Give and Take

Illustrations by Tim Bower

A lot more than food goes into takeout orders

Take-out food in Savannah

Whether you call it in or put together your order entirely online, take-out food has evolved in the past year: when it comes to placing and receiving an order, options include the more standard delivery and pickup, plus curbside pickup and even contact-free. And while this process has become increasingly normal (or, rather, “new normal”) for customers, it is the result of tireless, hard work on behalf of Savannah’s food workers.

When Gov. Brian Kemp ordered a state-wide closure on bars, restaurants and clubs in March 2020, the decision seemed inevitable in order to keep customers and food workers safe, but for restaurateurs like Josh Yates, who owns Green Truck Pub with his wife, Whitney, it meant that hard decisions would follow.

“Our biggest priority was always to look out for our staff,” Yates says. “When dining rooms closed, we decided to close entirely and file for everyone’s unemployment while we figured out our next steps.”

After an initial shutdown, some restaurants began to open on a takeout-only basis. For Yates, like many restaurant workers, this was a period of growing pains. Yates recalls that when he looked at shifting to a takeout-only model, it seemed like breaking even would be impossible. In order to keep everything running, his staff would have to adapt every step of the way, from phone to kitchen to table.

Many restaurants, Green Truck Pub included, had to address their takeout menus before they even reopened. There’s a hard balance between streamlining the menu and keeping it status quo, especially since removing items risks taking away something that customers love, but Turner Food & Spirits’ director of operations Cathy Colasanto shares that a full menu simply becomes too difficult to manage.

Take-out food in Savannah

“Unfortunately, not all items are great selections for carryout,” says Colasanto, who oversees restaurants like Pearl’s Saltwater Grille, The Cotton Exchange and The Pirates’ House. “Fried foods get soggy when packaged, and many entree items overcook when they’re sealed in a container.” (Yates agrees, adding that Green Truck Pub wants people to “have the same experience with our food in a takeout format as if they were sitting in a booth here.”)

There were other hurdles to overcome, too. Colasanto recalls that when they first reopened, to-go orders at Pearl’s were so popular they had to assign a dedicated staff member to take those calls each night. Over at River House Seafood, The Shrimp Factory and Churchill’s, Jennifer Strickland shares that she and the team weren’t initially signed up for courier services.

According to Strickland, River Street is so pedestrian-friendly that pickup orders weren’t practical for pre-COVID times — and they still aren’t, since the stretch isn’t easily accessible for vehicles.

“We signed up for Uber Eats and DoorDash, but many of our to-go orders still come from locals who live or work downtown,” Strickland says. “I think location is the biggest issue when it comes to takeout.”

Although Green Truck Pub had the benefit of an existing parking lot, streamlining the ordering process meant investing in technology. When online ordering became an option, the building’s phone and internet had to be upgraded. “Those new systems came with their own headaches on top of everything else,” Yates says.

But once the order is in, business as usual, right? Not quite.

Take-out food in Savannah

This stage of the takeout timeline, Yates says, is actually the most difficult to manage. A restaurant’s kitchen is typically designed around the number of seats it has. The restaurant can control how many orders come into the kitchen by having the host set the pace of seating.

When it comes to takeout and online ordering, the number of seats becomes meaningless. Now, 20 orders can come in at once, meaning the cooks get “swamped in a heartbeat,” he says. It’s another reason simplifying the menu becomes a necessity; it’s the only way that a restaurant ensures it can keep up with orders during peak times.

When your order leaves the kitchen, it needs to get packaged. An influx in takeout meant a high demand of things like takeout boxes, paper bags and other to-go equipment that restaurants need. Prices for these items skyrocketed at the beginning of the pandemic, when retailers were in comparatively short supply. This issue has resolved over time, but it remains that restaurants lose some control when it comes to packaging and delivering.

In the case of dine-in, restaurants are able to oversee everything they send to the customer. Dishes are prepared the same way every time so that they’ll remain consistent, and they’re plated nicely before they’re sent to the table. But this kind of supervision is something that restaurants have to relinquish when it comes to takeout.

“Herein lies the problem for full-service restaurants: we lose some control of how the food will look and taste when the guest finally sits down to enjoy,” Colasanto says.

Takeout foods offer quick comfort and sustenance during times of stress, or maybe just a reason to sit down with others. It’s true that sometimes an order isn’t quite right. It may be cold or soggy, despite every best effort. Sometimes, what you wanted isn’t even on the menu anymore. Colasanto says restaurants like hers are working to improve the takeout process all the time, but to-go meals taste best when paired with a dash of grace and gratitude.

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