A young mother walks into a Pizza Magia store with a 1-year-old on her hip.
A worker behind the counter back says, "How are you folks doing today?"
Seconds later, a smiling employee meets the woman and the child at a designated carryout counter, where she takes the money, and then another employee offers to carry the food to the mother's car.
She gratefully accepts and another carryout transaction is completed.
Pizza Magia designed its so-called "enhanced carryout section" last year, and it counts the effort as worth the cost. According to Ted Wells, president of PMFS, the commissary supplier for the 35-store Louisville, Ky.-based chain, Pizza Magia spent an extra $350 for each neon "Carryout Orders" sign to hang over a separate counter designated solely to handle takeout transactions. A TV is placed in nearly all of the chain's stores to entertain guests if they have to wait for their order, and extra effort also goes into the cleaning and lighting the overall lobby section.
Pizza Magia's enhanced carryout efforts are paying off.
"Most of our carryout customers are female," Wells said. "Based on that, we determined that our restaurants needed to be clean, well lit and inviting. If the area is not secure, if it's not clean, if it's not inviting, they're not going to come in."
In Columbus, Ohio, Mama Mimi's Take and Bake Pizza offers carryout only. In all three of its stores, customer pick-up areas are designed to keep patrons comfortable while their pizza is assembled. There are toys for children and customers can watch employees make the pizza before their eyes.
"Being able to go in where you can actually put your child down and not have to worry that they're going to get into something, or they're going to get hurt (makes it) so much easier for you to stop by," said Jodi Aufdencamp, co-owner of Mama Mimi's.
Then there's the operator's bottom line. Carryout-only pizzerias like Mama Mimi's don't have the expenses associated with delivery, such as driver reimbursement and insurance costs, Wells added.
Aufdencamp said she considered providing delivery service when she and her husband, Jeff, opened for business two years ago. But they discovered that business was doing well without it. She believes the choice not to go with meals on wheels reduces her payroll costs by one-third compared to a delivery competitor. The money isn't saved, though. She said it's spent on other labor.
"Where we spend our extra payroll is in the prep, because ... we make sure that everything is made and cut fresh everyday," said Aufdencamp, whose pizzas just won "Best of Columbus" in Columbus Magazine's annual reader's choice survey. "We are able to spend that money making sure (we're) taking a little bit of extra time to ensure the quality of the pizzas. So, for us, it's a trade off."
Lowering costs isn't the only reason pizzerias are courting carryout. Recent studies show that families are increasingly picking up their meals from restaurants and taking them home to eat at the dinner table.
According to the NPD Group's annual report on Eating Patterns of America, the average American, in 1990, bought 44 meals at restaurants that were consumed off premise. In 2001, that number jumped to 61 meals eaten off premise.
Casual dining chains like Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's, Romano's Macaroni Grill and Ruby Tuesday have taken notice of that trend, and they're using and/or testing curbside pickup. Not only do some of those restaurants give preferred parking spots to carryout customers, staffers bring the food to customers' cars. In its advertising for carryout foods, Applebee's tagline is, "It's not fast food, it's food fast."
Still, Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, said pizza remains the number-one restaurant meal consumed at home. In fact, 40 percent of all restaurant meals eaten at home are pizzas. Burgers are second at 20 percent.
"Of the long term, the main trend in the way Americans are feeding themselves has everything to do with preparation, and it's trying to get out of that job," said Balzer, whose firm is located in Port Washington, N.Y. "It's still eat at home, that's a critical point. It's not going out to a restaurant. It's using the restaurant as an appliance and having more meals made at a restaurant but being consumed at home."
The goal for consumers, Balzer adds, is to make meals easier, not necessarily cheaper. Pizza has succeeded by doing both, and only the future will tell whether other foodservice segments can compete on that level.
"Certainly pizza restaurants have lived off the easy part; they've been an easy alternative for supper," Balzer said. "You don't do anything. The only thing it does is cost you."
Those findings are encouraging, Wells said, because they echo the efforts of Pizza Magia to comfort the customer at every turn.
"The main trend in the way Americans are feeding themselves has everything to do with preparation, and it's trying to get out of that job. ... It's using the restaurant as an appliance."
If a pizza isn't ready, counter workers offer customers a free soda and a seat. Having one employee dedicated to carryout customers "makes the people feel wanted and makes them feel like they're not disrupting the business," Wells said.
"Sometimes you walk into some place and you feel like they're doing you a favor by making you something," she said. "We're exactly the opposite. We really feel like this is our house and we're inviting you in as a guest."
Still, there's the convenience factor. How do you convince someone to leave the house to pick up a pizza when he or she can just pick up the phone and have one delivered?
Aufdencamp said it's all in how you make the pizza.
"We stand strong in saying no matter what, if you're an independent or you're nationwide, if you don't make great pizza, it doesn't matter whether you deliver it or cook it, it has to be a great pizza and if it's a great pizza, people will come and get it."