Chili's to-go sign outside a restaurant.

flickr: Mike Mozart

Chili’s is geared toward “enhancing” the guest experience, not necessarily speeding everything up.

Are Full-Service Restaurants Up to Speed with Consumers?

Time-constrained guests are looking for faster ways to dine. But can sit-downs meet the demand while staying true to their brand DNA?

Pressed for time, a growing number of customers want to dine as quickly as possible and get in and get out of restaurants rapidly. To meet their client’s changing needs, many full-service eateries are introducing strategic practices to meet their guests’ needs such as curbside pick-up, paying the check by tablet, and quick and inexpensive power lunches.

Some are letting customers pay their bill via a tablet so they don’t have to search for their waiter to nab their bill (a common complaint by diners). A bevy of chains, including Applebee’s, Chili’s, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Ruby Tuesday, to name a few, offer curbside pick-up without any minimum order, where customers can snare orders in 30 minutes or less. 

In particular, many chains are trying to pick up the pace at lunch to meet consumer demands. Chili’s is even offering $7 power lunches in an effort to entice guests with a meal comparable in price to most fast casuals.

But how do full-service eateries accelerate service when necessary and not relinquish their reputations as leisurely, experience-driven sit-down establishments?

Darren Tristano, the CEO of Chd Expert, a Chicago-based data research firm, says, “Full service brands are moving more toward takeout and delivery including third-party delivery, dedicated take out and curbside pick-up.”

What’s driving this industry wave is “today’s millennial consumer and family diners with kids between the age of 2 and 12 are time constrained and see dining away from home as a lifestyle privilege,” he says. 

"Our guests are looking for more of an experience, and we want technology to remove the wait for food, the wait online, and paying, but not by speeding up the experience." —Michael Breed, Chili's vice president of digital innovation.

Many restaurant customers are undergoing a major mental shift, Tristano adds. They used to enjoy spending time at an eatery, and now, many are so “time-strapped that spending less time has become an important factor.” That often changes Friday and Saturday nights when many consumers can take a breather from time pressures. So sit-down brands need to excel in both dynamics.

Easy in and easy out: curbside dining spiking

Hence curbside pick-ups, often ordered by apps, expedite a meal and cut costs. Many chains charge $5–$10 for delivery service and when a tip is added, it can be a savings to drive and pick up their own food, like if you’re at a McDonald’s curbside window.

Curbside dining offers a “convenience factor for people who want a restaurant quality meal but don’t want to eat in the restaurant,” Tristano says.

But if nearly every chain does curbside pick-up, what’s the competitive edge? “You have to do it to keep up. Here’s an opportunity for restaurants to improve packaging and do a better job of running out to the car quickly,” he says.

Tristano adds that some eateries adapt their menu to curbside pick-up. For example, pizza travels well, but fettuccine alfredo doesn’t.

Though curbside pickup and delivery have been generating 7–10 percent of revenue for many restaurant chains, Tristano says, there’s also a downside. Sales of high-margin beverages are eliminated and many desserts, such as ice cream, don’t travel well. Goodbye upselling.

Still, full-service eateries must execute curbside dining adroitly to stay ahead of, or at least, to match competitors. Both the speed, friendliness of service and accuracy of delivery (no one wants to drive back to an eatery they’ve just left) are determining factors in how successful full-service brands are executing the offering.

Paying the bill as quickly as possible is an asset       

Ordering meals and paying checks by tablet are also on the upswing at many full-service eateries. Paying a bill by tablet, like an, is most critical because most consumers after completing their meal don’t want to linger and prefer to exit as rapidly as possible. “Customers don’t want to wait for the bill and give their credit card to someone because of security concerns,” Tristano says. By paying via handheld device, the guest adds the tip, obtains the receipt, and can run out the door with no fuss, without having to wait for credit card approval.

Lunches in 45 minutes or less—or else

Power lunches, where chains guarantee that the customer is in and out in a half-hour or don’t have to pay, have also gained momentum. “When we consider that the typical lunch hour lasts one hour and you have to go there and come back, you’re down to 45 minutes,” Tristano says. 

Streamlining the menu and offering entrees that the kitchen can turn over quickly makes full-service eateries competitive with the speed of a Chipotle’s lunch, for example. “And you may spend 15 minutes on line there,” Tristano says of the often-crowded fast casual.

Chili’s, which has 1,542 company-owned and franchised domestic outlets, is geared toward “enhancing” the guest experience, not necessarily speeding everything up, says Michael Breed, its Dallas, Texas-based vice president of Digital Innovation. Guests come to Chili’s for “unplanned lunches and dinner and connecting with friends. Our guests are looking for more of an experience, and we want technology to remove the wait for food, the wait online, and paying, but not by speeding up the experience,” he says.

READ MORE: A better Chili's begins to take shape.

Nonetheless, it offers curbside dining where guests can order and pay online. In fact, Breed calls curbside dining “the fastest growing segment of our business.” And in most cases, the food is ready by the time the guests arrive.

Chili’s also designates some staff to oversee curbside timing, though all employees are involved, and Chili’s trains to have “situational awareness” of when guests are in a rush and when they’re not.

And although Breed says that some meals don’t travel as well as others, customers can order anything off of Chili’s standard menu. “We want to give guests what they want. We didn’t want to make that decision for them,” he says.

Its $7 lunch combos, which include dishes like chicken fajitas, double-lunch burgers, and quesadillas, were introduced to present a less expensive alternative. It, too, isn’t about speed.

And yet, employees are trained to greet guests, say “Welcome to Chili’s,” and move things along since so many people are time constrained.

Payment, however, has been sped up since guests can pay by tablet on their tables, insert their chips, and not have to go through the more tedious experience of handing over their credit card to a waiter. Chili’s is also testing ordering meals by tablets, but that’s something for the future.

Breed says to make these strategies effective, Chili’s focuses on providing “exceptional service and the emotional aspects of hospitality, making guests feel special and making a connection with them.”

This past quarter, Chili's announced that online ordering was live across the system. Off-premise sales boosted more than 30 percent, CEO Wyman Roberts said, and continues to climb. To-go business upped to more than 11 percent of total sales, and Roberts said Chili’s plans to devote even more resources to work on its off-premise business.

Much of the onus of service, though, still depends on the sensitivity of the server who must glean whether the diner is in a rush or wants to linger. “We don’t want to rush a family or make them feel they’re on a time crunch,” Breed says. Yet if a server learns that the parent must take the kids to soccer practice by 3 p.m., it may be necessary to quicken the pace.

But full-service restaurants have little choice but to offer curbside pick-up, delivery, tablet check-out and power lunches. “The consumer is evolving for a faster restaurant experience, and full-service eateries have to evolve with them,” Tristano says.