said they would patronize full-service restaurants more frequently if they had convenient take-out options. 

“A lot of people are busy and don’t have time to sit down and eat a meal,” says Chef Annie Somerville, who has been offering take-out at longstanding vegetarian landmark Greens in San Francisco since 1993. “Take-out is not only an important revenue driver, it’s a way of attracting new and different customers.” 

According to market-research company the NPD Group, change is upon us. As of August 2012, carry-out orders outpaced on-premise orders, with 29 percent of restaurant-goers eating their meals at home. In 2011, two-thirds of consumers polled by hospitality consulting firm Technomic said they purchased take-out at least three times in an average month, compared to 59 percent in 2007.

At Serafina in Seattle, regulars have been boxing up pastas and parmigianas to go for 21 years, but the restaurant recently began a to-go wine program that enables guests to pair take-out with discounted wine. 

“We just saw it as a way of satisfying our loyal customers,” assistant manager Kika Westhof says. “Now, with the wine, people can re-create a full Italian dinner experience at home.” 

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

Tastes vary when it comes  to which take-out is worth the price of pick-up. For some, it’s all about the thrill—and prestige—of ordering simple homespun meals from fine dining kitchens, a trend that has gained traction in recent years. 

Thomas Keller’s take-out spot Addendum in Yountville, Calif., for example, offers fried chicken and barbecue pick-up (see sidebar), while Catelli Duo, the offshoot of longstanding Catelli Ristorante in Voorhees, N.J., offers on-the-go Italian meals and steaks. 

The main restaurant was expected to gross $3.8 million in 2012 with an estimated 7 percent from its take-out counterpart, according to Catelli Duo Manager John Polizzi.

In Chicago, Chef Paul Kahan, who oversees one of the city’s prominent restaurant empires, converted an old dive bar into honkytonk-themed taqueria Big Star, designed with take-out and dine-in customers in mind. 

“Take-out windows are something most of us have grown up with, so there’s a natural comfort there,” Big Star’s Chef de Cuisine Justin Large says. “There’s no reason why you can’t put out high-quality food just because it’s being passed through a window.”

Large, however, didn’t expect the take-out side of the restaurant to explode, with lines forming even during Chicago’s harsh winters (the window accounted for 15.7 percent of sales last year). Its popularity forced him to remove a spacious wood-fire grill, commandeer extra storage space for packaging and reorganize his kitchen.

“It’s really extended our brand,” he says. “We do as much business through our to-go window in the summer as we do in our dining room.” 

Robert Stehling, chef and owner of the Hominy Grill in Charleston, S.C., sees his popular new take-out window and patio as a means of reconnecting locals with their culinary heritage, creating a side-door option where his neighbors can leisurely sip Southern cocktails while waiting for the stick-to-your-ribs Lowcountry cuisine of their youth.  

SIDE DOOR TO SUCCESS

“Unlike New Orleans, Charleston doesn’t have a long history of people going out to eat,” Stehling says. “For years, the best food in town was the stuff being cooked in people’s homes, so I wanted to give people the opportunity to take our food home and re-create those meals (and memories) at home.”

But it wasn’t easy. To convince the town’s architectural review board to support his project, he had to present hand-drawn schematics from 1873 that showed the building originally had an opening where he wanted to place his take-out window. Then he had to build the window near his bar space, so that bartenders could take orders and mix drinks while food runners delivered to-go orders from the kitchen. 

“What we’re really selling is the ‘Hominy Experience,’” Stehling says. “A kind of casual open friendliness and good food with a sense of history and place. It’s just in a portable form now.” n

Peter Gianopulos is a dining critic for Chicago magazine and adjunct journalism professor at Loyola University Chicago.

WAYS TO FUEL TO-GO OPTIONS

Use the Staff You Have: Offering a small, simple take-out lunch menu is easier on staff and cooks, allowing them time to prep for dinner.

Waste Not, Want Not: Create special take-out items utilizing leftover ingredients from the previous evening’s dinner service, a tactic that appeals to regulars and keeps your inventory moving.

Know Your ‘Hood: Customize your menu to meet the needs of your surrounding area: light meals if you’re near parks and beaches, heavier fare for industrial traffic or easy-to-eat items near business districts.

Find the Perfect Package: It’s easy to underestimate just how much room will be needed to store the packaging, bags and utensils required for take-out. Map things out early to ensure proper space.

Travel Times Matter: Avoid the temptation to package signature items that can’t stand travel. Cold calamari and soggy queso fundido will destroy your reputation.

THE MOST FAMOUS FRIED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD?

Addendum, a take-out nook at Thomas Keller’s iconic Yountville, Calif., restaurant Ad Hoc, may well have set the precedent for famous chefs adding carry-out to sit-down menus.

From Thursday through Saturday, Keller and Chef Dave Cruz offer their famous buttermilk fried chicken and barbecue with sides and desserts in boxes.

“Addendum was really conceived to meet the demand for our buttermilk fried chicken,” says Brian Cochran, director of operations for Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. “What has come out of it is a value lunch option for locals and visitors. It also provides additional employment opportunities, for existing staff and new team members and sparked the interest of developers from the around the world.”