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.

A Houston real estate expert suggests that the icon that is the Astrodome should be restored to be used for energy conferences and other business needs. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Over the past several years, there's been a continuous conversation about the iconic Astrodome and what should be done with it. Dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," Houstonians certainly don't want to see the Astrodome go, as it is a landmark deeply embedded into the hearts and minds of our beloved city.

Ideas have been thrown around, yet none of them seem to stick. The $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build a multi-story parking garage that was approved under Judge Ed Emmett's court in 2018 has been placed on hold until further notice.

For the betterment of business

Houston is famously known as the world capital of the international energy industry, petroleum exploration, space exploration, medical communities and vast port systems across the Gulf. Our city hosts the annual Offshore Technology Conference, one of the largest oil and gas trade shows in the world, which features the industry's latest technology, products, networking opportunities, and more.

On average, more than 59,000 people attend OTC annually, with more than 15,000 attendees visiting from outside the U.S. In addition, Houston is also headquarters to more than 500 oil and gas exploration and production companies and has 10 refineries producing over 2.6 million barrels of crude oil daily.

Houston is a prime location to become a candidate for a new commodity exchange center housed inside the Astrodome. The current New York Mercantile Exchange, a commodity futures exchange owned and operated by CME Group of Chicago, is located in Manhattan, New York City. There are additional offices located in Boston, Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dubai, London, and Tokyo. Surprisingly, Houston is not on that list. The NYMEX division handles billions of dollars' worth of futures and options contracts for energy products such as oil and natural gas.

Renovating and repurposing

Scalability is important to consider when discussing the repurposing of the Astrodome. Oil and gas is the only industry that could support the Astrodome's expenses and generate a profit. Other options such as turning it into a parking garage or a hike and bike trail would not be sufficient. Moving something as significant as the oil and gas futures exchange to Houston would provide NRG with the necessary monthly residual income to sustain the beloved Astrodome.

Another viable option would be to host the annual Offshore Technology Conference at the Astrodome. Oil and gas companies would set-up year-round exhibits on the floor of the Astrodome for convenience, providing an opportunity to showcase their equipment and product to potential clients.

To further capitalize on this concept, the Astrodome would offer corporate suite rentals for oil and gas companies to lease in order to provide a meeting space for people flying in and out of town. While the equipment and product would be on the floor for people to look at, NRG could bring in additional rental income from the suites.

To maintain the iconic nature of the building, signage would hang on the outside of the Astrodome, featuring the top oil and gas company's logos and placing a pump jack on top of it to emulate an oil rig.

The beauty of all of this is the simplicity of it. The hard part is done. Houston has become the oil and gas capital of the world over the last 100 years. The easy part is ahead; filling the Astrodome with oil and gas companies that want to do business.

Your move, Houston.

The first step toward making an endeavor like this possible is simply suggesting that it is. There's no need to fix what's already working in New York. We can use the same business model, bring it down to our great city, put the Astrodome back to good use, and truly become the petrochemical exchange capital of the world.

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Frank Blackwood is the senior director of Lee & Associates - Houston.