With carryout and delivery on the rise, restaurants are getting redesigned

As restaurant delivery goes up, more drywall is coming down.

The rise in food delivery and digital ordering in recent years has meant restaurant owners have had to learn quickly about the latest technology. They've also had to learn how to wield a hammer.

From added food preparation lines to reconfigurations that expand space for people to stand and wait for takeout orders, joining the digital revolution has required restaurants to make physical changes in their kitchens and dining areas. And industry watchers say it's only the beginning.

"It's proliferating widely right now, especially with quick-service and casual dining," said Doug Roth, founder of the restaurant consulting firm Playground Hospitality.

Some changes are as small as adding a shelf to stash mobile orders awaiting pickup. But the changes can be much bigger, all the way up to creating a separate kitchen altogether to handle all the new mobile orders from those who prefer eating restaurant-prepared meals on their couch.

It's a good time to make changes, because delivery, though seemingly ubiquitous, is still in the early stages.

Delivery made up just 3 percent of total restaurant transactions in the year that ended in June, according to research firm The NPD Group. But interest in eating outside the confines of a traditional restaurant is clear. Customers only sat down to eat at restaurants 37 percent of time during the year that ended in June — with carryout representing a slightly larger piece of the pie (39 percent) and drive-thru visits accounting for 21 percent of restaurant transactions. And delivery growth also is in contrast to a slowdown in restaurant traffic overall, according to NPD.  

Still, redesigning a restaurant to accommodate the burgeoning trend toward mobile ordering and meal delivery can be a risky move for restaurants, Roth said. For example, creating two lines for customers — one to wait for food ordered on the premises and the other to pick up mobile orders — makes sense, but it also could raise labor costs because more employees may be needed to staff both lines.

Those added costs can make a difference, especially in times of slower business.

"When restaurants are doing well, it hides a lot of ills," Roth said.

How restaurants are changing

Restaurateurs have had to work fast to keep up with the quickening pace of change in dining technology. Mobile ordering apps and food delivery services mean a professionally prepared meal is never more than a finger swipe away. Restaurant operators say they're adjusting their dining rooms accordingly in a number of ways.

Panera's CEO once referred to the mass of people waiting to pick up orders as the "mosh pit." But the chain has reduced wait times and human logjams with a mobile ordering app, touch-screen ordering, and the most humble of advancements: A shelf that houses digital orders waiting to be picked up. Corner Bakery has a similar setup for online order pickups.

For Big Star, a taco hot spot in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, adding a separate kitchen to fuel a new to-go window didn't just allow for more to-go business, it also solved a big problem.

"Our former to-go window shared a kitchen with the main restaurant, which meant we'd often have to shut down to-go service during our busiest times of year," said Terry Alexander, managing partner of the restaurant's parent, One Off Hospitality. "Now that we have a dedicated to-go space, we're able to fulfill carryout and delivery orders without impacting the flow of service in the restaurant."

The new to-go window launched the restaurant's delivery business and allowed it to expand its hours. It also let the restaurant continue to cater to its typically raucous crowd inside while setting up a new, bigger space for families outside its to-go window.

For Stephanie Izard's Duck Duck Goat, the lure of adding to-go service combined with a desire to do a unique street food menu led to the carving out of a service window that allowed customers to walk up and place orders without disrupting guests in the dining room.

Four months after opening Duck Duck Goat, Duck Duck Ta Go was born. Serving out of the window added off the kitchen, "Ta Go" serves Chinese and Taiwanese street food-style dishes that aren't offered on the regular Duck Duck Goat menu. The to-go service operates out of its own tiny kitchen.

Some bigger Chicago restaurant companies are meeting growing demand for food that can be consumed off-site by developing digital-only eateries that operate out of existing kitchens, with some small tweaks.

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a Chicago-based restaurant group that operates dozens of eateries, in March established a Lincoln Park area takeout- and delivery-only spot called Seaside's that operates out of the kitchen at Oyster Bah, a sister property. In July, the company introduced ASAP Poke, a delivery-only service that operates out of Naoki Sushi in Lincoln Park.

"As we open new concepts like this, there certainly are thoughts on food preparation and training and making sure delivery can be executed in a really seamless way," said Scott Barton, an executive partner and divisional president who oversees Naoki and ASAP Poke. "We are trying to make sure that the space and layout fits for the technology involved."

That balance between technology upgrades and concrete changes is key, according to Jon Lawrence, senior director of solution strategy for NCR, which develops a number of back-end restaurant systems.

"It's a little bit of chicken and egg," he said. "Without tech you can't make the physical changes and without the physical change, you won't always serve the guests more effectively."

There's been more demand recently for improved technology in part because the ways restaurants get customers — online, mobile, delivery — are changing so rapidly, Lawrence said.

"There has been a growing interest to use these systems now that there are orders coming in from new channels," he said. "And now that these channels are opening up, (restaurateurs) are starting to look at how changes can be made in design."

Designing restaurants of the future

Even diners who still choose to eat in a restaurant are spending their time there differently, which restaurants must also keep in mind when reconfiguring their spaces.

Dwayne MacEwen, founder of Evanston-based DMAC Architecture, said that restaurant design is changing to cater to more "alone-together" guests, or those that come to eat solo but still want to be in the company of others.

"They have their earbuds in, their laptops open, but they still want to be in a dining room," he said.

MacEwen, whose firm has designed spaces for restaurants including Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House, Roka Akor, Untitled Supper Club, Michael Jordan's Steak House and Doc B's Fresh Kitchen, said the first design change restaurant customers may notice is the host stand.

"With so much grab-and-go business today, take-out is moving away from the bar," he said. "It used to be that customers would wait over a drink at the bar, but now we're tethered to our phones."

That means host stands are getting larger and some are being retrofitted with added shelving so to-go customers can get in and out quickly.

In the kitchen, there is more space allotted for hot boxes, heat lamps, and delivery drivers, he said. Expediting counters — where hot food waits to be picked up by a server — are being staffed more by delivery drivers and less by servers, MacEwen said.

Restaurants also are being laid out with less waiting space in front, because many restaurants can now alert customers with a text when their table is ready. And cash register space is becoming less vital, as technology makes it possible for customers to pay at their tables or with the swipe of a card by a server.

And with customers' desire to be more connected comes the need for more power outlets, MacEwen said, a feature that's becoming essential. He said more outlets are being added at places where singles tend to congregate, like the bar and at communal or smaller tables, so customers can take advantage of them without holding up a full table.

"It's all about a morphing of how people live and work," he said. "It used to be that we ate in the dining room and watched TV in the living room. Now your desk has moved into your pocket, and the food comes with you on your way. The old rules don't really make sense now."

sbomkamp@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @SamWillTravel

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
66°