Curbside enthusiasm

June 28, 2006

Is curbside carryout just an add-on service to pamper lazy customers, or is it something patrons really want?

David Wallace knows it's at least the latter, and he doesn't care if it meets the needs of the former. Curbside carryout is boosting business by 3 percent to 5 percent annually at Boston's The Gourmet Pizza units.

"Focusing on service in this business is more important than ever," said Wallace, a new-store training manager for the 235-unit casual dining pizza chain. There are 200 units in Canada, where the chain is based, and 35 in the United States, where it will open 25 additional units this year. "People aren't just requiring service in the restaurant, they want it when they pull up as well. So we give it to them."

Similar casual

What's Important

Curbside carryout is creeping into the pizza segment.

Dine-in pizzerias such as Green Mill Pizza, California Pizza Kitchen and Uno Chicago Grill offer the service.

The investment in curbside service is minimal, but in the case of Boston's The Gourmet Pizza, the boost to business is noteworthy.

restaurant/pizzeria peers such as Uno Chicago Grill, California Pizza Kitchen and Green Mill Pizza are doing the same. After seeing curbside carryout lift sales in the casual dining segment, Boston's considered it a natural step to roll it out in its own company.

"We already deliver and our carryout business was 10 to 12 percent of our total business," Wallace said. "So taking it outside to a car isn't that big a deal."
Well, maybe not to him, but it's apparently a big deal to customers. Wallace said typical curbside patrons are parents who don't want to unbuckle small children from car seats, or the people hurrying home from work. "I've been guilty myself of showing up not perfectly groomed as an excuse for getting my dinner that way," he said.

The bottom line is the service is convenient and the investment to provide it is minimal compared to the return. Like many companies doing curbside, Boston's has done little to promote the service other than through word of mouth, modest signage in front of its restaurants, placing "curbside pickup" signs near a few spots close to the front door and having staffers mention it each time the phone rings.

A simple process

Hosts take orders over the phone and serve as food couriers from kitchen to car. When curbside orders come in, they ask for the make and model of the car and tell customers to call back from a cell phone when they arrive. Some units have movement detectors in the lot that notify the front desk a car is waiting. (Curbside features at most Boston's were added after they were built, but Wallace said the chain's construction team has made it a priority to include those attributes in future sites.) When the food is ready, the staff takes it to the car for payment; credit card transactions are handled inside the restaurant.

Wallace said the kitchen staff treats a curbside order like any other; it's not bumped to the front of the line, and the full menu — except alcoholic beverages — is available. The only difference is an added emphasis on accuracy. "With curbside, you only get one shot to make sure the meal is perfect. All the accompaniments must be in one spot at one time when someone picks it up."

Tipping of carryout staff is inconsistent, he said, since customers don't always know what amount is fair for taking the food to the door.

Wallace said all of Boston's 200 Canadian stores have fully branded to-go containers and packaging, something its U.S. stores are gradually moving toward. "Of course, we want to have everything with our name on it, but we have to keep everything economical. Right now just the major pieces are branded."
Sales shift?

While curbside service is commonly busy at dinner, Wallace said every store in every market has unique peaks. In Green Bay, curbside traffic is heavy on Friday and Saturday nights, but in Tempe, Ariz., lunch business is strongest. Curbside customers, he added, also "tend

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to take out meals they don't have time to make at home, such as salads, pastas or our other entrees," not pizza, like delivery customers get.

Curbside sales have not cannibalized dining room or delivery sales because Wallace believes all three customers have unique desires that don't lead them to trade one experience for the other. With its accommodations for large groups and multiple large-screen TVs, a trip to Boston's is often a chance to watch a big game with friends. Delivery customers just want to enjoy good food at home.

"I strongly believe that people who are going to come to a restaurant have that in mind ahead of time," he said. "People who want to do takeout will do takeout. I don't think curbside takes away from someone who's coming in to watch the game."

Topics: Operations Management

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