How to Transform a Comfort Classic Into A Take-Out and Delivery Favorite

Best practices for takeout and delivery featuring pasta.

In an industry upended by stay-at-home orders, culinary leaders have been rethinking how their menu offerings will work in a world of take-out and delivery-only sales. One dish that shows promise for full-service restaurants is pasta. Not only is this classic offering a comforting favorite for many Americans, but it’s also easily customizable so that it meets the needs of both restaurants and consumers alike in a time of crisis.

“Pasta travels well, and while people can make spaghetti or penne at home, they aren’t going to go the extra mile to make themselves chicken piccata or chicken parmigiana,” says Tamra Scroggins, corporate executive chef at Daily Grill, a California-based “fine-casual comfort food” chain with 13 national locations. Though Daily Grill has offered pasta delivery for several years through partnerships with Grubhub and DoorDash, Scroggins says it’s a core offering in the new delivery and take-out only world.

Similarly, Matt Harding, senior vice president of culinary and menu innovation at Piada Italian Street Food, an Ohio-based national chain with 40 locations, says delivery already made up 20–30 percent of the brand’s sales, and pasta was always a key offering. But now, given the changes in the industry, Harding says restaurants need to look at how their dishes adapt to take-out and delivery-only models. “Everything that happens between the time food leaves our possession until it’s delivered to a customer’s home is more important than ever,” he says.

To help restaurants fine-tune their pasta delivery and take-out practices, pasta leader Barilla used their casual restaurant brand, Casa Barilla, as a learning lab and launched a delivery-only “dark kitchen” in partnership with REEF Kitchens in Miami.

“It’s a research project to develop best practices around pasta delivery and takeout that we can use across the entire organization and, most importantly, share with our foodservice customers,” says Saul Cooperstein, chief financial and strategy officer of Barilla Restaurants.

For the project, Cooperstein led a team of R&D, foodservice, and restaurant experts who tested various take-out and delivery strategies. “Customers still need amazing food that demonstrates value in pricing, superior service, and experience,” Cooperstein says. “For delivery, this opens up both opportunities and potential pitfalls for operators.”

One finding from the dark kitchen project is that consumers are looking for comfort foods like pasta because it’s familiar, hearty, and filling. Additionally, Cooperstein notes, pasta can be adapted to virtually any restaurant menu regardless of price point or type of cuisine. It’s easy to cook without any special equipment, allows restaurants to multipurpose ingredients they already have in their kitchens, has a long shelf life, and offers restaurants the potential for strong margins.

Scroggins reports similar findings: “Pasta has that crave factor and has always been a great seller for us. It doesn’t cost us a lot to make, even though diners perceive it to be a higher-value item,” she says.

Yet quality is still a chief factor in whether or not short-term customers become long-term customers. This means restaurants must fine-tune their operations for cooking pasta to ensure top performance when it reaches the guest at home.

Scroggins says when pasta is cooked in-house, it typically gets to a table within about a minute of it hitting the expo line. But when it’s delivered, the time it takes to reach a consumer is much longer. “For example,” she says, “if a dish is served in a hot pomodoro sauce, it’s going to keep cooking while it’s on the way to the house, which means pasta might arrive mushy if we don’t account for that in our cooking process.” As a result, the Daily Grill team cooks pasta for delivery slightly more al dente.

Harding, who has seen similar results, recommends restaurants test each of their dishes by driving them around for 30 minutes to see how they travels. “We found we needed to add a little more sauce than what we would serve in the restaurant to create the best delivery experience.”

Perhaps the most important factor in the quality of an off-premises pasta dish is the quality of the pasta itself. “I’ve used Barilla for probably 10–12 years now because they have a scientific process that ensures it’s the same every time,” says Harding. “When I write a recipe that says to cook it for a certain amount of time, I don’t have to worry about how the wheat harvest was that year or how the product will cook at each of our locations. And Barilla is a great innovation partner.”

Scroggins has also used Barilla for several years and says, “Mushiness isn’t really a problem with Barilla because it has a stronger structure than other pastas,” she says.

Though leaders in the industry have spent the past few months adapting to a new, unexpected way of life, developing a strong delivery menu with the help of partners can help restaurants find new ways to draw in consumers and turn them into life-long fans.