How do we love thee, curbside pick-up? Let us count the ways.
There’s the table-wedged-in-the-doorway approach, where one brave soul in full PPE hands off an order over a barricade of restaurant furniture. There’s also the call-us-when-you-get-here model, where the order scoots out just in time to be dropped through a rear window or popped trunk. One of my favorites is the shelf-on-the-sidewalk play, where labeled bags are simply left unattended for anybody to claim (hopefully the diner gets there first).
Traditionally, curbside has been more of a sideline player, more a bat boy than shortstop. It was a convenience added to the playbook to assist customers with difficulty getting out of their car or to keep larger orders from blocking up a drive thru. “Umm, 15 grilled sandwiches, extra hot sauce? Sure, pull around front and we’ll run it out to you!” But during this global health crisis, restaurant behavior reorganized itself, promoting curbside to captain of the team—and guess what, it’s just not ready for the big leagues.
To succeed in curbside, lean into feeling, not just function.
For the moment, curbside is a necessity. The extra precautions and contortions of today’s pick-ups will eventually fade, but the model of customers grabbing food right outside the restaurant is here to stay. To understand what’s happening, let’s dig deeper into the experience:
For customers, curbside satisfies part of why they’re eating out in the first place (food they didn’t have to cook themselves) but it falls short of the full restaurant experience: escape, discovery and relief. It’s convenient, feels safer than stepping inside an eatery, and it feels good to be supporting local businesses. But for anybody who has waited for their takeout to be ready in the rain or wondered just how long that bag has been sitting and who has riffled through it, confidence is low. Assuming restaurants can time it correctly, curbside is still the quickest way to grab a bite.
Employees, on the other hand, are picking up new responsibilities. For every step that a customer doesn’t need to take, the team inside takes it instead. Yes, curbside reduces the number of virus-spreading interactions and increases safety, but that’s about the only good news for the people running the restaurant. And they’re running—even if it’s just a few paces from door to kitchen, transferring orders to the pickup spot adds to the complexity and time it takes to do the work. In the drop-and-run method of curbside today, the interaction has dropped as well and, of course, many people that work in restaurants enjoy meeting their customers.
From an operator perspective, it doesn’t get much better. Yes, curbside presents a new way of fulfilling an order. In municipalities where diners are still barred from entering inside, curbside may be the only way to bring in revenue, and as such it has become a lifeline to keep the lights on. There could be some lasting savings, such as decreased congestion in drive-thru or less interior space dedicated to dining room. Because we don’t yet know what exactly the next normal looks like, many restaurants are trying to have it both ways, which means extra runners to get orders to the door, awkward or unused space inside, and an ad-hoc outside dining experience. Curbside also means more packaging, more training, and more room for miscommunication.
For its convenience and safety, curbside is here to stay. But its inefficiencies and slapdash nature have got to go. Here are a few ideas to try in your restaurant, for today and for tomorrow:
- Design the waiting experience, not the pick-up experience. Unless you’ve timed it just right, either the meal is waiting or the customer is. Don’t leave either out in the cold. For both food and people, think through what they need to pass the time, and then bring it to life in a way that makes sense for your brand.
- Increase human interactions, safely. Restaurants are all about exchange, greetings, connections, and friendships. Without that communication, you’re just running a very large vending machine, which is fine if you intended to be a twenty-first century automat. But if not, ensure that every order goes out the door with a human touch.
- Make some better signs. Nothing says we don’t know what we’re doing than a spray-painted sandwich board in not-quite-your-colors. (No naming names here.) If you have the budget to make your curbside indicators match the rest of your wayfinding, do so! If not, lean into the informality and use the DIY to inject some personality into curbside and your brand.
- Reorganize, inside and out. To make curbside really work at scale, it must become efficient. This could mean shifting your kitchen around so that it flows in a different direction, adding automation, or getting creative with rollers and conveyer belts (it could get weird or it could get fun). On the exterior, you’ll need actual real estate to do curbside well: Dedicated parking spots near the door, covered areas with air conditioning or heat, and new doorways or openings for easy and secure handoffs.
- Automate the boring parts. To make the experience a little less clunky, use tools like geo-fencing and location awareness so that food is ready when the customer shows up, and not before. When they arrive, make order identification intuitive and effortless, swapping out “Where’s my order?” for a side of “How’s your day?”
- Make curbside prime. Quick pick-ups are here to stay, whether your kitchen has two Yelp stars or two Michelin stars. Even before the pandemic, food service has struggled with handoffs to the growing number of fulfillment channels. Make a great food experience for bikers, pedestrians, folks in cars, delivery drivers, and even—someday—drone pilots. More like a brewery, less like a liquor store.
Curbside isn’t new, and it isn’t novel to restaurants. Looking for inspiration? Check out your local libraries, hardware store, pet shop… any business with a front door has some version of click-and-collect. We’re in a moment of extreme experimentation and every Main Street is a laboratory for figuring out what comes next. Food is different than a gallon of paint, of course—and not just because it comes with a serve-by date. Cravings, constraints, communities: Food is emotional and biological and inherently human. To succeed in curbside, lean into feeling, not just function.