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May 2008

Finding Gold In To-Go Services
By: Beth Lorenzini

Thinking about adding online ordering or delivery service? Here's how Buca di Beppo successfully added both.

Odd though it sounds, delivering full-service restaurant fare to folks on the go is a relatively new concept. Those curb service spots we see in front of our favorite dine-in destinations really haven't become prolific, or expected, until recently.

"I think a lot of full-service concepts are pulled into it by their customers," says Brian Beers, v.p. of off-premise sales and catering for 89-unit Buca Inc., Minneapolis. "That's how it evolved for us: customers requested our food to go and we looked for ways to provide it."

And those ways are proving very good for business. Two new initiatives, online takeout ordering at select locations and delivery using specially equipped vehicles, are returning better-than-expected results to the company's bottom line.

Evolution Of A To-Go Station
"When we started packaging our food for takeout, the process was ad hoc," says Beers. "But by 2005, we were managing that end of the business more formally with phone order protocols, curb service space allotment—we installed high-resolution, color camera systems—and dedicated runners."

In existing units, the equipment setup for takeout stations is pretty simple, he explains. Stations include a POS register, a monitor showing the parking spots, a phone and a shelf area for staging orders, which are packaged in the kitchen. In some units, the whole staging area is in the kitchen. In others, it is part of the lobby, and in new units, a small room has been added off the lobby.

"There's not a lot to a to-go station," says Beers. "It's a lot less difficult to set up than you might think. After all, you're running the food out to the cars."

And that's a key point, he adds. "If you're going to provide takeout, take it out to the customer in the car. Buca puts the curb service spots right out in front with clear signage." That way, customers picking up orders aren't confused, and customers dining in register that your food is available to go. "It's the best way to advertise the service," says Beers. After all, making customers come in might deter them from ordering from you. It's all about convenience.

Ordering Made Easy
Convenience is the reason behind Buca's latest takeout endeavor, online ordering. "We looked at six or seven companies capable of setting up online ordering for us," says Dan Cullen, senior director of information technology. "Our choice, orderTalk, was different on a lot of levels."

First, Dallas-based orderTalk is the host of the system. "They didn't propose to sell us software; we specifically avoided that scenario because we didn't want to have to install and maintain the program," explains Cullen. Instead, Buca's online orders are hosted on orderTalk's servers for transactions fees and a monthly retainer. OrderTalk's software integrates directly with Buca's POS provider, Squirrel Systems. "That means when online orders come in, they go directly to the kitchen," says Cullen. "There's no need for any employee to handle the order because it's automatically entered into the system."

Buca's online ordering pilot started with five Minneapolis units in October 2007, and an additional 18 units came online in January. The results of the pilots are so promising the company is pressing to get all units up and running with orderTalk quickly.

"We knew we'd gain incremental sales with online ordering," says Cullen. "What surprised and delighted us was that online check averages are about 40% higher than phone orders."

The reasons for the great results make sense. When customers order online, they can take their time, even walk away from the screen if necessary and come back later. They also don't have to worry about whether an employee will get their order right.

Suggestive selling works online, too. When ordering from a computer, customers see photos of the food, which can trigger additional purchases, and the system automatically analyzes orders and identifies what's missing to make strategic up-sells, such as sides, salads and desserts.

"These are selling opportunities a rushed employee might skip over the phone," says Cullen. Timing is controlled as well. "When you order online, you choose the half-hour time period you want to pick up the order, but the system puts a cap on the number of orders a Buca di Beppo kitchen can process in 15-minute increments to avoid backups," says Cullen.

Online ordering works especially well for corporate clients. When businesses order for groups, the process couldn't be more convenient. The program allows a central company contact to e-mail menu choices to everyone in a group and then consolidates all the orders into one large order and processes the payment.

Have Transport, Will Travel
At the beginning of August 2007, Buca began bringing food to corporate customers rather than requiring them to pick up. As of the first quarter of this year, 21 California locations offer the service. "We decided to invest in delivery vans to capture the Monday-to-Friday office lunch business, mostly in urban locations," says Beers. "It's been a good call because suddenly, we're a welcome change from sandwiches and pizza." Orders carry a $25 delivery fee and the company is seeing a healthy boost to midday sales. Over the holidays, catering receipts were outstanding. "That's business we would not have been able to capture without this delivery option," says Beers.

The vans, which cost about $20,000 each, come in large and small. The larger vehicles carry refrigerators in addition to hot holding equipment; the small just have hot holding (160°F). They are designed not only to deliver day-to-day orders, but to cater really huge corporate events, as well. Van exteriors are custom decorated with Buca signage. "We want them to be billboards for us," explains Beers. When a meal is delivered, service is full-out with tablecloths, plates, napkins, utensils, condiments—everything a corporate coordinator would need.

Beers and Cullen expect both takeout initiatives to grow. "We think that while people might be cutting back on dining out, they're not cutting back on ordering in, so it's vital that we're set to deliver what our customers want," says Beers. "We're positioned to meet demands."

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