With more than half of Americans ordering meals to go at least once a week, savvy chains are employing strategies to make the most of the opportunity.

Nine out of 10 Americans order takeout at least once a month, and 51 percent do so once a week or more often, according to “The Takeout & Off-Premise Dining Consumer Trend Report” published in 2013 by Chicago-based Technomic research company. While not all full-service chains find that offering their meals to go fits into their concept and operations, some are emphasizing its availability for convenience-conscious consumers and executing specific strategies to build that part of their business.

At BRAVO Cucina Italiana, a 47-unit chain spanning 21 states, takeout accounts for about 6.7 percent of overall sales, says Nicole Roope, director of marketing for parent company BRAVO BRIO Restaurant Group (BBRG). Seventy-five percent of those orders are for dinner.

“We know that many consumers who love our food are just overcommitted with work, school, and after-school activities, so they don’t always have time to go out and eat in restaurants,” Roope notes. “By offering our food to go, we make it easier for them to enjoy their favorite BRAVO meals as often as they would like.”

About three years ago, BRAVO launched an online ordering option to make the process quicker and easier for customers. Although the majority of orders still come in by phone, between 12 and 13 percent are now placed online.

“Since introducing online ordering, we have seen a steady growth in carryout sales overall,” Roope says. “People tell us that they like the idea that they can place their orders 24/7 and schedule a pick-up time that is convenient for them.”

Consumers have also told BRAVO that they like seeing photos of the dishes they want to consider ordering rather than just looking at a paper takeout menu or text-only Web page. Roope says pictures are also a good way to create cravings for dishes the consumer might not have tried yet.

BRAVO actively promotes the to-go option with in-store signage, prominent positioning on its website home page, and social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Periodically, the chain will offer to-go promotions such as a recent “Pasta Presto” dinner for four, including a family-style entrée, salad, and focaccia for $49. On other occasions, such as the Super Bowl game, back-to-school, and holiday times, it might offer an incentive of 20 percent off an online order.

BRAVO’s online format is also designed to upsell at various points during the ordering process. If the consumer has ordered a filet, for example, the system will suggest adding on a grilled shrimp skewer. Appetizer and dessert suggestions will also be offered, and customers can provide special instructions for food allergies and other dietary issues.


Roope explains that the biggest challenge for a full-service restaurant to integrate a to-go element into its concept is making sure the food reaches the customer in the same condition in which it left the kitchen.

“Once it leaves the building,” she says, “it’s really out of our control, so we make sure we don’t offer items that don’t travel well—such as crème brûlée. But about 90 percent of our menu is available to go.”

As for packaging, “one size or type doesn’t fit all,” Roope says. “We don’t package fried foods in the same containers as our pasta, and we package hot and cold foods in separate bags.” BRAVO also puts its logo on its to-go packaging, using the takeout occasion as a brand reinforcement opportunity.

To ensure that orders are expedited correctly, an individual on each shift is designated to handle carryout. This person has a checklist and recites back the order to the guest along with any special instructions the guest has indicated to make sure nothing has been overlooked or left out. He will also ask if the guest will need plates and utensils. Many do not need them, and that means cost savings for the restaurant and waste savings for the environment, Roope says.

Online ordering is also building takeout sales for Tony Roma’s Ribs, Seafood and Steaks. Since first offering the option last year at select stores, takeout orders have increased an average of 2 percent at these locations, says Monique Yeager, director of marketing for Romacorp, the parent company of Tony Roma’s. Takeout accounts for about 5 percent of sales for the chain, which has 40 locations around the country.

Like BRAVO, Tony Roma’s actively promotes its to-go availability with signage and social media presence. One popular takeout-only promotion is a “Game Day Feast” for four for $40. For the most part, payment and pick-up are handled through the bar, although one New York location does so much takeout business that it has an area designated solely for these orders.

At Chuy’s Restaurants, curbside takeout has been a mainstay since 2007, and consumers do not even have to get out of their cars to pick up their orders.

“Curbside delivery was really a necessity for us,” says Tommy LaRue, vice president of operations for the chain, which has 48 locations in 15 states. Forty-one of the locations offer curbside delivery. “We have very high-volume restaurants, and people had to battle crowds and wait a long time just to pick up their takeout orders.”

For curbside delivery, customers phone in their orders. When they arrive at the restaurant, they park in one of the spots designated for takeout, then call to report the number of the spot in which they are parked.

Chuy’s does a brisk to-go business year-round, says LaRue, with some locations taking in between $15,000 and $30,000 a week in takeout sales. “Year over year, our takeout sales increased 9 percent in 2012 and another 9 percent in 2013.” Heaviest to-go dayparts are split pretty evenly between lunch and dinner.

LaRue points out that many of the restaurants have “regular to-go people” who come back three or four times a week. “The to-go option has allowed us to build relationships with these people.”

Among the regulars at a number of the restaurants are pharmaceutical representatives who pick up food to take to their clients.

With so much takeout business, each store needs to have one or more staffers dedicated to handle the to-go orders on each shift. In the kitchen, there is at least a separate expediting table and, in newer locations, an entire station dedicated to takeout.

Chuy’s also adds a 6 percent charge to each order to cover packaging, silverware, napkins, and cutlery costs; LaRue says customers don’t usually question it.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature