By Tracy Morin

When COVID-19 upended everyone’s lives this year, pizzerias were uniquely prepared for the challenge. As dining rooms shuttered nationwide, operators took advantage of their already established skills in orchestrating seamless takeout services—and added new skills as well, such as curbside delivery. “As business owners, finding ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic has been daunting, to say the least,” says Reza Kamalian, director of operations for Pizza Guys, based in Sacramento, California, with 69 locations. “But, in the takeout- and delivery-focused pizza business, we already have an upper hand, as we have a great deal of experience with these services. Now it’s a matter of perfecting that service to create the safest possible way to fulfill customer orders and create a level of comfort for both employees and customers.”

At Whitewater, Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza, with 65 locations in nine states, founder and CEO Scott Gittrich witnessed a major uptick in sales during April and May, setting 29 store records in just four weeks. Third-party deliveries nearly doubled, while curbside services soon accounted for a full 40% of sales. And Gittrich believes that the revolution was a long time coming. “There’s the anonymity factor, which has been trending for 20 years now—customers prefer less human interaction in their experience,” he says. “When customers say, ‘That was so easy,’ what they mean is, ‘I didn’t have to deal with a person.’ COVID accelerated the trend, but this is largely how customers want to be served now.”

“When customers say, ‘That was so easy,’ what they mean is, ‘I didn’t have to deal with a person.’ COVID accelerated the trend, but this is largely how customers want to be served now.”
— Scott Gittrich, Toppers Pizza

this photo shows carryout pizza boxes used by Toppers Pizza
Toppers Pizza recently experienced a major sales boost by perfecting curbside services.

Clean, Curbside and Cashless

this infographic shows how Pizza Guys limits contact with its pizza curbside and cashless pickup service
Pizza Guys limits contact with easy-to-use curbside and cashless pickup.

Finlay Stockmeyer, account executive at Zenput in San Francisco, notes that being agile and quickly adapting to market conditions has brought an influx of success for brands like Domino’s and Papa John’s in recent months—and independents should take notes from their successes. “With lobbies closed or dine-in capacity limited, carryout is key right now,” Stockmeyer asserts. “To optimize this experience, both brands have increased the frequency that sanitization procedures are executed, so customers feel confident and safe when picking up their food.” For example, Papa John’s places a quality seal on pizza boxes so that customers know it hasn’t been touched since emerging from the oven, while Domino’s offers its Carside Delivery, allowing customers to pick up takeout orders without exiting the car. Stockmeyer adds that, to make the carryout process more efficient, payment and tipping can be handled digitally for online orders.

Similarly, Pizza Guys’ new goal is to serve customers food while making the least contact possible. To meet that goal, the pizzeria offers services like curbside and cashless pickup. For curbside orders, each location now has designated parking spaces that are clearly marked with signs, instructing the customer to call the store on a certain phone line to minimize wait time. “Once we know the customer has arrived, we walk the order to his car and place the food in his trunk, to make the least amount of contact,” Kamalian explains. “Every food item also has a tamper-resistant sticker to ensure that nobody has touched or come into contact with the pizza after it came out of the oven.” 

Meanwhile, cashless pickup is also designed for customers to retrieve their orders while minimizing contact; they’re instructed to prepay for the order online to eliminate any cash or credit card transaction. “By introducing these two new options for pickup, we were able to target a different group of customers, and because of that, our sales increased,” Kamalian says. “Our customers are very pleased with these new options.”

Toppers Pizza uses its internally developed POS system so that customers can select options such as curbside service, upon which a team member is notified. The customer then sends a text upon his arrival, indicating the parking slot number and color and make of the vehicle so that the team can expedite the order. “We invested in high-quality parking lot signage to say, ‘Curbside service, Slot #3, text on arrival,’ etc.,” Gittrich explains. “Some places just have a cardboard sign that says, ‘We offer curbside,’ but by giving a more ‘buttoned-up’ look, the customer actually perceives you as more safe and sanitary.”

To further simplify the carryout process, Mary King, a restaurant business analyst at Fit Small Business in New York, advises operators to allow plenty of room for the pickup area, draw lines on the parking lot or sidewalk to show customers where to stand or park, and make sure that order names are clearly written on bags or boxes. “Inside your restaurant, streamline your communications between staff members,” King suggests. “If you have not staffed an expediter to keep orders organized, consider doing that now; that person should stand on the front-of-house side, track all of the order tickets, place freshly made dishes with the correct order, and communicate with the kitchen team if an item is missing.”

this photo shows the exterior of a Toppers Pizza restaurant with a curbside pickup sign out front
Toppers Pizza invested in high-quality signage to streamline curbside service.

Nailing the Details

When it comes to assuaging the minds of customers—and creating a seamless carryout experience—the devil is in the details. For example, Pizza Guys installed sneeze guards in all of its stores to protect customers and employees, while sanitation procedures were enhanced in stores, with employees sanitizing the lobby area after each customer. However, because online orders have a higher ticket average (without the need for employees to take orders), profits have increased during the pandemic. “During these times, we also want to assist our customers during the decision-making process by offering them three complete value meals,” Kamalian adds. “The meals target one to two people, a family of four, and a larger family of six, and each value meal includes pizza, side items, drinks and desserts.”

King agrees that creating order combos and packages for single diners, couples and families helps make ordering quick and easy. “If you’re doing a lot of takeout orders, you’re losing the ability to upsell, so start off your menu with special combinations that are priced to turn a profit, and add prompts to your online menu for popular additions that come at an extra cost,” she advises. “For example, if you have a burger on your menu, add a button to that menu item that says, ‘Add fries (+2.50),’ so it’s easy for customers ordering online to add this side without navigating back to the menu screen. For a pizza order, customers might like to add sides of ranch or blue cheese dressing, or an order of garlic knots. Taking the time to add these prompts to popular menu items will pay off in the long run.”

“We assist our customers during the decision-making process by offering them three complete value meals. The meals target one to two people, a family of four, and a larger family of six, and each value meal includes pizza, side items, drinks and desserts.”
— Reza Kamalian, Pizza Guys

At the same time, King recommends keeping the online ordering menu simple—if certain dishes are not selling, remove them. Or if they’re too complicated in terms of packaging or execution (such as a soup with several garnishes), remove the item from the takeout menu or raise the price to recoup those packaging costs. “Ask if your customers need extras, like plastic serving utensils and condiment packets, either as a prompt on an online ordering screen or as a question employees ask when taking orders over the phone,” King suggests. “Customers eating at home probably don’t need these items, and cutting down on unwanted complimentary items will save money.”

Finally, since carryout is inherently a less personal experience than in-house dining, operators need to find other ways to convey their passion for hospitality from afar. For example, Gittrich believes that aspect now plays out in your technology, from functionality to branding, while packaging, long perfected by the pizza industry, is another important factor. “Have the right technology to create a seamless experience for customers,” Gittrich advises. “Packaging matters, too: Stickering the box gives a further sense of safety, and how your food arrives gives customers a strong sense of your brand and sanitation. This is going to be a long haul—it might be 2022 before restaurants are full again, and it’s going to be a difficult time ahead if you don’t adapt. ”  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.