Capital Region

Heaping Helpings: Restaurants race to keep pace with pandemic demand for takeout

Owner of The Horses Lounge Christian “Lil Fred” Fritzen holds his Clydesdale Clucker outside their restaurant in Schenectady.
Owner of The Horses Lounge Christian “Lil Fred” Fritzen holds his Clydesdale Clucker outside their restaurant in Schenectady.

One thing Capital Region residents have in common during the COVID-19 pandemic is this: We have all become masters at the fine art of eating our feelings.

Data from GrubHub, the third-party restaurant ordering and delivery platform, show that health is not top of mind when ordering takeout. Comfort by way of grease, carbs, sweets and caffeine has allowed us to drown our pandemic-driven fears and anxiety in wings, french fries and milkshakes.

According to 2020 reporting from the company, spicy chicken sandwiches had the highest percentage of growth across the U.S., jumping 318% from 2019. Chicken burrito bowl orders increased last year by 299% from the previous year. Chicken wings, waffle fries, quesadillas, roast beef sandwiches, and fish and chips jumped as much as 287% more in 2020 versus 2019. Cold-brew coffee and iced lattes were the most popular caffeine orders, while strawberry milkshakes, which grew 131%, gave us a comforting, nostalgic feeling in challenging times.

In Schenectady, The Horses Lounge’s most popular to-go items are specialty burgers and fries, said owner Christian Fritzen. That order mimics what has always been popular in his dining room; the only difference now is that the gentle care Fritzen and his staff take in preparing and offering food to customers is interrupted by delivery companies.

“I take my food quality very seriously. A burger and fries sitting and waiting for an hour, the quality is shot at that point,” Fritzen said. When the food sits for too long waiting to be delivered (either in the restaurant or in the delivery service’s vehicle) it affects not only quality, but the rating The Horses Lounge receives on third-party delivery and ordering websites and apps. A notable problem Fritzen finds with these third-party companies (such as GrubHub, DoorDash, Seamless, Latham-based Mealeo and others) is that the driver working for the company can see the tip left for the driver on the order.

If the tip is below a standard drivers find acceptable, no one is in a hurry to pick up the food and it sits, becoming limp and cold.

Fritzen said he encourages customers to order through his online point-of-sale system (found on the restaurant’s website, and pick up their own orders to mitigate the issue, but the one benefit of using an outside service is that it introduces his restaurant to a customer base that might not know his restaurant exists at all.

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“Using an online platform means we are hitting another audience,” he said, and the 17% to 30% service fees charged by these platforms act as marketing dollars. During the week, The Horses Lounge sees four to five online orders a night. That increases to as many as 20 on weekends, with the highest volume any night occurring between 5 and 7:30 p.m.

In an era when restaurant takeout is necessary to keep the industry alive, Dora Croteau Philip made her feelings about takeout very clear.

‘Necessary evil’
“Honestly, it’s just like a necessary evil,” the co-owner of The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany said. “We are a full-service restaurant and we have always focused on our on-premise guests. We just don’t do takeout,” she said. But the choice was clear at the start of the pandemic: Either learn to do takeout or close for an indefinite period of time.

After a pause in service through spring and summer, The Hollow reopened in August for takeout and socially distanced in-house dining.Filtering through third-party delivery options, merging menus into a web-ordering format, and finding the correct packaging to house and transport food in a way that kept its integrity took considerable time, Philip said.

The Hollow first partnered with Capital Curbside, a local startup that provided delivery for restaurants to the customer, but the process was too onerous and inconsistent to maintain a standard of service Philip wished to offer customers.

“We invested thousands into integrating an online ordering system,” she said, and she encouraged customers to place an order online and pick up their orders in downtown Albany. This worked particularly well for the customers who lived downtown and wanted healthier vegan options. “We knew the residential population downtown was just starting to improve,” she said, and people were supportive of picking up their own orders, but that business waned quickly and Philip transitioned to GrubHub, a move that cost her 30% of each sale in fees for months until Albany County capped delivery services at 15% in December. (Schenectady County has also enacted this cap, a move Fritzen said should happen statewide.)
Glazed Brussels sprouts — both the vegan and nonvegan versions — are the top sellers for online orders at The Hollow.

“Online sales definitely jump on the weekends, but it has been slowing down recently,” said Philip, as more people are dining in-house thanks to eased dining restrictions and a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate.

On average, diners are ordering takeout 2.4 times a week and spending $67 weekly since March 2020, The Daily Meal reports. Millennials spend slightly more — $70 a week — on takeout. Upserve, a point-of-sale system for restaurants, offered the data that 60% of consumers order takeout at least once a week, with 31% of those customers using a third-party delivery service to place orders. Digital dining has grown 300% faster than in-house dining during the pandemic; 43% of restaurant professionals feel third-party delivery and ordering services interfere with the direct relationship to customers; and 70% of customers say they would rather order directly from a restaurant and avoid third parties, the Upserve data said.

Whatever it takes
Shane Spillenger, owner of Nanola in Malta, has transitioned his kitchen to serve as a hub for three national ghost kitchen brands, including MrBeast Burger, started by YouTube personality Jimmy Donaldson; Mariah’s Cookies, backed by singer Mariah Carey; and Nathan’s Wings of New York, a brand offshoot of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs based in New York City.

“I never wanted to be a takeout restaurant,” Spillenger said, but opening his restaurant to other brands allowed him to reach new customers and keep his restaurant afloat.

When customers search for one of the listed virtual brands, they do not see that the orders are prepared by Nanola; instead, the orders come in via the brands’ websites and do not offer the option of pickup. Spillenger is beholden to those websites in order to complete the process. He does still offer Nanola’s menu on third-party delivery platforms and said, “You are almost stuck with using [these websites] because of user habits.”

Customers, he finds, are more likely to search for a meal on GrubHub and the like than to search for and contact the restaurant directly.

The hours of 4-7 p.m. are the busiest for orders, Spillenger said, though he has a lunch rush during the week focused on healthier options. Other area restaurants follow similar patterns: at Taverna Novo in Saratoga Springs, rigatoni Bolognese and pistachio cheesecake are the top sellers. Burgers, wings and steak rule for dinner takeout orders at Savoy Taproom in Albany. Eggplant with four cheese soothes the dinnertime woes of hungry customers at Cafe Capriccio in Albany, which sees a concentrated 5-6:30 p.m. rush. At Roux Restaurant in Slingerlands, the $10 to-go meal of the night floods the ticket window from 4-7 p.m. (That data is collected from restaurant owners and managers. Data on the most popular items from other platforms was not provided or available.)

Philip spoke for most restaurateurs when she said, “We would prefer to have nothing to do with takeout at all” but the process is one that has allowed many restaurants to survive the pandemic and sate the comfort-seeking palates of customers. Fritzen said that while customers feel they are supporting restaurants when using a third-party platform, the expenses placed on restaurants through those platforms can do more harm than good.

“If you want restaurants to survive, you should avoid [those services],” he said, and order direct from the restaurant, and plan on picking it up yourself. Not only will your food be closer to an in-house experience, but the contact with restaurant workers keeps the idea of hospitality — even for takeout — alive.

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. @DeannaNFox

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