For many Americans, the pandemic is a time of suspended animation. It is the repudiation of traditions and a period of ad hoc, MacGyvered domesticity.
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Gone, for now, are Taco Tuesdays, Wine Wednesdays and even non-alliterative traditions such as girls’ night out and date night. But Friday night takeout and delivery is gaining steam, the rhythm of weeks syncopated by the arrival of plastic-wrapped cutlery and plastic foam clamshells.
Market research firm Technomic confirms a spike in off-premises dining in the second quarter of this year, essentially doubling for Friday and Saturday night, says David Henkes, Technomic’s advisory group senior principal. Based on data collected quarterly from 27,000 chain restaurants, off-premises meals on Friday and Saturday nights accounted for 24 percent of overall sales in the second quarter of this year, about double the second quarter last year.
Rewards Network, a provider of loyalty-based marketing and financing services that tracks delivery and takeout through the Zuppler online ordering system, found that since the pandemic began, the average number of orders was 31 percent higher on Fridays than on other days of the week. The average order dollar value was also 34 percent higher.
Uber also reports an increase in orders placed between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Fridays. And while Grubhub doesn’t break out order trends by day of week, according to senior communications manager Natalie Gerke, “we did release in our Q2 earnings that gross food sales grew 59 percent year over year to $2.3 billion, up from $1.5 billion in the same period last year.”
Aaron Noveshen says he is one of the lucky ones, his empire of five Starbird-branded chicken-centric restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area doing fine over recent months. Before the pandemic, 30 percent of his business was customers dining in, 30 percent takeout and 40 percent digital/delivery orders, he says. Because there is no “dine in” currently in San Francisco, all business has pivoted to delivery and curbside, but he says the company is up for the year in total dollar sales and expects each unit will gross $3 million in sales this year.
On a Friday night this month, the Sunnyvale location did 100 percent more business than a year ago, with his restaurants overall doing 75 percent more business than a year ago — four back-to-back hours of record numbers. It was the busiest day in his company’s history, even with one restaurant closed early because of rolling blackouts (thanks, PG&E).
“There has been a demand surge on Friday nights,” Noveshen says. On Aug. 14, it was an end-of-summer, back-to-school, last-hurrah Friday, he says. But this was not an isolated windfall.
“I would say in mid-April we started to see a slightly greater increase in sales on Friday in relationship to the other days of the week. The delivery companies had a shortage of drivers,” he remembers. “Initially during the pandemic, people were cooking a lot, but if there was one day they weren’t cooking, it was Friday. It became this sacred, end-of-week treat. If they couldn’t go out, they could bring food in.”
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For Abraham Moussa, a restaurateur in Clearwater, Fla., Friday night curbside is king.
He has had to build an entirely new setup to accommodate the increase in curbside business at Abe’s Place Tap & Grill, which does about $5 million in annual sales, he says. He had a mobile kitchen he used to serve large charitable gigs and events for the Philadelphia Phillies, which has its spring training in Clearwater. He brought the mobile kitchen back to the restaurant and pulled it out front, adding tents to shade the waiting customers. On Friday nights he has a bank of people answering the phones, two cashiers, two runners, two expediters and a whole crew.
“Between 5 and 9 p.m., we do not stop,” Moussa says. He says curbside Friday and Saturday nights represents the restaurant’s biggest increases: Where average tickets were $75 to $100 pre-pandemic, he says, his average checks now are $150 to $200. “We did not lose a dime, and now takeout is 60 percent of our business. People place their order and call ahead — people still miss the idea of dining out.”
Moussa, who says “boneless wings put me on the map,” sees some people bringing folding chairs and eating in his parking lot. Noveshen speculates that as the pandemic has progressed, Friday night takeout has become a “safe entertaining” option with inner-circle friends and family in the backyard. He says he has seen an increase not merely in the number of orders but also in the amount ordered: Guest check averages are up about 30 percent year over year for Friday night.
Amanda Topper, associate director of food service for market research firm Mintel, says a number of things are happening concurrently to fortify this trend. In a poll of Americans conducted July 15 to 22, 60 percent said they aren’t yet comfortable dining in a restaurant, while 44 percent said they aren’t comfortable even dining outside on a restaurant patio. She says delivery has continued to increase between April and August, but takeout even more so.
“We’re seeing huge jumps here because consumers can eliminate those delivery fees and because takeout is becoming more convenient.”
Noveshen says remote work and fewer cars on the road have augured well for higher curbside and takeout numbers.
“You order ahead and pull into spaces that are everywhere now,” he says. “That’s made it incredibly convenient.”
For restaurateurs such as Moussa, curbside is preferable to delivery services because of the fees the restaurant pays.
“The restaurant business is a penny business: We make pennies on dollars; we just have a lot of dollars,” he says. “With these delivery services, it’s hard for the operator or the delivery service to make money. It’s racing to the bottom. I’d rather pay my servers $10 per hour and pay their insurance than give that money to a delivery service.”
Topper says that during the pandemic, people have reported ordering takeout and delivery for special occasions and “special treats” but that there’s a family aspect to the takeout trend: “Almost a quarter of parents say they are ordering restaurant meals for their families more often year over year.”
To accommodate this push toward family takeout, many restaurateurs have debuted family meals to go.
“We launched a family meal, which is huge on Friday nights,” Noveshen says. “A pound of tater tots, 12 tenders and six sauces for $29.97.”
He wouldn’t disclose precisely how many he sold on that booming Friday night this month, but he says it was “literally a ton of tenders, the most we ever sold.”