The brand's new off-premises concept is thriving, but that doesn't mean it's veering away from the dining room experience.
P.F. Chang's didn't need an unprecedented global pandemic to know that off-premises is the future.
The chain's To Go concept debuted on February 2, 2020, when there were fewer than 20 COVID cases reported in the U.S. Panic, lockdowns, social distancing, masking wearing, and contactless measures had yet to begin. But when they did about a month and a half later, P.F. Chang's was in a better position than most in casual dining. The pandemic accelerated a development strategy that was already in motion.
"Consumers across the country are constantly seeking dining options to fit with their schedules and with their habits," says Genaro Perez, vice president of marketing. "So I mean, part of the strategy, early 2020, was to start with this off-premise dining strategy. We have obviously a strong demand on takeout, delivery, and catering, and it's the nature of Asian cuisine. I mean no surprise, Asian food is probably the number one to-go food in the country. There's a strong demand for that, and we're obviously taking a look at it and capitalizing on consumer behavior."
In three years, roughly 20 P.F. Chang's To Go locations have opened, including most recently a third 1,403-square-foot unit in Manhattan. The off-premises-only brand also has locations in Colorado, Florida (highest penetration with seven locations), Illinois, Texas, and Washington, D.C. According to its website, two more are coming to New York and three more are underway in Texas. P.F. Chang's has roughly 200 restaurants in the U.S. and around 100 internationally.
One of the biggest learnings, Perez says, is that top-selling items are the same across To Go stores and full-service bistros. Also, in the early going, the concept was more urban, which makes sense given its smaller footprint and the on-the-go nature of pedestrians. In those markets, the consumer is younger. Over the years, P.F. Chang's To Go has ventured into suburbs to capture its family demographic.
"The learnings have been keep the food consistent, which we are," Perez says. "I mean To Go is a smaller kitchen, but it's still a scratch kitchen. And the food is very difficult to replicate at home. So we find that consumers are obviously more willing to take orders for takeout or delivery or even dine-in when they need their Asian food. As offices come back, we believe that we're going to see an even higher demand in urban areas and there's gonna be opportunities for us to open more in those types of spaces."
P.F. Chang's is one of several casual-dining chains opting for quick-service operations due to multiple reasons—real estate availability, construction costs, and the growth of digital ordering. Some other examples include IHOP, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Fridays, Friendly's, Hooters, and Bennigan's. Consumer trends back up this approach; delivery visits are still 88 percent higher than three years ago, according to The NPD Group.
Perez says P.F. Chang's To Go is entering places—like Third Avenue in Manhattan—that can't support a bistro, but still show demand. Texas is a heavily penetrated market, but To Go has found patches of whitespace in smaller areas, like McKinney and Mansfield, Texas, two suburbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth market.
"As the area grows, perhaps there's gonna be an opportunity to keep it To Go and then open a bistro in your state," Perez says. "So it's depending on what comes first in terms of real estate opportunities as well because it's so challenging to find the right locations."
While off-premises remains sticky, dine-in is witnessing a comeback. In January, visits were up 24 percent over a gain of 41 percent last year, The NPD Group reported. As P.F. Chang's saw dine-in customers return, the company "put the pedal" on investing in bistros. In December, the chain opened a New York City flagship in Union Square—marking its first full-service presence in Manhattan. It's only the fourth flagship nationwide, joining Honolulu, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City. The space is 7,319 square feet, occupies three stories, and features exclusive items, a mezzanine seating area, a downstairs bar, and a dedicated to-go area.
Perez recalls dining at the restaurant with about 10 others and says it was a "fantastic experience."
"It was a really good dining experience," he says. "The food was amazing. The music was right, the drinks were good. I was looking from a marketing perspective. I was looking at the consumer. And the bar was cool and I saw actually a different age demo. I saw older people, younger people, group of friends celebrating birthdays. It was a great picture for what we wanted in that flagship. It's good to see that it's delivering on that promise."
Perez acknowledges that Manhattan is a tough market for growth given COVID's destruction to urban life, but he recently spoke with workers in the banking industry who said people are coming back to the office. Not necessarily full-time, but three to four times per week. It's not 100 percent, but P.F. Chang's is seeing pent-up demand for the full-service atmosphere, Perez says.
"At the end of the day, the To-Gos are great for people that are perhaps working from home or in a time crunch to solve that equation of how do I get great food for a limited time," the executive says. "So I think that the demand is going to grow if anything. I think that we see it not only in Manhattan. We see it in a lot of the markets where we are, where people are coming out of their case and getting to live normally again. And that's fantastic because we see more people happy, people celebrating, getting together with others in restaurants, and that's what we love obviously."
The executive emphasizes that P.F. Chang's sees runway for both models. But he also notes that while To Go locations are uniquely designed, nothing matches up to providing drinks, service, and hosting at a full-service bistro.
"We're still growing in both areas with the full service and To Go," Perez says. "We see it more as a growth vehicle, of course, but it's just that sometimes the demand is such that it's worth it to put a bistro because obviously the experience is complete. Even though the To-Gos are really pretty, it's really like a mini P.F. Chang's, if you're looking for the full-service experience and perhaps you're taking your friends and family to celebrate something, obviously the bistro is the gold."