Restaurants and other foodservice outlets have noticed a trend in the last several years: Customers increasingly desire (and need) to grab food and go. That’s why more restaurants, especially limited-service brands, are investing in grab-and-go food options to complement their regular menus.
Some companies are putting refrigeration units in their existing restaurants, while others are installing vending machines and kiosks in nontraditional locations like airports and malls. No matter the delivery, the food industry is taking note of a growing band of consumers who want delicious, fresh, exciting—but prepackaged—food while moving from point A to point B.
Jackson, Mississippi–based Newk’s Eatery entered the grab-and-go game by placing coolers in the dining rooms that are branded as Express Market. They offer premium center-of-the-plate proteins and layer cakes that, in the words of CMO Stewart Slocum, “allow our lunch guest to be the hero and pick up dinner at lunch.” Pre-made meals and heatable trays intended for off-premises consumption allow guests to grab dinner when it’s convenient, and Newk’s offerings make it easy for someone to throw together a pasta, salad, sandwich, or stir-fry with premium ingredients. That fits with the trend of not only getting quality food on demand (like in a grocery-store pickup or via delivery), but also the trend of making your own restaurant-grade meal, as many now do with meal kits like Blue Apron.
Some grab-and-go concepts feature bars where customers can pick and choose what they want, package them up, pay, and go about their day. Beatrix Market in Chicago is one such place, with a self-serve salad, soup, and hot-food bar that stands alongside options like packaged nuts and chocolates. There are also pre-packaged entrées like the Smoked Salmon Box, which is “a balanced protein and healthy fat combination for an easy afternoon snack or light bite for lunch,” says Janet Kirker, associate partner with the brand, which was spun off the full-service Lettuce Entertain You concept Beatrix.
Paradita Eatery also leverages something of a grab-and-go cafeteria concept, which helps it exist hand-in-hand with catering. Chef Carlos Altamirano, who owns multiple Bay Area restaurants—including Parada—saw a need in a busy neighborhood where nearby workers had a limited amount of time to go off-site. “Sometimes people order their lunch for take-away and then end up eating it through the afternoon,” Altamirano says, “so Paradita has to provide meals that maintain their integrity over time.” This concern—to provide food that maintains flavor and freshness over time—is at the core of the grab-and-go trend.
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Fast casual Lemonade, based in Los Angeles and focused on a healthy, seasonal menu in a relaxed, eco-friendly space, also jumped into the grab-and-go model “to provide an even quicker option for those truly on the go, whether at an airport or hopping in the car,” says Kelly Hansen, vice president of marketing and sales. The concept’s primary model is cafeteria-style, but some locations also boast a grab-and-go section with pre-made salads, sandwiches, wraps, juices, and more.
Selling grab-and-go food requires that you think about freshness differently, Hansen adds. Ingredients like apples, lettuce, and fish all have to be approached in new ways, even though consumers still want the same quality. This requires that Lemonade prepare its items—such as Hawaiian Ahi Poke and Spicy Pineapple Chicken Lettuce Wraps—fresh daily before distributing.
Bakery-cafés have long been a popular destination for grab-and-go food. And New York’s Bien Cuit—an elevated iteration of the French-American bakery—takes great care that each of its prepackaged items will travel well without falling apart or developing unpleasant textures or flavors under the effects of time, temperature, and oxidation. “People like the option to sit and enjoy their meal, but also appreciate the convenience of having something already completely prepared, delicious, and ready to go out the door immediately,” says Zachary Golper, chef-owner of Bien Cuit.
Dallas-based Eatzi’s Market & Bakery has been in the grab-and-go business for decades. Eatzi’s opened its first location 22 years ago, dubbed at the time as a “home meal replacement” outlet for people who did not have the time required to eat at a full-service restaurant. Some 85 percent of its sales come from its prepared food, with the rest coming from specialty items. “The biggest challenge for us is ensuring quality is maintained during the reheating process,” says CEO Adam Romo, noting that Eatzi’s menu options are designed for guests to prepare at home. With more than 1,600 unique SKUs at any given time, Eatzi’s offers, among other things, baked goods and pastries, hot-grill entrées, custom sandwiches and salads, pre-packaged meals, produce, and sushi.
“Consumer demands for greater convenience are inexorable, as evidenced by the rapid growth of online ordering, curbside service, and immediate delivery,” Romo says. “They want upscale, restaurant-quality food, and they want everything they could order from a menu in a grab-and-go option.”
Sushi is also available to grab and go at Miso Ko, a kiosk that opened in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market this year. The kiosk is adjacent to Ton Ton Ramen and Yakitori, and with only nine seats, maximizes profits with its grab-and-go selection. Dealing primarily with raw fish, Miso Ko keeps its concentration on food safety as well as health considerations, freshness, and peak flavor.
“Customers want real food fast, to enjoy high-quality menu items without waiting, at their convenience, and in the environment of their choice,” says Miso Ko chef-owner Guy Wong.
About how far can the grab-and-go trend go?
“I’m not sure where the borders of the box are,” Bien Cuit’s Golper says. “The key is humble experimentation and honest judgment of your own creations. If it works, pat yourself on the back and try to make a buck. If it doesn’t, get back to the cutting board.”