CHICAGO – When panel moderator Howland Blackiston asked the audience, “Who here offers curbside or is thinking about offering curbside?” about 50 people raised their hands at an educational session here May 20.

“Today’s casual dining must offer convenience” to compete, says Blackiston, principal for the King-Casey design firm.

“Curbside to Go: Take the Lead or Suffer the Consequences” was one of more than 60 interactive panel discussions at the 2007 National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show May 19-22. In addition to Blackiston, the panel included Paul Barron, publisher of Fast Casual magazine, and Nancy Culbertson, vice president of marketing services for Applebee’s International.

According to the NRA, more than 20 percent of adults indicated they order more takeout from table-service restaurants than they did two years ago, and Technomic projects takeout sales will reach $126 billion across all segments this year.

Applebee’s offers “Carside To Go” in 95 percent or 1,900 of its restaurants. Malls and other non-traditional locations do not offer Carside. It launched the program in 2005 after realizing in-store takeout sales had little growth potential, Culbertson says. Today, Carside sales represent 10 percent of total sales and about 70 percent of incremental sales for Applebee’s.

“(Carside customers) are soccer moms looking for convenience, but want quality food,” Culbertson says. “They are brand believers,” which means Applebee’s Carside marketing initiatives are mostly table topper and poster campaigns.

Culbertson says when the brand rolled out Carside, it conducted national print, television, and radio campaigns. But now, the customer understands the service model and that the entire menu is available. Culbertson says Applebee’s tested a Carside-only menu, but it didn’t perform well.

“Customers want the same thing they can order in the store,” she says.

The average ticket for Carside or curbside is about $2 lower than the average dine-in ticket, she says.

“With Carside, you lose that beverage and when they’re ordering, customers almost always know what they want,” she says. “The (order taker) may try to upsell, but there’s little ad-on sales.”

As for technology, the panel discussed the adoption of video surveillance systems, loop detection equipment similar to drive thru’s, and handheld order takers. But for the most part, the panel concluded, curbside is only as successful as kitchen efficiency. Culbertson says Applebee’s retrofitted its stores and modified packaging.

Before rolling out curbside, “make sure you understand the costs and have a plan to service the guests and that the kitchen can handle the extra orders,” Culbertson says.

All three panelists complimented Outback Steakhouse, which is considered the trendsetter of this service model. Several Outback representatives were at the discussion. Kevin Hommert, regional technician for Outback, says the curbside business has not changed a whole lot for the company that brought it to the industry.

“The success of (curbside) is really all about taking phone orders and delivering the food while it’s still hot,” he says.
The NRA show attracts 2,100 exhibiting companies and 73,000 attendees and visitors from all 50 states and 110 countries. –Fred Minnick