How to treat takeout orders nicely

Even for a sit-down restaurant, takeout orders can be a very significant part of business.

As I'll examine elsewhere, takeout orders can help build a business that's bigger than the confines of your physical space. They can help you reach and engage customers that can't always dine in. They help keep customers plugged in to what's going on.

As a simple premise, the better you handle those takeout orders, the more of them you're likely to get. Some restaurants don't put a lot of thought into 'off-site' customers, but there are good reasons to work harder to treat them well.


Our own research and stories from our customers gives us a short list of 'best practices' that we can recommend.

  1. Think about how your food is going to travel

    We'd like to imagine our food travels carefully to its final destination. But once its in customers hands all bets are off. It follows that a few packing guidelines make for a happier unpacking back at the home or office:

    – Pack like with like

    In other words, pack hot items with hot items and cold items with cold items.

    It's not that a paper bag is some miracle that keeps ice cream solid and cheese bubbling on a pizza. However, strictly separating hot and cold items helps prevent things falling into the 'warm' zone - where you can find warmed-up wilted salads, or soups with a big cold spot in them.

    Keeping things hot (enough) can also pay the extra dividend of saving your well-prepared food from the microwave.

    – Pack it how you'd plate it

    It goes without saying that you don't put a soup container on it's side.

    But items in general should be packed so that one orientation of the bag (upright hopefully) keeps everything in position to neither leak nor tumble over inside their containers. This is fairly simple with large dishes but as most people pack large-to-small, it's the smaller side items that can often be the culprit.

    If something can leak, plan to pack it correctly. Not just with a proper container, but also either alone or at the bottom of a bag where a leak won't get into everything else.

    – Pack it to be unpacked.

    The one interesting thing I learned packing bags as a teenager was the criteria for a well-packed bag: if you cut the bag off, would the items still stay where they are?

    Packing and stacking things correctly - without stuffing them in or relying on the bag - means they won't shift as much in travel and also makes them easier to unpack.

  2. Read the order back to customers when they pick up their order.

    No need to go into fine detail. A quick "item-count" readback is good enough to confirm that no item has been left out. Catching something on the spot is much, much better than having to deal with it later on.

    If you pack regular to-go sundries (utensils, salt, pepper, ketchup, napkins), use the interaction as a chance to confirm if those things are wanted or needed. It can be win-win as you can cut costs on wasted items and customers don't have to feel responsible for wasting them.

    It's not just about being 'green'. Many customers feel genuinely awkward about the amount of packaging a takeout order generates.

  3. Make space for them!

    Picking up to-go food shouldn't feel like a street-corner transaction.

    Help your customer feel welcome by making a clearly recognizable spot or space for them to complete their pickup order.

    It should be somewhere outside of the high-traffic lanes in your restaurant and should allow for easy interaction with the staff member who helps them.

    Remember too, that pickup customers often need wait a bit so an area that's comfortable to stand in for a few minutes is a plus for them.

  4. Work on your wait times

    Our survey work shows that one of the most-appreciated things you can offer a customer is a short and accurate wait time.

    We're working on refinements to help you do an even better job of it. But the normal reasons for a lengthy or inaccurate wait time are operational.

    Sometimes long wait times are just a side-effect of a busy restaurant. But often they reflect a suboptimal takeout order workflow. Kinks in the chain can happen anywhere - from the POS system, to the kitchen to packing and expediting.

    In another blog post, I will try to examine some of the ways to diagnose and improve a takeout workflow. But one simple improvement that works is to let staff know that your restaurant handles takeout orders seriously.

    This may sound small, but we've seen the results of it both ways. Staff often mirror and magnify the priorities of an owner, both good and bad. Without the nominal incentive of a tip, takeout orders can easily fall through the cracks as a 'lower priority' for staff.


Things we purchase just do seem more pleasurable and more valuable when they are presented nicely.

As a simple reminder of how presentation can make a customer feel, I recall the old 'no frills' packing that store brands used to have - and contrast it with the what store brands like Trader Joe's items look like today.

Here's an old store brand cola. And a new one, from Trader Joe's.

Which cola would you prefer? Probably the one where you felt like they cared enough to put it in a nice bottle. It's not that the bottle makes it taste any better or different. But knowing that the person on the other end is really trying always feels good to a customer.

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