The Trouble with Take-Out: Orphaned To-Go Orders

Drinks at Starbucks waiting for a good home.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Drinks at Starbucks waiting for a good home.
On a busy Saturday night at a small Thai restaurant in Austin, the phone was squawking nonstop. A server seated walk-ins and wiped down tables between answering the phone while three cooks tossed woks in the kitchen elbow to elbow.

Another server answered the phone in tandem while feeding new orders to the kitchen. She had snapped 10 loosely connected orders off the printer and started to line them up on the run when the phone rang again. She answered it, interrupting her dispatch. With the phone pressed between her ear and shoulder, she slowly punched in the new order on a screen, giving out barely audible "OK"s every now and then.

More people walked in, waiting patiently to be seated. Some were there to pick up food to take home. After the to-go orders were ready and meticulously packaged, the bags were lined up on a table near the bar, waiting to be retrieved.

For those in the restaurant business, this rush of both diners and call-ins at a peak time dangles somewhere between a dream and chaos.

There’s been no shortage of challenges for restaurants in the past 18 months: being shut down, transitioning to takeout, losing staff, trying to hire people back, facing surly customers and higher costs.

Through it all, diners have grown more accustomed to takeout, perhaps too accustomed. Now there’s a new phenomenon restaurants are dealing with: customers calling in orders then not picking them up.

Even Starbucks is dealing with this in a way. An Eat This, Not That! article reported that customers not picking up orders made through their mobile app at understaffed stores is causing chaos, "Some orders end up being thrown out because they don't get picked up for a long period of time, again causing frustration when customers finally do show up to claim them."

At least Starbucks is getting paid.
click to enlarge Lobster roll from TJ's Seafood Market - TAYLOR ADAMS
Lobster roll from TJ's Seafood Market
Taylor Adams
Jon Alexis of TJ’s Seafood Market has been in business for 32 years. “So, not only are we old school, but we have three decades of customer expectations. If we change a policy, I literally have people email my mother.”

Those emails are from customers who, perhaps, have been ordering the same dish three times a week for years, and they’re upset they’re being asked for a payment upfront when calling in an order.

Before the COVID pandemic, Alexis says, this wasn’t an issue.

“I think as people have transitioned to takeout it’s just become this nameless, faceless commodity. ‘Oh, I ordered this lobster roll and got stuck at the post office, so now I'm not going to pick it up.’ They wouldn’t dine and dash, but because it’s become so depersonalized I think they feel like it’s OK,” Alexis says.

Alexis had to put his foot down. “Our most popular takeout item is our lobster roll, and it's $39. We were getting at least one a day left. Do that math on that,” Alexis says.

Thunderbird Pies has experienced the same issue. They estimate they lose $1,000 every month in wasted takeout orders. They too try to take credit card numbers for call-ins and even have an online platform to order, but on busy nights it's tough to take the time to get credit card information.

So, why not outsource to-go orders to third-party apps or websites that require payment upfront? Well, third parties can be awkward at best. The Texas Legislature even passed a law this past session that prohibits third-party apps from elbowing their way into restaurants with things like unauthorized fees and misleading branding. Fees swiped by these businesses cut away at restaurants' margins.

The Wall Street Journal
reports that third-party apps cost more for both diners and restaurants compared to pickup through a restaurant's website or call-in. Early on in the pandemic, DoorDash, which controls nearly half of the U.S. food-delivery market, charged as much as 30% for delivery but has since lowered its rate to 15%. They also lowered the commission for pick orders through their site to 6% in some cases, but restaurants that choose that lower commission rate pass on a $4.99 delivery fee to customers.

A report on RestaurantBuisiness showed that almost 40% of customers who ordered takeout or delivery prefer dealing directly with the restaurant, bypassing all third-party websites and apps to place orders.

A Los Angeles Times article petitioned diners: “The next time your order takeout, call the restaurant.” Columnist Jenn Harris told the story of owners of an Italian food restaurant, Ronan, who spent $35,000 in delivery fees in 2020. That’s the equivalent of three months’ rent. Harris encouraged her readers to just call it in:

“But, as my colleagues and I have reminded you, when you order directly from restaurants, they can avoid paying commissions to third-party services. At a time when independently owned restaurants are fighting to keep their doors open, getting hit with a 20% to 30% commission fee on every order just isn’t sustainable.”
Naturally, this works only when customers pick up and pay for those orders.

Jeff Amador at Thunderbird Pies hopes more people migrate to their website, “Hopefully getting people off of the phones and onto the internet to place their takeout orders will be the way forward."

Otherwise, it's more policing for restaurants — or calls to mom — something Alexis is frustrated with.

"My job is for all of your problems to go away, all of the real world melts away, and for 45 minutes all you think about is this meal," Alexis says of his role in the hospitality industry. "The world is awful. And we all need a break from it. That’s my job. There should not be obligations or requirements on the other end. I don’t want to be the dining room police. I want to be the dining room host. Enforcing rules is the antithesis of being a restaurateur."