Takeout gives casual chains leg up

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After seeing customers turn to quality entree salads and monster burgers at fast feeders, casual dining chains are fighting back with take-out service. Sales are surging.

Technomic estimates take-out sales in full- service restaurants at about $14 billion in 2004, nearly 10% of total sales. That's nearly as big as No. 2 and 3 fast feeders Wendy's and Burger King Corp. combined. Within the past three years, take-out sales at full-service restaurants have grown about 8% per year, double the segment's growth.

With wait times rising and diners less willing to wait more than half an hour, its no surprise that one in three customers at tableservice restaurants have used curbside takeout.

Take-out has become so profitable that Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's and Chili's Bar &Grill have dedicated advertising promoting it. "Our sales-to-go have grown exponentially since we started marketing," says a Brinker International spokesman. Last year, take-out at its Chili's chain was about 9.5% of sales compared to 6.1% in 2001. Chili's was the first national chain to dedicate an entry, counter and parking for to-go customers.

Take-out accounts for 11% of Outback sales, according to Fulton Smith-Sykes, VP-marketing and advertising. In some markets that figure hits 25%. "Any place customers are taking food home we rate extremely high in customer satisfaction," she says of a recently completed consumer survey.

Casual dining segment leader Applebee's reported 9% of sales were from its Carside to Go service in 2004, a business that's doubled in the past two years. Interestingly, its busiest day for take-out was Valentine's Day, one of the toughest days to snag a reservation for dine-in.