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Omaha Magazine

Kickin' It At The Curb: Adapting to Increasingly Popular Curbside Pickup

May 27, 2021 04:55PM ● By Niz Proskocil
couple on picnic blanket atop van

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Like many who survived 2020, the word Amy Schicke used to sum up her experience as a restaurateur during the pandemic was pivot. Schicke and her husband, Dario, own and operate two Dundee restaurants: French-inspired Dario’s Brasserie and the northern Italian-focused Avoli Osteria. Like so many in the food service business this past year, the couple pivoted their offerings, adapted, were flexible, and stayed closely in tune with their customers.

The Schickes found that reinventing themselves to meet customers’ needs meant adjusting their dining rooms to allow for social distancing, redesigning business websites to handle online ordering, offering special to-go meals for the holidays, adding patio seating due to increased interest in outdoor dining, and providing services such as curbside pickup.

As concerns about COVID-19 exposure prompted some consumers to seek minimal-contact options, curbside takeout emerged as a popular alternative to on-premise dining. It’s a simple process: a customer calls in an order (or places it online), arrives at the restaurant, and an employee brings the food out to the car.

Several establishments have designated parking spots for curbside customers and will send a text message alerting them when their order is ready. Some restaurants added online ordering directly from their websites.

Online ordering at Dario’s and Avoli caught on with customers almost immediately after it was launched last fall, Schicke said. “They want to support local businesses, they’re tipping well. It’s just been a wonderful sense of community,” she said.

Many people aren’t ready to return to dining in, so it’s important to provide alternative options. For those who prefer curbside pickup, an employee can run their order out to them, she said. Other customers have walked up and grabbed their food at the door. Whichever way they choose, Schicke wants guests to feel safe and comfortable and have a positive experience.

It’s unclear when people will make a full return to regularly dining indoors at restaurants. Comfort level varies for everyone. Some industry experts say curbside pickup is likely to stick around in a post-pandemic world.

Even with capacity restrictions lifted and vaccinations ramping up, some customers will continue to rely on curbside pickup to enjoy their favorite restaurant meals and support local businesses, said Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, a nonprofit organization based in Lincoln.

“It’s been very important,” Olson said of curbside service. It’s helped many restaurants stay afloat during an uncertain year, she added, and most consumers by now are well adjusted to it.

Along with other off-premise options such as delivery and drive-thru, curbside takeout will play a big role in the restaurant industry’s recovery. Although curbside offers enhanced convenience for customers, it can pose challenges for restaurants. 

In the early days of the pandemic, some supplies needed for off-premise dining such as takeout containers, disposable utensils, and other items were harder to find, Olson said. Flexibility was key to making it work—for example, using plastic instead of paper bags for to-go orders.

Other considerations include food presentation, ensuring orders are packaged in a way that maintains food quality and temperature, and preventing spills and other mishaps in the car.

Earlier this year, the National Restaurant Association released its 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, based on analysis of economic data and extensive surveys of 6,000 restaurant operators and 1,000 adult consumers. Among the key findings: 68% of adult consumers say they’re more likely to purchase takeout food from a restaurant than before the pandemic. 

According to the report, here are the percentages of restaurant operators who say they added curbside takeout since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak: family dining 78%, casual dining 73%, fine dining 81%, quick service 58%, fast casual 77%, coffee and snack foods 64%.

Restaurants often need to make operational adjustments in order for curbside service to work. 

Blue Sushi Sake Grill, which has three Omaha locations (Grayhawk Pointe, Old Market, and Shops of Legacy), implemented a few changes before rolling out curbside service, according to Anthony Hitchcock, chief operating officer and co-owner of Flagship Restaurant Group. The Omaha-based company owns Blue Sushi and several other dining establishments.

“We have made changes, internally, with the overall execution of the curbside program for Blue Sushi Sake Grill locations in Omaha,” Hitchcock said by email. “Curbside requires more staff, interior remodels, and operational adjustments; we are completely there now, with respect to operational execution of this program.”

Customer feedback has been positive, he added, and many guests are drawn to the convenience, ease, and safety that curbside takeout provides. They can order, pay, and select their pickup time online.

There have been the occasional hiccups, including accurately timing when customers will arrive to pick up their order, and ensuring the food is ready as close to that time as possible. Despite issues that may arise, carryout and curbside orders have helped Flagship make it through a challenging year, Hitchcock noted, and the company is thankful for the community’s support.

Instead of adding curbside service, some local restaurants switched to a curbside-only format.

About three months before the pandemic hit, Edward Alstatt and his wife, Amphayvanh, opened Khao Niao Thai-Lao Restaurant near 156th Street and West Maple Road. The small, family-run eatery serves a variety of Thai and Laotian dishes.

In spring 2020, the couple closed the restaurant’s dining room and shifted to curbside pickup as a way to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, Edward said.

“It’s worked out well for us. I think it has a real value,” he said. “Customers really appreciate it. They can sit in the car and pay at the window.”

Although takeout sales, for the most part, have been good, said Edward, he doesn’t like having to turn away guests. “We are missing a good chunk of business from people wanting to dine in,” he said.

He and Amphayvanh plan to redo the restaurant’s dining room and hope to reopen to diners in late June. They’ll continue offering curbside pickup because customers have embraced it.

Pandemic or not, focusing on customers and understanding their needs is an integral part of any business’s success. 

Longtime Omaha restaurant Lo Sole Mio, known for its big plates of pasta and other classic Italian fare, has had success with curbside pickup since offering it in May 2020. The restaurant, near 32nd Avenue and Oak Street, has dedicated staff to handle carryout orders, and demand continues to be strong, said co-owner Marie Losole. 

“It’s a no-touch process,” Losole said. “Everybody seems to like it.” 

Customers can go inside to pick up their order, but most prefer to stay put in their cars. Although business isn’t back to where it was pre-COVID-19, and the restaurant stopped serving lunch, things are looking up. Takeout sales have doubled, Losole said. 

One of the main challenges now, though, is juggling customers inside and outside. Especially during busy hours on the weekends, she said, the number of dine-in guests and curbside orders can put a strain on the cooks. 

Even so, curbside is here to stay. As Losole said, “This is the new normal.” 

Visit dariosbrasserie.comavoliosteria.comflagshiprestaurantgroup.comkhao-niao.com, or losolemio.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann