In response to takeout and delivery demands, full-service restaurants—from big brands to independents—are crafting menus to answer the call.

It isn’t a novel statement: Demand for delivery is shaking up the restaurant industry. Guests want the food they’d grab in-store, where they are, as fast as they can get it.

For full-service restaurants, this means adapting to a more quick-serve style format. When designing new menu items to better serve delivery and to-go customers, these restaurants are turning to more portable, handheld, and personal fare that will hold heat well and be more durable in transportation.

This is a smart move, but it doesn’t change the fact that when the majority of guests are ordering from these full-service restaurants like IHOP, they still want their not-as-portable pancakes and omelets.

The additional task for the full-service restaurant, then, is to mimic the full-service experience that people visit the restaurant for as best as they can in the delivery and to-go format. To do so, restaurants are zooming in on packaging, thinking about components like sauce in new ways, and developing digital platforms that offer that valued customization customers expect through server-guest interaction.

Delivery—as Alisa Gmelich, vice president of marketing at IHOP, puts it—is in its infant stage and still developing within the industry as a whole. “There is this beautiful kind of white space in terms of the off-premises business,” she says. But with restaurant traffic on an overall decline and delivery demand up, it is white space restaurants need to address.

Developed for delivery

When Art Jackson, cofounder at Pleasant House Pub in Chicago, developed the restaurant’s signature item 10 years ago, he did not anticipate today’s to-go and delivery boom. Lucky for him, his British-style pies are the perfect to-go menu item. These self-contained vehicles are offered in flavors like Steak & Ale with braised beef, carrots, shallots, and local ale, Chicken Balti curry, and Mushroom & Kale with a white wine Parmesan cream sauce. “Not only is it a delicious, artisan product, we also created something that’s very durable, travels well, and reheats well, too,” Jackson says. Thus, Pleasant House has been able to take advantage of delivery, utilizing Grubhub, Caviar, Amazon Restaurants, Postmates, and even a service to streamline them all.

While not full service, quick-serve chain Pizza Hut proffers an example of how established brands can make delivery a success with just a few tweaks. Its P’Zone was designed to be easier to transport and hold heat longer. “We modified the product to give it a crispier texture, make it less messy,” says Penny Shaheen, senior director of culinary innovation of the 2019 product.

Following cue, breakfast icon IHOP, with over 1,700 U.S. locations, has been experimenting with more contained, personal, and handheld menu options. Take its new The Wrap of Monte Cristo, for instance. It’s a tortilla that’s been dipped in French toast batter and cooked with ham, turkey, and Swiss and white cheddar cheese inside. “We serve it with our famous lingonberry jam,” Gmelich says. “It almost tastes like a crepe because our French toast batter is a little bit sweeter and has those cinnamon notes,” she says. And, because it’s a wrap, it travels beautifully.

Likewise, Gmelich mentions the brand’s Signature Pancake Sliders, which takes the ingredients the brand is known for—pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, and cheese—and offers them in a more delivery-friendly format. “Again you get that sweet-and-savory experience, because we put some of our old-fashioned syrup on it as well,” Gmelich says.

The beauty, she adds, is that items like these that are individually contained preserve freshness.

What the people want

Even with this new R&D focus on delivery-friendly items, full-service restaurants can’t disregard why a customer would be loading their app in the first place: a hankering for signature items. IHOP is known for breakfast combos. The brand can serve French toast tortilla wraps all day, but—even though it’s a challenge to strategize delivery—the International House of Pancakes can’t leave pancakes off its delivery menu. That’s why the team spent a year and a half developing the best possible packaging with its vendors. The savory elements of a breakfast platter are on the bottom with an attachable, vented component fastening on top to house the pancakes. Thus, the eggs and meat serve almost as a burner for the pancakes, without either half getting soggy or losing too much heat.

With an average of six to seven modifications per order, IHOP needs to be armed with a great digital app that can mimic the waitress/waiter service. “Over 80 percent of our orders are customized or modified in some way,” Gmelich says. “At IHOP, people like their bacon a certain way. They like their eggs a certain way.”

The brand’s digital platforms, then, were designed to help continue this part of our process. “Those servers are pros at making sure that every meal is being cooked to the guest’s liking. We wanted to ensure that same experience was happening in off-premises,” Gmelich says.

Her advice for any full-service restaurant looking to build delivery and to-go business is to first ask, what are those special things about this restaurant experience that are going to be important to the guests? And then, how do you ensure that those things still exist in an off-premises format?

International chain Burger & Lobster, with two locations in New York, asked this question and the answer was its signature high-end classics: fresh, whole lobster and gourmet burgers like The Beast with lobster meat, beef, Swiss cheese, and truffle mayo.

So, executive chef Danny Lee and his team set out to recreate that experience in delivery—launching the most challenging option on one of the most experience-driven days of the year, Valentine’s Day. On February 14, the brand’s two New York locations offered a lobster dinner for two with garlic butter, sides of fries and salad, and a dessert to-go. “We wanted to provide a unique experience,” Lee says. “Our whole approach is craftsmanship. We try to bring you the best product possible.”

But delivering the best product for Burger & Lobster meant drawing hard lines. The brand would only deliver within a 15- to 20-minute radius to ensure quality preservation. With the option for lobster delivery still available on the regular menu today, the team is always seeking out a better container. The one they have with small vents that allow the contents to breathe and not continue cooking is great, but Lee is always in conversation with suppliers about new finds.

His incentive, even for offering some of the most delivery-notorious menu items like fries, is to give the customers what they want. They want fries, so Burger & Lobster did as many tests in as many containers as possible to achieve a quality product after a 20-minute journey. “I think the expectations on delivery from people are realistic, but we want to exceed those expectations,” Lee says. “For lobster, people are going to expect something that’s not as good as the restaurant. Our approach is to deliver something just as equal.”

Even quick-serve giant Pizza Hut, with more than 18,000 restaurants spanning more than 100 countries, is still discovering and building better vessels for to-go. Take the company’s 2017 overhaul of the pizza delivery pouch, for instance, which now features three different thermal insulation materials to help ensure the pizza stays oven-hot, the cheese stays melted, and the crust stays crisp.   

The little things

In preparing items for delivery, restaurants are also thinking about the components within a dish that may need adjusting in a delivery and to-go order. Maggiano’s, for instance, which is known for its Double The Portion deal where guests can take a portion of pasta home, makes sure to package dressings and sauces in separate containers. “Guests want their order to be accurate and the taste to be consistent with what they have come to expect if they were sitting in our dining room,” says Mary Machul, senior director of marketing and innovation. This is one way the brand can ensure that good experience for the guest.

Burger & Lobster has also employed some sauce tweaks. “At the restaurant, we put the burger sauce on the bottom, but for to-go, we put the sauce on the top because we thought that after 20 minutes the burger holds better that way,” Lee says. Little techniques like that go a long way, he adds.

It’s not easy and the industry is far from mastering it, but redesigning the full-service restaurant menu operations to meet the demands and cravings of the customer is how brands and independents alike will stay competitive in this delivery-driven market. Developing products for to-go is a great move, but brands can’t abandon core menu items that are difficult to master systematically for takeaway. Persistence for perfection in the delivery full-service business will be key.

Consumer Trends, Delivery, Feature, Menu Innovations