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With special deliveries,
restaurants are reaching
new customers

CYNDIE CLAYPOOL
de NEVE
Staff writer

North County Times

                
On a recent Wednesday evening Jessica Agee drove up to Poway's Outback Steakhouse in her BMW.Inside the packed restaurant, several parties were waiting to be seated. It could be nearly an hour before they actually started eating dinner.But not for Agee.

As the Poway woman sat comfortably in her car, talking on her cell phone, Outback employee Lindsay Crabb brought two chicken dinners out to the car parked in one of three spots marked "Curbside Take-away." Within minutes, Agee had paid Crabb for her order and was headed back home to enjoy it.

Phil Beukema, proprietor of the Poway restaurant, said about 300 people a week use his Curbside Take-away program. At $10 to $15 a dinner, he said, it brings in an additional several thousand dollars a week. "People want high-quality food ---- at home," Beukema explained. The restaurant industry is taking notice of a new shift in consumer habits. Though the demand for takeout food remains strong, the takeout crowd is looking for more than just pizza and fast-food burgers. And the industry is changing to serve their needs. Recently, 88 county restaurants, such as Bruno's II Italian Restaurant in Oceanside, have signed up with Food.com, where customers can view a menu and order to-go meals on-line. A few restaurants even offer delivery for a minimum order.

In Solana Beach, the 10-year-old Mobile Waiter offers a delivery service for client restaurants. Drivers bring customers food from 180 county sit-down restaurants, such as Chili's, Tony Roma's and El Torito. The cost is $4.75 to deliver dinner and $6 for lunch, with a minimum purchase of $15. Mobile Waiter, which serves much of San Diego County, feeds 3,000 to 5,000 people a day, said J.D. Gigante, director of marketing for the home-grown business. Takeout appetite growing So why are so many people eating restaurant food at home? "Hard-working individuals are looking for ways to make their lives a little easier," said Steven C. Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, in a statement. "Table-service restaurants are responding by providing high-quality meals in a convenient manner. Ordering takeout or delivery instead of cooking allows people to spend more time with family and friends, and less time in the kitchen after a long day."

Takeout has increased over the past two years for more than half of casual-dining sit-down restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association's "Table-service Trends 2000" survey, released in July. The survey found that almost one out of four adults is ordering more takeout than in the two years before. And the younger the adult, the higher the preference for enjoying their nice meal away from the crowded restaurant. More than one-third of adults ages 18 to 24, and nearly that many 25- to 34-year-olds, said they are ordering more takeout. Though the prices are higher than, say, a burger and fries ordered at the drive-through, the quality of food is worth the cost, reported nearly two-thirds of adults in the survey.

'It's better than fast food' Marsha Hester of Rancho Santa Fe agrees. During the school year, she said, she uses Mobile Waiter three to four times a week, spending $25 to $60 each order. "I have two teen-age daughters," she explained. "Like many, many families, they're involved with sports and extracurricular activities. Unless something's prepared at 1 p.m. ---- which is highly unlikely ---- we all roll into the house at the same time. They're starving; I'm hungry. "This is a convenient way to offer a variety of nice, nutritious meals. And it's better than fast food." Through Mobile Waiter, she frequently orders from Koo Koo Roo, Milton's, Tony Roma's, Fish House-Solana Beach and California Pizza Kitchen.

 Her daughters love it, she said. "Their favorite question is, 'Can we order Mobile Waiter?' " And Hester is satisfied with the quality of food, compared with home-cooked meals. "If I were fixing it, I don't think it would be any better," she said. Good idea for restaurants "In the olden days," said Gigante of Mobile Waiter, "it used to be just Chinese food or pizza that was delivered. Now there are so many people stuck in their house, wanting more options. The feedback we get from our customers is that it saves them a lot of time.

 They are fed with wholesome food without having to go out and get it or make it." Gigante declined to name what he charged restaurants to use his service, but he explained, "The restaurants understand it's a great idea due to the fact that more and more people are wanting better meals at home. They understand they are able to keep customers from ordering Domino's and keep them coming to their restaurant by utilizing this service. Rather than losing money to (delivery) pizza, it keeps the money coming to them." It's financially beneficial in other ways, he said. "It saves the restaurant a waiter, someone to explain the menu, a bus boy, someone to clean up. Minus those costs, there's no difference. Most of the time, it's more profitable than any in-house customer could be."


Bill Wechter/Staff Photographer

 
Gigante started his company, originally called Time Savers, in 1990 with seven restaurants. "They picked up groceries, dry cleaning, drove cars for repairs." As owner John Leonffu fine-tuned the concept, he quickly realized the food area was most in demand, and changed his focus to restaurant takeout delivery. By 1995, he had grown the business to 23 restaurants in Solana Beach and parts of Encinitas, and then expanded to all of San Diego County. "We've doubled the business every year since 1995, with growth rates reaching 180 percent," said Gigante. In fact, during the last few weeks, Mobile Waiter has expanded into Irvine and Las Vegas. Mobile Waiter's delivery area covers most North County cities except for Escondido, where they're still working on getting enough restaurants to be able to offer the service.

Customers telephone the company or order via Mobile Waiter's Web site. Then the order is faxed to the restaurant and a delivery driver is dispatched. Delivery time from the original phone call or on-line submission, said Gigante, is about 30 to 60 minutes, about the same as with traditional pizza delivery. On-line ordering Mobile Waiter also handles some orders placed through Food.com, which are faxed to Mobile Waiter, said Gigante. Food.com, which started in 1996, recently began offering service to San Diego County. Now it has 88 local restaurants offering their menus on-line, said Elizabeth Johnson, the company's communications manager. Nationwide, it has nearly 17,000 restaurants and 1.5 million registered members. In most cases, customers order the food on-line and then pick it up themselves. "It's an added convenience to consumers," said Johnson. "They don't have to keep calling back and getting busy signals. They can order in advance. And they can personalize it to 'My Usual Order.

Then it really is just a click of a button to get a hot meal ready for dinner. Participating restaurants are charged $79 per month plus a 5-percent transaction fee, she said. The service has another benefit for client restaurants: It brings take-out customers to the eateries. Norman Pattah, owner of Bruno's II Italian Restaurant in Oceanside, said, "We used to do delivery, but it was too much." He has just signed up with Food.com and is expecting promising results. Curbside service Even though customers pick up their own orders, the Curbside Take-away program has increased the take-home business at Outback Steakhouse. "Before, people would have to park, come in the restaurant, place their order and battle the crowds in the restaurant," Beukema said. "This eliminated the trouble with parking, and it solved them waiting at the restaurant while their food was prepared." He added with a laugh,

 We have ladies coming in their bathrobes. They don't have to get dressed." Beukema's Poway store has been offering the service, designed by the Outback Steakhouse headquarters, for 18 months. There is no extra charge, and meals are ready for pickup in about 15 to 20 minutes from the time they're called in. Curbside Take-away has become so popular that Lindsay Crabb's whole job is to be "Takeaway Girl," as she dubs herself. In a small room at the back of the restaurant, she takes phone orders, collects the prepared meals from the kitchen, packages them, delivers them to the customer's car and acts as cashier. A camera allows her to watch the three designated Curbside Take-away parking spots from a monitor inside her office. When she is given a phone order, she requests the color and make of the vehicle, so she knows whose meal is whose when the customer drives up.

On weekends, it's so busy that Beukema schedules four people to work exclusively on Curbside Take-away: One person takes the phone orders; two are in the kitchen packaging the orders and one brings the food to the cars. Customer Jessica Agee is such a fan of the service that she has been using Outback's Curbside Take-away program twice a month for a year and a half. "It's really crowded inside, and their food is really good," she said. "Who wants to wait an hour for dinner?" Contact staff writer Cyndie Claypool de Neve at (760) 740-3511 or cyndie@nctimes.net.

10/19/00


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