Restaurant takeout boom: Pandemic-fueled food ordering habits not likely to change soon

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    Takeout is no longer just fast food burgers and pickup pizza.

    If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has given restaurant carryout more clout.

    Diners recognize they can pick up prepared food – maybe smoked baby back ribs, filet mignon or poached lobster tail – from a nicer restaurant. Establishments, some that previously rarely catered to carryout, have stepped it up with online ordering, proper packaging and foods designed to travel well.

    “The pandemic forced us to be able to embellish our takeout model,” said Judd Goodman, owner of the Federal Taphouse, a beer-focused restaurant in Harrisburg. “We just made it easier for people to be able to come in and order online and pick up their food.”

    As dining rooms reopen to 75% indoor capacity in Pennsylvania, many restaurants aren’t giving up on carryout. New restaurants are building their business models around the to-go formula with everything from ethnic eats to smoothie bowls and barbecue.

    Some in the industry think to-go will remain an integral part of business, especially as vaccines continue to be administered and some diners remain reluctant to eat out. About 79% of 1,000 people recently surveyed about their ordering habits said they plan to continue ordering delivery and takeout at “pandemic”-levels, according to restaurant marketing platform BentoBox, in partnership with restaurant discovery company, The Infatuation.

    The main reason? Convenience.

    “I think there’s definitely a population that still doesn’t feel comfortable in restaurants no matter what. They don’t want to cook at home and they don’t want to do fast food. They want to do something healthier,” said Jason Viscount, owner of Greystone Public House in Lower Paxton Township and Greystone Brew House in Dillsburg.

    The restaurants have added online ordering through ChowNow. Takeout comprises about 30% of orders, and has become such an integral part of the business, Viscount said they are modifying the types of to-go containers used for items such as soups.

    “It is definitely a bigger part of our business than it was before,” Viscount said.

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    Foods like french fries need to be transported without turning soggy, he said, adding he has been surprised how many customers order creme brulee, a pudding-like desert they’ve had to awkwardly scoop into takeout boxes.

    At Federal Taphouse, orders can be placed directly from the restaurant’s website or via third-party platforms such as GrubHub. Menu items stretch from buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches to roasted mushroom pizzas and Faroe Island salmon.

    About 30% of Federal Taphouse business comes from takeout orders, up from a 5% before the pandemic, Goodman said. The push to online ordering and takeout has definitely opened people’s eyes to the variety of options, he added.

    Nearby at 2nd Street Shawarma in Harrisburg, owner Mustafa Thabata noted takeout has grown from about 15 % of business to close to 70% during the pandemic. While he welcomes the business, Thabata said it comes with a host of problems.

    Mainly, partnering with third party delivery platforms such as GrubHub is expensive, he said, adding the services charge restaurants fees as high as 30%. As a result, he said he has had to raise prices for orders made through the platforms.

    “People don’t understand ordering through GrubHub and Uber Eats, they are giving so much money to a huge company and hurting a small business,” he said.

    “Overall, the business is there but the profit is not the same,” Thabata added.

    In the early days of the pandemic when restaurants were ordered to shut down dining rooms, the majority of establishments turned to takeout and delivery models, selling everything from flapjack breakfasts to burgers and fries and artisan cocktails to go.

    Across the industry, all types of restaurants from diners to fine dining haven’t let up on the offerings. Several fast casual chains report that even as more diners are dining-in, off-premises sales haven’t dropped.

    Sandwich chain Firehouse Subs saw sales more than double during some weeks in March of this year over 2020, while MOD Pizza reported a surge in digital transactions in the past year, according to Restaurant Business.

    MOD said its online sales made up 40% of transactions in 2020, something the company said was driven by in-app features including delivery and the introduction of curbside ordering and pick-up.

    “We never want to repeat 2020. But there are a lot of good things we’re going to take out of 2020, like digital and off-premises,” MOD’s CEO and co-founder Scott Svenson told Restaurant Business.

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    ShreddRRz restaurant opens

    To suit the times, many restaurant owners are building smaller concepts with limited staff and takeout. ShreddRRz recently opened in West Hanover Township with foods such as the Full Monty, a platter of shredded pork and chicken paired with sides such as corn cakes and smoked macaroni and cheese.

    They also operate ShreddRRz food truck, which co-owner Rob Billet said has been in demand during the pandemic, especially requests by neighborhoods.

    “I think people are more prone to do takeout right now,” Billet said.

    A few weeks ago, Caroline Lai and Eric Tern opened Takashi “The Art of Sushi” in Camp Hill, with contactless pickup and no indoor eating. Lai said it’s going to take time for some diners to feel comfortable eating out again. Also, she said she wouldn’t open a big restaurant right now, especially because it’s so difficult to find good help.

    In Midtown Harrisburg, Goodman is introducing Sushi Yata, a takeout sushi shop in the coming weeks. He noted the restaurant will accommodates the growing takeout trend while the food fills a void in the neighborhood.

    “I think this is going to be the new way, these smaller footprint restaurants that are going to be catering to takeout and delivery,” Goodman said.

    More: 129 Dauphin County restaurants impacted by pandemic awarded $3 million in grants

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