May 10, 2013

5 Tips to Boost Your Take-Out Business

By Ed Avis

When customers call Mi Chula’s Good Mexican restaurant in Southlake, Texas to place a to-go order, the order taker makes sure she knows exactly what the customer wants. And when the customer picks up the order, the counter person goes through the order with the customer to make sure it’s all there.

“Knowing exactly what the customer wants is important for us to deliver the expectations they want,” says Kyle Pitts, the owner. “We always make sure the customer has everything before they get home.”

Excellent customer service like Mi Chula’s provides is one key to succeeding in the to-go business, where competition has never been stronger. Here are five other tips:

1) Set up a devoted take-out space. Having a space in your kitchen dedicated to preparing to-go orders can make the process much more efficient, even if it’s just a section of your counter. “I remember being in a restaurant and an entire room was set aside for take out,” says Marcia Schurer, president of Culinary Connections, a restaurant consulting firm in Chicago. “It facilitated-take out so well, and helped with all the pre-assembly that can be done with take-out.”

2) Take orders however your customers want to place them. Can you handle orders from smart phones or online? You don’t need to develop these services yourself – many Mexican restaurants rely on GrubHub, Seamless, or one of the dozens of other services that handle online or mobile ordering. These services can be integrated to look like part of your website – see how Taco Rico makes it appear they have their own online ordering system. Click the button that says “View Menu and Order” and it goes directly to Taco Rico’s spot on the website Eat24, which handles all the online details of the order.

3) Promote, promote, promote. Schurer says to-go and delivery can be as much as 40 percent of a good restaurant’s business these days. Restaurants that reach that figure make a special effort to promote their to-go business. Some ideas: Run ads or online promotions with messages like “Have our tacos at home tonight!” to plant the idea that your food is not limited to eating in; offer some coupons that are specifically designed for to-go orders; include your to-go menu with every eat-in customer’s bill; and encourage eat-in customers to take a something extra to go for tomorrow’s lunch. One more idea: Create some menu items that are logical for to-go customers; at Mi Chula’s, fajitas family packs that serve four, six, eight, or ten people are the most popular take-out items.

4) Use a checklist. It is a great way to make sure everything that needs to go into the take-out bag gets put into it, from the napkins to the salsa to a coupon for the next order. “We work with a checklist on the line to make sure all gets placed together,” says Dan Lederer of Margarita’s Mexican Restaurants, a chain of 23 restaurants in the Northeast. “We know that once a guest leaves the building there is no way to correct the order, so being vigilant while we are packing it is important.  Furthermore, when the guest picks up the order, the host goes over the order with the guest, item by item, to ensure the order is correct.”

5) Use good packaging, and consider green. Nothing irritates a to-go customer more than to discover that his food is cold or has leaked into a mushy pile at the bottom of the bag. Invest in quality to-go supplies, and experiment with the best way to package everything. “We use top-of-line to-go packaging, as it is important that customers get the same quality at home as they would dining in one of our stores,” Pitts says. Also consider the recyclability of your packaging, Schurer says. “There are so many choices, some customers might choose between foodservice operations based on which restaurant is doing green packaging,” she says. So if you use environmentally savvy packaging, say that on your to-go menu!

One last thing to remember – having a robust take-out business might introduce you to a whole new customer base. Possible take-out customers include busy families who want to eat at home, single people who don’t feel like cooking, or couples who prefer the intimacy of their kitchen. Each of them could be your customer, even if they never eat in your dining room. “Take out is important to our business as it serves a different customer than those who dine in the stores,” Pitts says.

Ed Avis the publisher of el Restaurante Mexicano magazine.

May 10, 2013

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