Eat'n Park chain tests pickup windows as a way to expand its business


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On a recent blustery day, Jack Speelman pulled up to the pickup window at the Monroeville Eat'n Park restaurant and ordered a Superburger with coleslaw. Then he pulled into a special Takeout parking spot to wait for an employee to bring his food to him.

"I should have called the order in," explained the Monroeville resident, who said he was a regular at the window and especially likes to pick up the restaurant's pies.

Sixty years after the first Eat'n Park stopped traffic on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in the South Hills by delivering burgers to customers who ordered and ate in their cars, the homegrown chain is getting reacquainted with its diners' vehicles. The company is testing pickup windows at three restaurants, with a fourth scheduled to be built next year.


EAT'N PARK FACTS
  • The restaurant chain began as a carhop eatery in 1949.
  • The chain's top- selling item is the soup and salad bar, which debuted in 1981.
  • The top-selling pie is strawberry.
  • The signature Smiley Cookie was created in 1986.
  • The chain's most popular TV commercial is the "Christmas Star" ad, which debuted in 1982.
  • Smiley Cookies went digital in 2007, with the launch of smileycookie.com, and were served at the White House Super Bowl party earlier this year.

This is not exactly a return to the good old days. Don't expect the carhops to come back -- Eat'n Park converted to sit-down restaurants in 1973 and isn't planning to reverse that process. Instead, it's a reflection of the Homestead-based chain's ability to adapt to the times and specifically its push to expand its takeout business, which has grown over the past decade to account for about 5 percent of the 76-restaurant chain's business.

Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, which includes the restaurant chain and the company's operations running dining halls and corporate cafeterias, reported $345 million in revenue last year. About half of that came from the restaurant side of the business.

Most takeout sales are still walking through the front doors, as customers stop in to make a salad at the buffet (one of the top takeout items) or pick up dinner on the way home. Quarts of soup are especially popular.

But as Eat'n Park tinkers with how to get better at this kind of service, the pickup window seemed to be the logical next step, according to Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing.

"It's convenient," noted Jodi Roth, of Elizabeth, who was picking up soup and salad at the window.

Nationally, interest in building the restaurant takeout business began a number of years ago. Over the years, research by NPD Group found Americans weren't cooking more, but they didn't always want to eat in a sit-down restaurant; and they were often in too much of a rush to plan meals ahead. They wanted more options, too.

That was seen as an opportunity for anyone who could prepare food.

"Supermarkets are trying to get part of the business," pointed out Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Chicago-based food service consulting firm Technomics. Grocery stores offered more roast chickens and stuffed peppers, while restaurants began promoting takeout options and even building special entrances and counters for takeout customers.

Eat'n Park tested curbside service two years ago at a few sites, including Cranberry, Frazer and Center Township. The company dug up some parking spots and installed technology to alert employees when a takeout customer pulled in. But some diners figured it was just as easy to run in and pay at the cash register. "It really wasn't that much more compelling," said Mr. O'Connell.

The company decided against doing drive-through in the way that McDonald's or Burger King would. Eat'n Park officials figured they'd have to make up food ahead of time rather than cook it to order. Customers who go through drive-throughs expect food to be delivered within 3 to 5 minutes, said Brian Baker, president, Insula Research Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.

Pickup windows have been tested by other chains, Mr. Tristano said. While it's not an entirely new idea, he said it seemed to be a good option for family-style restaurants.

Also helpful have been improvements in packaging in recent years, making it easier to send home different types of dishes, he said. "At least it doesn't leak out over the seat of your car when you're driving home."

Even before opening its first pickup window at the Monroeville restaurant in October 2008, Eat'n Park had been relearning the issues involved in putting food into people's cars. For one thing, the chain needed better bags for sending food home. Last year, the old ones were changed for bigger bags with square bottoms that can hold more and sit on a seat better.

The staff also learned which items travel better. A paper menu given to takeout customers now calls out items such as the $5.99 turkey club sandwich, the $8.99 Nantucket Cod entree and the $8.49 grilled chicken portobella salad. Eat'n Park is revising that menu to emphasize those items, although, "We'll provide anything that people want," said Mr. O'Connell.

In addition to Monroeville, there are pickup windows at restaurants at South Hills Village and Rostraver. A new restaurant slated for the Waterworks mall in Pittsburgh near Aspinwall also has been designed to include a pickup window.

Eat'n Park hasn't decided whether it will eventually roll out the service to many more restaurants, or at least those that have the space and potential traffic to support it.

Also some municipalities allow signs like the massive one on the side of the Monroeville restaurant that shows a Smiley cookie and gives the takeout order phone number. At the site near South Hills Village, zoning rules don't permit that, so some customers may not notice the discreet window.

Focusing on order accuracy is a big deal in any drive-through restaurant, and it's true for pickup windows, too, Mr. O'Connell said.

About half of the company's calls for takeout come from people's homes with the other half from those on the road. Breakfast is offered for takeout, but there's a lot of competition from quick-serve chains. Eat'n Park sees bigger opportunities at lunch and dinner, when the issue may be less about speed and more about choices.

Through the pickup window, the average lunch period brings about 15 to 25 customers, while a Friday night might bring 50 to 60 orders. The Superburger is the most popular item served overall at the windows, but on Friday nights, fish sandwiches rule supreme. On Wednesday, quarts of potato soup claim the top spot.

Since it's Eat'n Park, every takeout customer gets a Smiley cookie.


Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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