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Tag Archives: to-go

An interesting statistic on delivery and to-go food

Fittingly, just as I post my tomes on tipping on to-go food, Nation’s Restaurant News’ Breaking News page has a just published article about “convenience” being a big factor that restaurants must consider in these challenging times. So, while value has been a big new counter to the challenges faced in this economic environment, restaurants need to consider convenience as well, at least according to this article.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the study that is quoted – 20% of all consumers picked up food at a restaurant last year, while 30% of 18 – 25 year olds did the same.

What I found interesting is something unexpected – this phrase – “While the Mintel survey indicated that consumers overall are spending less on takeout and delivery,” :snip:

Perhaps the to-go boom has reached its peak.

This could certainly have implications down the road. Restaurants have retrofitted some restaurants to have whole areas dedicated to to-go. Could these become dusty caves where office supplies get stored? And what happens if a restaurant that does a lot of to-go orders loses just enough business to only justify having one person process orders but it means that the one person actually has more customers to personally deal with? Or that they lose just enough business where they have to keep two people on but both take a big hit in terms of volume since the pie that they’re splitting is smaller than ever?

Anyway, if you want to read the article at Nation’s Restaurant News, go here:

http://www.nrn.com/breakingNews.aspx?id=378782

Why should I tip for to-go food? pt. 2

In part one, I talked about what goes on behind the scenes of many “to-go departments” in mass market restaurants.

Let’s talk about the considerations that you need to take into account when you order to-go food from your average mass market restaurant, and even if you do take out from high-end restaurants.

First of all, the people who are handling your take out order in a mass market restaurant are still waiters. They have to know everything that your tableside waiter needs to know about the food. They need to know about ingredients in case you have concerns about a dish when you call in. They need to be able to know how to ring in an order and how to follow that order to completion. I touched on this in my narrative about a P. F. Chang’s to-go process. They have to negotiate traps of the kitchen. For instance, a kitchen can go down in flames from one moment to the next. Your tableside waiter can manage this through his or her interaction with you (some are better than others with this), but a to-go waiter is stuck with the time that they’ve promised you. They can’t give you a free appetizer to tide you over or have a manager come by to assure you that your food is on the way and it’s not the waiter’s fault that your food is slow. You asked for your food for 7:00 and you’re not going to be happy if it’s not ready when you show up. They also are at a disadvantage when having to take your order over the phone. They can’t “read you” and waiters often have to be able to read verbal and physical cues when going through the ordering process.

Actually, a to-go waiter (or bartender) performs most of the same functions as your tableside waiter or bartender. They greet you, they take your order, they assure that your food gets delivered to you and they take your payment. The thing is, they don’t have to refill your water or entertain you or mollify you or upsell you. They aren’t your “service companion” as you enjoy your food, so you really don’t perceive the “service” that they give you. All you know is that you called in your order and it’s in a bag when you come by. However, in a fairly busy restaurant, they actually perform more work in order to get you your food than the tableside waiter does. Instead of the kitchen delivering your food ready-to-go on a plate to be run by either the waiter or a food runner, they deliver a product in a paper or aluminum container that has to be closed with a lid and marked as to its contents. This then has to be transferred to bags that are usually marked with your name. The to-go waiter also has to assure that all condiments and side items like plasticware and napkins are present. They either have to package the dressings and sauces in small tubs before the shift and/or restock 30 lb boxes of ketchup and other condiment prepackaged packets before the shift.

It would be a lot easier if all they had to do was order the food as soon as you call it in. But they can’t do that because they want the food to be as fresh as possible. You order a burger for an hour for now? What do you think it would do to your desired meat temperature if it sat for 45 minutes under a heat lamp? Your medium burger would end up being well done. And they are constantly dealing with orders coming in at a pretty constant rate so they are basically running a 6 to 10 table section where each customer has to have their food come out at exactly the right time, no matter what state the kitchen is in.

And, guess what? That position is considered a “tipped position”. So, even if you’re lucky enough to get a higher hourly rate, it’s usually going to still be at minimum wage or less. Even though it seems like a counter situation like McDonald’s or Starbucks, it really isn’t. It’s far more complicated and stressful when things really get rolling. It really is like waiting tables on the floor in terms of multi-tasking, juggling orders and managing the guest experience.

Let’s get real – a service is being provided. The waiter is making it possible for you to enjoy the food at your favorite restaurant at a time and place of your choosing. Think about it – how valuable is it for you to be able to pick up a meal at your local restaurant instead of having to wait an hour for a table and then having to spend an hour or two sitting at a table in a crowded restaurant? And think about how you would feel if this “privilege” were taken away.

If people stopped tipping, there are several things that could and would have to happen.

A. To-go waiters would have to be paid a much higher wage, probably close to what they would be making if they were working tableside. Why is that, you might ask? Because what waiter would voluntarily make $8 an hour doing a very hard job when they could be working the floor? “Well”, I hear you ask, “couldn’t each waiter have to give up a shift or two a week and chip in”? Well, maybe. but what happens when the dedicated to-go waiter for a certain shift has to call out because of sickness or some other reason? And what happens to a waiter who realizes that they’re now making less money per week?

You might also ask, “Couldn’t you just hire people only to do to-go and pay them less because they really aren’t “waiting tables”? Well, sure you could. But you have to train them as waiters because they need to know how to do virtually everything that a waiter has to do, from inputting orders into the computer to knowing the menu to being able to process the day’s business and the end of a shift. And what happens when they see their fellow waiters making a lot more money than they are? They’ll want the same chance to make money that their brethren have. They won’t stick around all that long and then the process starts all over again. Just as they start getting good at managing all of the to-go business, they’re gone. then you have to start from scratch and it’s you, the to-go customer that’s going to suffer through yet another learning curve.

And, on top of that, now the payroll has increased. this means one of three outcomes. First of all, the restaurant absorbs the cost. How many restaurants are willing to do that. sure, they get more sales, but that percentage of sales costs them more. Alternately, they could increase the price of the menu to compensate. This means now that when you’re dining in and enjoying all of the benefits of the restaurant, you’re subsidizing hit and run guests who aren’t going to support the main part of your business. Somehow this just seem fair. And then there’s the least likely thing to happen – an autograt or “to-go surcharge” to make sure that a waiter tasked to do the job gets fairly compensated. To the to-go customer, this would seem whack. Why should they pay more when they aren’t even taking up a table or having someone wait on them for an hour or two? After all, they’re just picking up a bag of food, “just like McDonald’s”. If it were only that easy.

Fortunately, most to-go waiters in fairly busy to-go situations make close to what their bretheren make because a majority of  people seem to instinctively understand that they are receiving a service worth paying for. They make it up on volume. Many to-go waiters will ring up half again to two times the amount that a floor server will ring up.

So, someone who refuses to pay are a. letting others subsidize their purchases, and b. acting in a fashion that’s against their own long-term interests. If their fellow to-go customers start taking their cues from such a customer, everyone will end up paying more. It’s “pay me now or pay me later”.

When it comes to high-end restaurants, to-go is far less frequent. It’s usually handled by the bartender, even if someone else takes the order. The bartender has to leave the bar to do many of the things that the waiter in a mass market restaurant does. And it’s even more important to get it right because the food costs a lot more and expectations are even higher.

So, it’s been my experience that high-end to-go customers generally tip. They do this because they’re probably a regular who knows that to-go in the fancy high-priced restaurant is an exception, not the rule. They probably know the bartender personally and understand the sacrifice to the bar service that happens when the bartender is dealing with their order. Plus, I’m sure that there’s a little guilt involved. They don’t want to be seen as generous in one situation and cheap in another. So they tip.

So, what’s a reasonable tip for a to-go order? From looking at more than a few to-go charge slips, it seems that the market has decided on 10% as a typical “average”. This recognizes that the waiter or bartender isn’t having to interact with them for an hour or two but still rewards them for the service that they’re providing.

This is an evolving situation. As to-go gains momentum, there is a certain amount of “growing pains”. The market is having to act on its feet and adapt to new dining patterns. And there are certainly grey areas. It sort of rubs up against the tip jar thing that bothers people. The thing is, if you see a tip jar, you know that the staff is at least getting a wage commensurate with what the market will bear. And you don’t know whether the to-go waiter is making $2.13 an hour or $7.00 an hour in states that allow a $2.13 wage. But you can be sure that if a waiter has to be paid more than the bare minimum, the volume just isn’t there and your tip will have less of an impact with keeping their wages close to what a full service waiter would get with tips. It’s sort of a self-adjusting standard which really shouldn’t affect whether or not you tip on your order.

I hope that this gives some insight into what goes on “behind the curtain” and why tipping will help keep the service that you have come to expect.

Why should I tip for to-go food? Pt 1

I got into a back and forth on Facebook with someone during a general conversation about the question “Do you tip on take out orders”? This person is actually a Chef/Culinary Partner for a leading steakhouse chain. His irreverent opening bon mot was “isn’t McDonald’s take-out”?

Well, that immediately put me on edge (and I didn’t even know he was in the biz). First of all, the clear implication is, “You don’t tip at McDonald’s, do you”? Or, “If you think you should tip for to-go orders, shouldn’t you have to tip at McDonald’s”. You know, that sort of thing.

Bill and I had a few rounds of insulting each other, which escalated when we each discovered each others’ careers. And others weighed in as well (actually, most people said that they indeed did tip on to-go orders, albeit at a lower percentage).

This is one of the most contentious topics when it comes to tipping.

I’d like to provide a little context to possibly give people a wider view.

When I was but a young waiter in my first incarnation as a waiter in the hazy days of the 70s and 80s, to-go food was an incidental thing. People just didn’t think of taking restaurant food home with them very often. First of all, a lot of restaurant food just doesn’t travel all that well. Second of all, that’s what pizza and Chinese takeout is for.

But everything changed with Boston Market. Meal replacement became a thing. No matter that the Germans had been doing it for years with their roasted whole chickens that you could buy in any decent small town. Suddenly, the increasingly busy American had a time-saving alternative to both cooking and dining out. Tipping at Boston Market was pretty rare, IIRC, because they were staffed strictly to cater to takeout. Theirs wasn’t a staff that consisted of tipped employees – they were paid as other counter people would be paid and you were often waited on by a manager-type person as well. It was like an upscale fast food joint because they also had a few tables.

As we went into the 90s, takeout was still somewhat of a minor part of the biz. If you had a favorite restaurant, you would usually put a to-go order in by phone and the bartender would be the responsible person for the order. They would put the order together back in the kitchen and deliver it to you when you showed up. Most people tipped for that because they realized that the order was facillitated by the friendly neighborhood bartender. A typical restaurant might do 10 or 20 to-go orders a week, if that even.

With the advent of the “bar and grill” concept, suddenly there was food that traveled decently well and could feed a family for less than the cost of dining out (didn’t have to tip as well and didn’t have to spend time marshalling small kids or dealing with surly spouses, etc.). And there was the shrinking public social time that we had available. Now we could call in an order to Chili’s at 5:30 when it was clear that the boss needed the report that she was requesting for tomorrow, by “close of business today”. Yep, I’m going to be working an extra hour, so I’ll mollify my family by bringing home a feast from Chili’s. I can actually call them now and set a pickup time two hours from now! I love this country! Whatta country!

As companies found that more and more people were taking advantage of  take-out, even in average restaurants, the light went on. Here’s a new market niche! Since our seats are already full during the lunch and dinner rush, we can stretch our kitchen even more by selling more food to more people. And we have a captive waitstaff that we can tap for to-go duty. And we don’t even have to pay them more money because enough people are tipping to make it worthwhile for those waiters, although they sure do seem drained after processing 50  to-go orders a night.

So now, places like Outback, Applebee’s P.F. Chang’s, etc., are actually building or modifying units with to-go in mind, sometimes even having a dedicated to-go station set up exclusively for take-out. Some of these places even pay their to-go waiters a little extra, possibly because they are in communities that don’t get that they are being served by tipped employees who get less than minmum wage and that they are indeed getting service even if it isn’t table service.

To-go is big.

So, do I tip or not?

Yes, you idiot, of course you tip. You don’t tip the same as you’d tip if your were being served tableside, but you tip nonetheless. The most popular tip seems to be 10% but if you at least tip 5%, I guess I can respect that.

Let’s deal with some of the issues.

“I don’t have to tip because I’m not getting ‘served”. They’re just giving me food in a bag, just like fast food”.

Well, no. If it were just like fast food, you’d come in, stand in line, order your meal, take your bag from the cashier and pay for your food, all in a matter of a couple of minutes. You don’t get to (or need to) call in your order to be handed to you at some future time of your choice.

This doesn’t happen at every place, but let’s track your order for pickup at 7:30pm  at P.F. Chang’s.

6:00 pm

Ring ring!

Hello, this is P.F. Chang’s. How may I help you?

“I’d like to order some takeout”.

Just a minute, let me transfer you to our to-go department.

The to-go department is two waiters, one who specializes in to-gos and tonight, one who has been tapped from a normal floor shift to help because it’s the other specialists day off. They will pool all tips. They won’ttip out the bar, but they’ll tip out the food runners because the runners and the expo person will be assisting them in packaging the $2500 worth of food that they’re going to process in the next three hours. And here in Tennessee, they’re going to make 2.13 an hour doing it.

<cut to the sight of one to-go specialist on the phone and another running around, getting two orders from the hot line, lidding and marking them, then suddenly dashing around the corner to the pantry where she lids and marks a big entree sized salad and some potstickers. We see 5 Chang’s big handled grocery bags on the table, each getting filled with certain items as she passes – a toss of duck sauce in one, side salad dressing in another, each bag marked with someobody’s last name>

Hi, I understand that you want to put in a to-go order. Can I put you on hold for a moment because I’m taking an order from someone else?

“Sure. I’ll hold”.

After a minute the to-go person is back.

“Yes, I’d like to order two orders of potstickers with some extra dipping sauce. I’d like an order of lettuce wraps, an order of Orange Chicken, Lo Mein with no onions, an extra order of rice and a Great Wall of Chocolate. I’d like to pick that up at 7:30 please. Is that possible”?

Yes, I can do that.

Of course, had they wanted it in 30 minutes, it would have been up to the to-go order taker to give them a more realistic time because they can see that the kitchen is starting to get backed up from the dinner rush and in-house food always get priority because one of the things that a to-go person has to know is the timing of the kitchen at any particular time so that they can keep the to-go customer from waiting for their food at the appointed time.

So, the order has been taken, the time is promised but the order can’t be put in for at least another hour because the food is cooked when the kitchen gets the order, but it also gets put in line, so it could be 10 minutes or 30 minutes before the entire order comes up (remember, to-go food takes a back seat to sitting guests).

Meanwhile, you try to finish that report.

The to-go orders are piling up. there are now 10 pending to-go orders slated for pickup between 6:15 and 8:00. The one for 6:15 is the one that’s getting boxed up right now. The three at 7:00 are starting to get all of the normal side stuff like plasticware, soy and duck sauces put in the bags. One of the 7:00 orders is pretty big (it’s almost $100 so it’s already in the system because the kitchen has said that they’ll need that much time to get everything out). The other 3 7:00 orders can’t be put in yet because of the timing. And the restaurant is already on a 30 minute wait, so the kitchen is having to shoehorn the to-go food between the other 20 orders that they have hanging form the line.

Your 7:30 order is one of 2. However, in the next 20 minutes, 2 more 7:30 tickets will be added by now to-go orders. One of the 8:00 orders is from a sororitywho has ordered for the whole house. It’s a $250 order. It will take 7 full Chang’s paper grocery bags to contain. And, guess what? They don’t ever tip. But they are gong to have to be accomodated, even though their order is going to totally put the kitchen into the weeds at the height of the rush and the sales are 10% of the total sales of the night and will literally take 45 minutes from the time the first bag gets something placed in it until the order is full. But the order can’t even be put in until around 7:15, and it has to be done in direct consultation with the chef, even though several orders are having to be bagged up and there are already people waiting for their earlier orders.

As the to-go orders are put in the window, they are in uncovered tubs. They have to be lidded and labeled with a Sharpie right on the top. The Lo Mein without onions must especially be identified and marked as such so that it doesn’t go home with the wrong person and you don’t get onions in your Lo Mein. Thing is, there are 4 orders of Lo mein hitting the pass at the same time. There are two people at the register waiting for their food and there are also 3 ongoing orders in the kitchen. There are another couple of orders that will have to be put into the kitchen in the next 5 minutes or the promised time won’t be able to be met.

So it’s starting to get to be crunch time. Plus, the kitchen seems to be going down and some floor waiters are telling the expo that their food is 10 minutes late and the guests are bitching. This doesn’t bode well for the to-go servers, but they’ll just have to deal with it because they can’t turn back time.

So now it’s 7:20 and you pull up for your food. You go inside and assume that it will be ready early, because all these people do is bag up your food, right?

But nooooo, it won’t be ready for 10 minutes. “Well”, you think to yourself, “I was early”. And so you wait and at 7:31, here comes the waiter with your bags.

Hi, Mr. Grinchè, nice to see you again (although the waiter is thinking, “It sure would be nice if you’d bother to tip something”.)

And the waiter starts unpacking the bag in front of you like they always do. Here are your lettuce wraps. I made usre that I put the lettuce cups in a bag with the cake so that the heat wouldn’t bother them. Ahhh, here is your Lo Mein without onions. Perfect. here are the potstickers and the extra sauce, and you can see that I’ve given you some extra rice”.

They go through the whole bag with you, as you see two other people come up. that waiter is going to go through the same routine with them two while the other waiter is frantically assembling a $200 order and two more orders, all the while handling two more to-go orders for 8:30 on the phone (they had to have the hostess take another to-go order and hopefully, she got any special orders right).

You give the waiter your credit card and conspicuously and contemptuously write “none” on the credit card slip.

I hope you’re proud of yourself.

I just described a typical midweek night at a busy P.F. Chang’s. Not all Chang’s are that busy (or located next to a major university), and not all to-go situations in restaurants are that complex or brutal. but you can be assured that the people who are processing your order are tipped employees (with the possible exception of a hostess that might take your order over the phone).

At the end of the night, the team has processed $2600 worth of food. Thanks to  2 or 3 who tipped 15% or more, which counterbalanced you and the other two people who refused to tip, the team is going to share $230 worth of tips. They’re going to tip out $30 to the food runners leaving them with a respectable $100 each. Just about what many of the floor servers will make after tipout.

In part two, we’re going to delve a little deeper and deal with another couple of misanthropic tropes and excuses for not tipping.