In the early spring of 2020, roughly half the Crispy Coop’s business came from takeout. Then coronavirus struck, bringing with it shutdowns and restrictions, forcing the small restaurant chain — which has locations in Pickerington and Grandview Heights — to make nearly all of its food to go.
Now, even with restaurant restrictions lifted in Ohio, the Crispy Coop is still dealing mostly in carryout. Around 80% of customers order food to eat off-site, owner Drew Cleary said.
The pair of eateries make enough to pay their expenses, but Cleary longingly reminisces about the days of hungry patrons enjoying their meals in booths and tables inside his restaurants.
“I miss seeing crowded dining rooms all the time,” he said. “I miss seeing them enjoy the food.”
The small Columbus fried chicken chain is hardly an outlier. Restaurant patrons throughout the nation turned to carryout and delivery as COVID spread rapidly through the population, but a year and a half later, the takeout and delivery business is still strong, and many in the industry think it could stay that way.
What that means for the state’s beleaguered diners and eateries is a matter of debate. The impact on an individual restaurant depends largely on its location and the kind of food it serves, industry insiders say.
No one envisions the end of in-person dining, but restaurateurs have to prepare for a lasting increase in takeout orders, said John Barker, CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.
“For fine dining, if less than 10% of sales were takeout (before COVID), they might land somewhere in the teens,” he said. “The implications of that is that you need to have a kitchen set up for it. You need to have a place to handle that in your restaurant.”
That could mean having someone at the host stand whose only job is taking carryout orders, he said.
It also means fewer sales on lucrative items like alcoholic beverages, said Jim Sauter, vice president of the Columbus-based restaurant chain Rusty Bucket.
“Dine-in guests are more prone to get two to three courses and have multiple drinks,” he said. On the flip side, carryout requires less labor, so it could be a wash for most eateries.
Customers generally limit their carryout and delivery orders to a handful of foods. Chinese food, pizza, and cold sandwiches were, by a wide margin, the most popular delivery items before coronavirus shut down most of the state’s restaurants last year. Off-premise dining options expanded rapidly, and patrons are asking for more variety, said Brian Howenstein, COO of ClusterTruck, a food delivery company based in Indianapolis with locations in Dublin and Downtown Columbus.
“Before the pandemic, ordering nontraditional delivery foods was a special occasion,” he said. “But during the pandemic, we started to see that become more commonplace.”
In Howenstein’s view, that means delivery and carryout is becoming a more viable dining option.
The heightened demand for delivery and carryout predates the coronavirus pandemic thanks to the rise of delivery apps like UberEats and DoorDash, but COVID magnified the trend as a frightened public shunned restaurant dining rooms.
“Pre-pandemic, it was younger consumers using this technology, and many consumers weren’t even knowledgeable about it,” said Jenny Hawkins, a professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University.
COVID changed that dynamic, and quick-to-download and easy-to-use delivery apps simplified the process for restaurants and their patrons, said Joe Goodman, chair of the department of marketing and logistics for the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
The apps “make it easier for these third parties like DoorDash to deliver and integrate,” he said. “And consumers are finding it convenient.”
But mostly, customers became accustomed to eating at home.
“It’s not even about COVID anymore, people just got used to that luxury,” said Lisa Bui, who owns 6-1-Pho in Clintonville. Around 70% of the restaurant’s business comes from carryout, she said.
Carryout and delivery also saves diners the time that would be spent in the restaurant, said Alex Sukhoy, a professor of marketing at Cleveland State University.
“And if there is one thing we learned during COVID, it’s the power of convenience,” she said. “We want everything to come to us. Once you experience this level of convenience and simplicity, why would you go back?”
Not every restaurant is equipped to make the switch. Fine dining restaurants and steakhouses pour money into the dine-in experience, carefully building ambiance with ornate interiors, white tablecloths and fancy silverware.
“More upscale restaurants are not going to invest as much in off-premise dining, so none of these trends are going to be uniform,” said Randy Sparks, a professor of marketing at the University of Dayton School of Business.
Even some more casual eateries have signature items that simply aren’t prepared to survive a 20-minute car ride.
Martha’s Fusion Kitchen in North Linden sells mostly tacos, an ideal item to order to go in most instances. But the restaurant is known for a particularly meaty taco that becomes less appetizing over time, co-owner Jose Zacatelco said.
“We’re known for our birria tacos,” he said, referring to a kind of Mexican pot roast dish composed of meat and chili peppers with plenty of jus. “We make the tortillas crispy, the meat is meaty, and believe me it is juicy. It doesn’t travel as well as any other Mexican food.”
How much do people tip carryout vs. dine-in?
The switch to carryout is also a potential headache for restaurant workers. Crispy Coop customers tip between 15% and 20% on dine-in orders, whereas they tip around 7% to 10% on carryout orders, Cleary said.
It evens out, he said, because the dining room requires more employees, splitting the gratuity between more workers. Carryout, on the other hand, requires only a worker at the register to take orders and hand the customer their food.
While anecdotes abound, there is little research comparing tips on takeout and delivery to gratuity on in-person dining, said Anthony Advincula, director of communications for ROC United, an organization that advocates for hospitality workers.
But in-person dining has an accepted standard tip of 15%, she said, and a small number of restaurants even add gratuity to the bill.
“For carryout, there is nothing,” Advincula said. “(Tipping) is pretty much voluntary.”
For fast casual, build-your-own-meal restaurants like 6-1-Pho, carryout and delivery add a packaging step to the process, which adds to overhead costs, Bui said.
Further challenging restaurants like 6-1-Pho, packaging prices have skyrocketed recently along with the price of other commodities that restaurants depend on.
“Bags with handles almost doubled in price,” Bui said.
And then there are the delivery fees. Third-party delivery services charge up to 30% percent of the ticket total for each delivery, eating up profits for restaurants that didn’t factor those costs into their business plan, Bui said.
Columbus City Council approved a 15% cap on delivery fees in November, but the ordinance only applies to delivery contracts negotiated after the law went into effect.
“As a small business, any business is good business, so I don’t want to say that it’s bad,” Bui said. “But it’s not ideal.”
Will carryout endure as the pandemic fades into memory and restaurant customers no longer worry about coronavirus infection?
“There are a lot of moving parts to answering that question,” Sparks said.
Predicting consumer trends is a dicey proposition, he said. Certainly no one could have foreseen a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that would push a wary public toward at-home dining.
But the pieces are in place to push the carryout boom forward, Sparks said, including a tech-savvy younger generation coming of age and spending more money, and a customer base more accustomed to eating off-premise.
“My intuition tells me it will be a larger part of restaurant revenue streams than it has in the past and will continue that way,” he said.
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