Guest column

Houston restaurants need to get innovative when it comes to the growth of take-out customers

Research has found that 86 percent of consumers are now using off premise services at least monthly. Houston restaurants need to factor in that trend and adapt to the shift in the market. Getty Images

The past year revealed a continued increase in the number of people ordering out at home or in the office, rather than dining in a restaurant.

Independent Market Alliance, a network of independent market share leaders in broadline foodservice distribution with 16 brands, found staggering statistics in their research demonstrating that 86 percent of consumers are now using off premise services at least monthly and a third are using it more than they did a year ago. This trend has driven a dramatic increase in third-party delivery service options, further facilitating growth.

Furthermore, consumers now want to better understand the full lifecycle of single-use packaging from how it was made and impact on the environment. With 24 percent of consumers always or usually considering sustainability when purchasing, sustainability has truly become a competitive focus that cannot be ignored, but not willing to compromise on functionality.

Adapting to consumer habits

Restaurants that have traditionally relied on a delivering an exceptional dine-in experience are now being faced with the challenge of creating that same customer experience through their packaging consumed offsite.

Diners expect to receive the same quality of food when they order delivery or take out as they would receive sitting down at a restaurant – from temperature, crispiness to the utensils needed to consume. Quality and the menu item's ability to travel well is important to consumers in the consumers decision-making process as 90 percent at least sometimes think about how well that particular food will travel, according to a recent study by the Cleveland Research Company Foodservice Council.

To combat this, restaurants operators are looking to new delivery solutions such as switching to temperature-control packaging with proper ventilation and carrying packages that separates different foods to prevent sogginess and loss of texture. This is key to succeeding the age of third-party delivery services, as nearly 60 percent of consumers would see the restaurant at least partially at fault if the delivered food is of reduced quality or took too long to arrive, per the study.

There is still a gap, in many instances, between the customer demand and traditional restaurant operators adapting to advanced packaging either due to cost of packaging or lack of product knowledge. National chains have begun to bring in third-party organizations with the core competencies in off-premise product knowledge for guidance and solutions as to what the offsite dining experience could look like. IMA has become a resource to help provide more understanding between cuisine type and the right packaging.

Third-party delivery and packaging innovation

While traditional sit-down restaurants and even their fast-casual counterparts haven't always had the at-home or offsite experience in mind, the rise of third-party delivery systems has led to additional considerations across all operators. In fact, the Cleveland Research Council's Online Food Consumer Survey (Gojak, et al., 2019) shows that 50% of U.S. consumers surveyed have used a restaurant delivery service at least once.

Customers who see that their food provider understands that safety is a priority have increased loyalty to establishment. As a result, the rise of tamper-free packaging has become a staple in food service within the past 18 months albeit providing the security through a label, a stapled bag or even more advanced with plastic seals

Tamper-free food packaging is taking on a higher profile as consumers fret about the possibility of delivery passing through hands of "touchy" third-party workers. Through simple innovations such as seals and button-top lids, tamper-free packaging goes a long way to give consumers peace of mind and demonstrate that operators are concerned about their well-being.

Bottom line, delivery demand is growing given structural tailwinds from shifting consumer demand for convenience and off-site consumption, and operators for both fast casual and traditionally dine-in restaurants must adapt.

Factoring in sustainability 

Sustainability is a frequently used buzzword in the foodservice industry that many do not fully understand. While sustainable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably in the foodservice industry, the word "biodegradable" has been greenwashed and actually means the package will degrade sometime in the next 500 years not what most consumers assume as compostable meaning it will biodegrade between 90 and 120 days

IMA and other industry leaders typically define sustainability of products by items that can be broken down within 90 and 120 days and are made of substrates that can be easily recycled by the average consumer. Many are now looking for ways now to develop these products to be truly sustainable in a way that is cost efficient enough to appeal to operators and help stop this greenwashing

Because operators don't always see the added value of innovative packaging, the additional price tag that comes with also ensuring that packaging is sustainable prevents wider use of sustainable materials in today's take out landscape. For that reason, most operators are just beginning to truly explore the cross over between sustainability and customer experience.

In 2020, operators will still find the greatest success from targeting the customer experience, but as researchers invest in affordable solutions, sustainability in single-use packaging will continue to gain importance.

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Stephanie Nicholson is the senior director of business development and national accounts for Independent Marketing Alliance, a network of independent market share leaders in foodservice distribution with 16 brands.

With stay-at-home mandates across the state, renewable energy helps reduce the strain of the grid. Photo courtesy of Freedom Solar

Largely due to the growing popularity and falling prices of solar energy in Texas, including incentives at the federal, state, and local level, the number of solar panel installations continues to trend upward throughout the state and especially in Houston.

For the third year in a row, Houston was named the top municipal user of green energy in the nation by the United States EPA, using more than 1 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of solar and wind power. With 92 percent of the city of Houston's energy coming from green power, solar has solidified its place in the Houston energy market.

With solar panel system prices dropping 38 percent over the past five years, solar power is also growing in popularity among individual homeowners and business owners who want to take control of their energy costs and become more self-sufficient.

As the recent COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake industries across the nation, Freedom Solar is working tirelessly to keep our team safe, healthy, and employed. Solar installers provide critical electric generation infrastructure that helps us reduce the strain on the ERCOT grid, especially with higher electricity usage as people stay at home under local shelter in place orders and as we head into the warmer spring and summer months.

The health and safety of our customers and employees is our top priority, and as an essential business we are following strict operating protocols that are in line with the guidance provided by local, state, and federal authorities. Although these challenging times often result in a pause in investments, I argue that for customers who have been considering investing in solar, now is still the time to do so.

During these tumultuous times, for many home and business owners, investing in solar energy remains appealing as a smart and stable financial decision. A solar power system is an income-producing asset that will generate a stable return for 25 or more years. The ability to finance that investment without putting cash down upfront allows customers to get the financial benefits of solar now while keeping their money in the securities markets until they recover from the current economic downturn.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, overseas manufacturing has been disrupted for months, resulting in shortages in the global supply chain across many industries. These shortages could increase the price of solar panels, inverters and related equipment if US warehouses run low on inventory. For customers who have long been on the fence about investing in solar, I would urge them to reevaluate the numbers now in anticipation of potential price increases in the coming months in the wake of COVID-19.

Additional macro trends and current events continue to demonstrate the value of home solar power. According to a 2020 study by the financial institution Fundera, the number of regular telecommuting employees has grown by 115% since 2005. As more and more people are required to work remotely, especially during the current and indefinite "Stay in Place" orders, electricity usage and utilities have inevitably increased for many households.

Investing in solar for your home can help offset increased utility costs, especially while working remotely and in the rapidly approaching summer months. Current events may be accelerating the long-term trend, and even when the immediate crisis is over, the way many people work could be transformed.

As the energy industry continues to evolve, the reasons why Houston customers choose to invest in solar power evolve and grow. Going solar is no longer solely a testament to your sustainability practices but also a sound long-term investment. The federal solar tax credit — also known as the investment tax credit (ITC) — allows homeowners and businesses to deduct a significant percentage of the cost of installing solar from their federal income taxes.

The credit remains at 26 percent for the remainder of 2020 but will decrease to 22 percent in 2021 and then in 2022 will drop to 10 percent for businesses and will go away entirely for homeowners. With more than 90 percent of Houston's energy consumption deriving from green power, it is clear that solar is here to stay.

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Bret Biggart is the CEO of Texas-based Freedom Solar.