Touting the Takeout Experience

Being an “Experience” connoisseur, I was pleasantly surprised by a recent one I had involving the ever-not-so glamourous restaurant take-out experience.

Trapped in our homes, tired of cooking, and looking for something to boost our frumpy state of morale -many of us might turn to one of our few saving graces – takeout food. Of course, this very critical mission justifies our leaving the safety of our homes (whew), as we aim to feed our family and bring new life to our stale household. So we call in an order, drive to pick it up. Someone hands us a bag, takes our money, and says thank you.  We scurry home to unwrap our morsels of happiness and enjoy a bite size bit of satisfaction. When it’s done, we wad up the trash and toss it out with a little piece of our dignity.

For local restaurants, the COVID quarantine has moved the takeout experience to the front of the line. And while small businesses ask for their customers support with to-go orders during this time of lock-down and lock-out, how might restaurants deliver a new takeout experience that rivals dining out?

Recently, my boyfriend and I decided to be dare-devils on week four of quarantine and order take-out. We decided on a restaurant in Barrio Logan, San Diego called Ciccia Osteria. We’ve eaten at the restaurant before – always enjoying the quaint indoor atmosphere or Mediterranean style outdoor patio. We checked the menu online and called in our order from home. Charming Italian owner, Mario answered in his thick accent and recited the specials of the day as if they were lyrics to an Italian love song. We decided on our dishes – a warm buttery, strawberry pasta for me and a juicy steak with mushrooms and Sicilian potatoes for him.

Grateful and delighted, we headed to Ciccia to pick up our order. On our way to the restaurant, we received a video text from Mario showing our food being cooked on the stove. We could see the flames leaping from the pan and hear the juicy sizzle. With COVID looming over us, we were happy to see that the kitchen looked clean and employees were taking the appropriate precautions. We drooled and started imagining being back home and taking the first bite. “Hurry, baby! Look how amazing it looks!” I said. So he drove a little bit faster.

Mario met us at the door of the small restaurant offering up two glasses of Italian Prosecco.  While we waited for our food to come out of the tiny kitchen, another woman arrived to pick-up her order and (yes, from at least six feet away) joined us in a glass of Prosecco as we all at the handmade delicacies in the glass display. Mario was creating special moments of connection. Having been in our homes for so long,  we were all abundantly grateful. I mentioned it to him. He said, with a smile, “I know. I am Italian. This is what we do.” Just then, Francesca, the perpetually grinning master chef and Mario’s wife, popped out of the kitchen with several bags of yumminess for us. She told us she had added a surprise side dish we were to try once we got home.

Loaded with Prosecco and boxes of food from our waist to our eyebrows, we headed back home. As we prepared the table to eat, I noticed Francesca had added a handwritten note on the box containing our dessert. She had drawn little hearts and “xoxos”. They had given us larger portions than usual, knowing we were not supposed to be traipsing around town during these uncertain days. It was like they wanted to stay in our hearts and minds for as long as possible. Not to mention, the food was off-the-charts incredible. Talk about creating a mood and connection. For two days we were blissfully homebound – eating off the leftovers as if they were sacred treasures. Ciccia wasn’t letting their culinary presentation or quality slip because it was takeout. It was actually as if they had put extra effort to make it so good -we’d be forever baited into coming back for more. In the end, it was all of the parts we loved about going out, without the parts we don’t (like all the crowds).

It got me thinking about the opportunities for small restaurants to differentiate themselves and delight customers through the take-out experience. Using our Ciccia experience as a reference, I put together a list of things that stood out.

  1. Send videos of the food being prepared. Show the care you are putting in to making their order.
  2. Keep a webcam in the kitchen and share it on your website, so people can still see you even though you can’t see them. Say hello, show them why they should come by and support you. Smile!
  3. Send a small note in the package you send home. (If your mom ever put a note in your lunch box, you know how powerful this can be.)
  4. Offer customers something to eat or drink while they wait. Give them enough space to feel comfortable, but still catered to.
  5. Surprise your customers. Add an extra side of something new, a dessert, chocolates, or a recipe for leftovers. We all looked forward to finding the toy at the bottom of the cereal box as kids. Think of something that will make them smile. This will inspire them to come back and see what surprise you have for them next.
  6. Don’t let them forget you so fast! Give people enough food so they keep your delicious food in their kitchen and stomachs for at least a couple days.
  7. Make it the best it can be. Take-out shouldn’t mean toss out. It should be as mouthwatering and comment-worthy as it is when they are sitting inside your restaurant. Don’t cut corners. Will all the time on our hands – we’ll notice and have LOTS of time to tell everyone else about it on social media.
  8. Be creative anyway you can. Tie your brand to the Experience. Make it something special only you can do. Create an event that rivals dining out.

Oh – now I am hungry again. Let’s go to Ciccia!

Bon Appetito!