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Restaurants get creative with off-premises dining to create a sense of place

With dining rooms temporarily shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurants are putting more thought into the food they offer for off-premises dining.

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Restaurants get creative with off-premises dining to create a sense of place

Image: Ilsy Serrano/El Sapo Cuban Social Club

The restaurant industry is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the closure of tens of thousands of eateries and required major changes from those able to remain open. Off-premises dining — which has seen rapid growth over the past few years due to demand for convenience — is currently the only option for many consumers looking to eat a meal they didn’t cook themselves. 

With dining rooms temporarily shut down, many restaurants are putting more thought into the food they offer for off-premises dining. Creating special menu items, paying extra attention to packaging and infusing their brand identity into carryout and delivery orders allows restaurants to create a sense of place. With demand for off-premises likely to continue even after establishments start opening back up, putting their unique stamp on the takeout experience can help restaurants stay top of mind with diners until they’re ready to dine out again.

“Dining out is not only about the food. It’s about the complete experience,” said Amy Shipley, managing director and partner at marketing services firm Sterling-Rice Group. “Creating a sense of place is critical now because the experiences elevate our mood and enhance our food,” she said.

Make eating in a special occasion

To help customers recreate the restaurant experience at home, operators are getting creative by “adding surprise appetizers and desserts; developing creative family meals with activity ideas or paired wine and beverages; offering interactive cooking and cocktail kits or writing personal thank you notes,” Shipley said.

Several states and jurisdictions have temporarily relaxed rules that previously prohibited restaurants from delivering alcoholic beverages. These newly loosened laws make it possible for diners to enjoy some of the same drinks they were used to ordering when dining out. In New York City, restaurants are seeing demand for everything from single cocktails to growlers and martini packages complete with garnishes and glassware, the New York Times reported.

In Silver Spring, Md., El Sapo Cuban Social Club offers its signature mojitos to go in single cups or pitchers, along with a pared-down menu that diners can order for delivery or pickup. When the dining room closed, the restaurant quickly pivoted by opening a takeout window, dubbed La Ventanita, where lively music and a brightly painted menu signal to locals that they are still open for business.

“Painting the windows with the menu specials in bold colors was another way to evoke energy and happiness in these times where a smile and a sincere, ‘how are you doing?’ goes a long way,” El Sapo’s Ilsy Serrano said.

For more family-friendly off-premises offerings, many foodservice operators have expanded free kids meal deals or rolled out family meal packages. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit has long allowed kids to eat for free in its restaurants. When the pandemic closed its dining rooms, the Texas-based chain began offering free kids meals online and added family meal bundles to the menu, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. For families whose birthday celebrations have been interrupted (or turned into Zoom meetings) by the coronavirus pandemic, Chuck E. Cheese is offering birthday packages that include pizzas, party favors and tickets to use on a future visit.

Deliver a restaurant-quality experience 

Successful restaurant operators know that food is only part of the reason people love eating out. Special touches can help lend a feeling of hospitality to off-premises orders.

For example, Shipley said, “we’re seeing Tex-Mex chains delivering freshly-made chips with reheating directions [and] wings concepts delivering signature sauces in innovative dipping boxes.”

Proper packaging helps food maintain the proper temperature and texture, and branded boxes, bags and cups can give customers a jolt of nostalgia for their favorite restaurant. Additionally, packaging plays a key role in restaurants’ ability to make diners feel safe about eating out during the pandemic.

“Operators are offering ‘black glove’ service, carefully packaging items with re-heating instructions and tamper- and temperature-proof packaging,” said Dina Paz, chef and culinary director at Sterling-Rice Group.

“Updating customers about cleaning and sanitizing procedures via social media, website or flyers, including photos of cooks and delivery drivers wearing masks and gloves or staff cleaning common areas and equipment all go a long way in reassuring guests about health and safety,” she said.

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