Take it away

Pizza makes perfect  takeaway: brothers Vince  and Joe Laface of Mezzanotte.

Pizza makes perfect takeaway: brothers Vince and Joe Laface of Mezzanotte.

Once considered a less worthy way to do food, Miles Clarke finds offering your product ‘to go’ could see many restaurateurs through a long, cold winter.

Listen up: the party is over for restaurateurs. Rising interest rates and soaring fuel prices are biting into the discretionary spend of Australians at a level not seen for more than a decade. It’s a difficult industry to prosper in at the best of times, but owners now face the challenge of surviving through sluggish times.

For many—particularly in the suburbs—takeaway food provides a supplementary income at a time when cold weather, home theatre systems and televised sport all conspire to keep people at home.

Some foods naturally lend themselves to takeaway, with pizza, Chinese, Indian and Thai being the most obvious. Steak and fish dishes aren’t suitable as they are only in premium condition for a few minutes after preparation, while some fried foods like tempura lose their crispness after take-home packaging traps moisture. Conversely, curries are perfect takeaway fare, improving over time.

Ajoy Joshi is an Indian restaurateur who recognises the value of takeaway. In fact, it now accounts for 40 per cent of the turnover of his Crows Nest restaurant, Nilgiri’s.

Originally from Hyderabad in India and trained as a chef at the renowned Taj hotels, the exuberant Ajoy arrived in Australia in 1988 and ran a number of restaurants in Brisbane and Sydney before opening his own in 2000.

“I believe I was the first Indian restaurant in the country to offer pre-packaged blast-chilled dishes, with no chemicals or preservative and which are good to keep in the freezer for 14 days. I also serve hot food and it certainly took some time before people warmed to the idea of buying the frozen product.”

Recognising the potential of his takeaway product, Ajoy created a separate retail area for people wanting to collect takeaways. He also gradually introduced a range of merchandise to go with his hot and cold takeaway food.

While his restaurant menu changes monthly, there are some dishes that are strong customer favourites—ones he says he’d remove at his peril—including butter chicken, beef vindaloo, rogan josh, dahl and the spiced vegetable dish, aloo gobhi.

Thursdays and Fridays are the best takeaway nights at Nilgiri’s, with orders also pouring in on nights when there are major sporting events showing on television. He provides home delivery within a five-kilometre radius of his restaurant, but it’s more of a service to loyal customers than a revenue generator.

“People want restaurant food, and takeaway provides it at a discount of 20 or 30 per cent. It doesn’t replace the restaurant experience, but
it certainly is a valuable extension to the business. The same applies to the chutneys and marinades we sell, which are proving to be very popular,” says Ajoy.

And he’s reaping rewards for his efforts, taking out the RCA NSW’s Best Indian Restaurant gong in 2007.

Nilgiri is ‘blue mountains’ in Hindi and is named for a region in India where large eucalypt plantings produce a soft blue haze—not unlike NSW’s Blue Mountains.

Online ordering system Menulog has more than 500 restaurants on its books, and general manager Gary Munitz says top performers are doing up to $20,000 a month just in takeaway sales.

“We receive the order online and it’s automatically faxed to the restaurant, which is responsible for delivering the product. It saves the
restaurant time in taking the orders and they are able to easily advertise any specials online. There’s no mark-up for the customer but we charge a 10 per cent fee. It means the only time the restaurant pays is when we’ve generated an order for them.”

Menulog then sends the restaurant an SMS to confirm they’ve received the fax and the customer an email to confirm they’re satisfied with the service. The website carries independent reader reviews for both positive and negative feedback.

The company also has accounts with a number of major companies like banks, so that large orders can be placed on behalf of workers. Some of these can average around $700 a day. Munitz says the business adds as many as 30 new restaurants to their list every month.

In the beachside Sydney suburb of Dee Why, brothers Joe and Vince Laface operate Italian restaurant Mezzanotte, which seats 140 and has been dishing up authentic Italian food for the past eight years. The restaurant is busy most evenings and the brothers launched a pizza and pasta delivery business six years ago to extend their offering.

Branded ‘Pizza & Pasta Express’, the takeaway service features different packaging to the restaurant artwork and offers two styles of pizzas—a traditional range to compete with the low-cost products of Domino’s and Pizza Hut, and a gourmet-style list using premium ingredients similar to the items on the eat-in restaurant menu.

“The launch of the delivery service was problematic and we have had to refine the service over the years.

“It’s working well now, but we need to pay continual attention to it,” says Joe Laface. He estimates the takeaway service adds up to 10 per cent to the restaurant’s normal turnover and certainly helps make up the loss of patronage that often occurs during quiet times like winter or when big sporting events are on television.

“The takeaway menu is advertised on our website and we keep it simple, with just a few side orders, salads and desserts, in addition to the pizza and pasta ranges. The chefs are already in the kitchen, so if we can get more food cooked and sold, so much the better.”

For some restaurateurs, takeaway orders are more of a nuisance than a boost to business, but in many cases they are still provided as part of the service to a strong local clientele.

One of these is Glen Day, who operates five separate restaurants on the Gold Coast—two Aztecs, two Pancakes in Paradise and one Montezuma branded outlets—together providing more than 1,000 seats in what is perhaps the most competitive restaurant market in Australia.

Day estimates that 70 per cent of his business comes from the local community, but describes his takeaway business as “semi-successful” at best, estimating that it accounts for no more than three per cent of his total turnover. Glen is a veteran of the Gold Coast restaurant industry, having opened Montezuma’s back in 1991.

“We use a delivery service and it’s just not a reliable way of getting hot food to the customer, which can cause problems with satisfaction. One of the problems with Mexican food is much of it is baked in an oven, so it’s a matter of timing the cooking the product. When we’re busy it can really slow down operations, because the Alfoil containers used to cook our takeaway food in are more difficult to manage than the ceramic plates we use in the rest of the restaurant.”

No-one could accuse the founders of Hurricane’s Grill of rushing into new ventures. Some 13 years after opening a burger and ribs emporium near Bondi Beach, owners Craig Goldberg and Tony Teixeira opened a second outlet—a 200-plus seater in the heavily competitive Darling Harbour area.

Three years ago, they saw that their takeaway trade was building in Bondi and decided to set up a separate retail outlet next door, called Hurricane’s Express. It has a separate kitchen and its own dedicated telephone number, but still remains faithful to the look of the parent outlet, with similar use of burnished timber and natural stone finish.

“We wanted Hurricane’s Express to be a stand-alone brand and that’s what we’ve achieved. It’s a business in its own right, unaffected by what’s happening in the main restaurant and working really well like that,” says Craig.

“We developed all the packaging in recycled, environment-friendly materials. We approached the whole project very carefully. There are not many steak and burger restaurants that venture into takeaway because of a fear of competing with so many other fast food chains.

“We have a gourmet product with price points that provide significant savings on dining in-house and we’re absolutely determined to ensure all our takeaway customers have a quality product,” he explains.

This insistence to retain a gourmet appeal within a takeaway environment seems to be the key to long-term success in food to go.

“Our Junior Burger is 250 grams of pure beef and sells for $9 with chips. There certainly is a market for a quality burger at that price. We’ve resisted going into home delivery because we’re fairly tight on space in Bondi and we’re already so busy that a delivery service would put too much pressure on our kitchens at peak times.”

Hurricane’s Express uses the same electronic point of sale technology as the restaurant, with waiters equipped with hand-held electronic devices which generate a paper order inside the kitchen.

Hurricane’s Express has been so successful that the managers are considering establishing the brand as a stand-alone takeaway chain. They’re currently looking at establishing an independent outlet in the Harbourside food court at Sydney’s Darling Harbour precinct.

“We’ll approach this idea in the same cautious way we’ve built our business so far,” says Craig. “Our current level of success comes from being absolutely focused in the planning and delivery of our product and we’re not about to change that.”

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